Movie Reviews, Reviews, TV Reviews, Writing

Drawing the line between fan service and fan-punching-in-face: an examination of The Tunnel, Line of Duty, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars

I just finished watching the third and final series of the British/French cop show, The Tunnel (a remake of the Danish/Swedish show, The Bridge), starring the excellent Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy. It got me thinking about fan service versus fan disservice, or what I’m going to refer to as fan-punching-in-face (just because it’s more visual and, frankly, apt).

And it’s because the two final episodes of The Tunnel are a prime example of fan-punching-in-face that I’m going to feel annoyed about for some time.

What is fan service?

The term ‘fan service’ gets bandied about a lot lately, mainly because some of the biggest movie and TV franchises have become fan service-central.

Fan service is when content is added to a story because the producers think the fans want it, rather than to necessarily progress the storyline. Fan-punching-in-face, on the other hand, is when you write something you know the fans aren’t going to like.

Watching The Tunnel got me thinking that there needs to be a balance between fan service and fan-punching-in-face for a show or movie to be satisfying.

Spoilers for The Tunnel, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Star Trek Enterprise and Line of Duty to follow.

Why The Tunnel fails

Up until the last two episodes of season 3, The Tunnel was a gripping police procedural with two highly compelling and entertaining leads in Stephen Dillane’s Karl Roebuck and Clémence Poésy’s Elise Wassermann. One of the strongest elements of the whole series was seeing these two very different people become friends and grow together. Elise is smart, thorough, and on the autism spectrum, unable to understand social concepts like sarcasm, empathy, and white lies. Her seriousness and often brutal honesty contrasts brilliantly with the more genial, wise-cracking, and socially in-tune Karl.

But Clémence Poésy is almost completely absent from the final two episodes of season 3. After her character goes missing in episode 5, she appears once with no dialogue in the last scene. She then appears for about five minutes in the series finale in a scene that culminates with her blowing herself up.

I’m not going to lie and say her death wasn’t well done. It was. And it was utterly heart-breaking. But it was also a massive kick in the teeth. Knowing that this is the ending for Elise, and for Elise and Karl’s relationship, has just made it impossible to go back and rewatch The Tunnel.

Killing off your lead character right at the end of the story is often, though not always, pointless. Unless it serves a large, overarching purpose to the whole narrative (which Elise’s death absolutely doesn’t) it will do nothing but piss people off. As it did me and my fiancé Katy. I remember when Trip Tucker was killed off in Star Trek Enterprise’s largely hated finale, purely because the producers wanted to add some drama and shock value.

Realism in The Tunnel and Line of Duty

I read the interview with the writer of The Tunnel, Emilia di Girolamo, and her reason for this bit of fan-punching-in-face was… realism. In real life, said di Girolamo, “we all lose people we love” and “no one dashes in to save them at the last minute”. The thing is, there’s a reason our TV and film heroes so often escape from peril at the last possible moment—because it’s satisfying. Even The Tunnel did it, at the end of season 2. Elise gets injected in the eye with a deadly virus and the police bust in just in time, and she survives.

Realism was the excuse writer Jed Mercurio gave for the controversial ending of Line of Duty, another cop show I followed and enjoyed until the fan-punching-in-face ending. The revelation of Ian Buckles as the last high-ranking member of a cabal of police officers working with an organised crime group elicited a huge “Meh,” from most of the British viewing public. What we wanted (particularly conspiracy thriller fans like me) was an evil mastermind pulling all the strings for an overarching nefarious purpose. Nobody wanted the promised big bad to be bumbling Buckles passing messages back and forth between different members of the OCG with no agenda or plan of his own.

Sure, maybe the latter is more realistic than the former, but the former is more satisfying. There’s a reason most films about conspiracy theories do in fact lead to the unveiling of a conspiracy, while in real life most conspiracy theories are baseless. It’s because conspiracies make for bloody good entertainment.

Critic-pandering?

My fiancé Katy calls it critic-pandering. In other words, making your story so anti-audience-expectations that critics see the artistic value in doing things differently. But, as we know, critics and audiences aren’t always aligned on whether a story is good. And I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that when I watch a TV series or movie, I’m always looking for entertainment first, art second. I don’t care how pretty or classy or well-written a story is. It has to be satisfying.

Another example is La La Land. This is a movie I’ve not actually seen, but Katy has told me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t waste your life; the entire thing is pointless.” This is a musical romance following a pianist and aspiring actress who fall in love while pursuing their dreams in Hollywood—and then don’t end up together at the end. One reviewer said that although this isn’t the “cookie-cutter ending” you’d expect from a Hollywood musical, “it sure is a realistic one”.

I’m sorry—but who goes into musicals expecting realism??

Star Wars sequel trilogy: fan service before story

At the other end of the spectrum you have the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which is absolutely slathered in fan service. These movies were nothing but remakes with the exact same characters, locations and story beats as the original trilogy.

The Rise of Skywalker was the worst offender. This one literally brought back the main villain from the original and prequel trilogies because Jar Jar Abrams thought fans would love it. Palpatine is my favourite Star Wars character and still I hated that he was in The Rise of Skywalker for no good creative reason.

Then there’s making Rey Palpatine’s granddaughter, a shameless attempt to be this new trilogy’s “I am your father” moment. Plus cameos and callbacks galore, including the remains of the Emperor’s throne room from Return of the Jedi because gee, that would be cool (despite being impossible—Death Star II was vaporised). The final fight with the Emperor is just a redo of Jedi’s ending (which had already been plagiarised heavily in Snoke’s throne room in The Last Jedi).

The same criticisms have been levelled at Jurassic World: Dominion, a movie I won’t be watching in a hurry because from what I understand, it’s all fan service and nostalgia bating—no new territory explored. I just don’t know why I would go see a movie bereft of new ideas.

Game of Thrones—the right balance?

Game of Thrones is an interesting one. Over the course of its eight seasons, it combined fan service with fan-punching-in-face. And there were just enough satisfying moments (the birth of the dragons, any scene with Tyrion, when Daenerys frees the Unsullied, the Purple Wedding) to make up for all the sadistic twists, shock deaths and doomed relationships.

That’s the thing. There needs to be a careful balance between fan service and fan-punching-in-face. I think Game of Thrones got this balance right for the most part, although more and more fan service started creeping in towards the end. We had character meetups galore, Jon and Daenerys hooking up despite having no chemistry, and White Walkers fighting dragons. In season eight, the White Walkers were dispatched in an easy, fan-service-y way with very little bloodshed and no sense that any of our main characters were even at risk. This was followed by an epic and exciting battle in King’s Landing, the long-awaited Cleganebowl and semi-happy endings for a large portion of the main cast, including Arya, Jon, Sansa, Tyrion, Samwell, Bronn and Brienne. And, of course, King Bran.

At the same time, the show still served up its characteristic fare of unexpected fan-punching-in-face moments like our hero Daenerys losing her shit and turning into a genocidal maniac, Jaime going back to Cersei, and Cersei revealing her vulnerability right before she gets crushed by falling rubble. These things have been cited by fans as unsatisfying, and for many, ruined the ending for them. I myself have mixed feelings (mainly because of how rushed everything was), but tend to defend these particular story choices. Game of Thrones was always about upending viewer expectations, and it continued to do this right to the end. To have some fan service and some fan-punching-in-face is the best way for a show like this to go out. Whether Game of Thrones actually got the balance right in the end is something that will forever be debated.

I do think balance is what’s important, though. If you go full-on fan-punching-in-face, like The Tunnel did, you risk alienating your fanbase to such an extent they won’t be interested in going back to re-experience the story. But if you deal out fan service only, then you’ll lose the people who don’t just enjoy stories for nostalgia purposes, but have come for something new.

Are there any other examples of shows/movies/books you can think of where the creators have gone too far one way or the other with the fan service or fan-punching-in-face? Drop a comment below because I’d be interested to hear about them.

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