What happens when you stop loving a piece of entertainment that once could do no wrong? It’s one of the nastiest kinds of break-ups there is. Your love was pure and true. And then it was gone, and you were a wreck of yourself. How did it come to this? Here are the seven stages of a fandom break-up.
This is the most difficult transition to spot, which makes it the longest stage of any break-up. It mimics what love should be like. On the surface you’re as enthusiastic as ever. You’re paying attention to every detail about the thing you love. You’re probably writing about it or drawing things, posting on Facebook, or at least talking to your friends all about it. And when a group gets together and talks about the latest happenings in your fandom, you’re the one who does the most talking. It seems like you’re the biggest fan on the planet.
Let’s look at it another way. You’re a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and you strike up a conversation about the show with a woman. She likes Spike and Buffy and she shows you a list of all the times the two characters looked at each other for a significant amount of time, and which episodes they did it in. Then she shows you a list of the times Joss Whedon talked about the two in interviews, and what he said, and if it was a recorded interview, how he said it. Oh, and also she has some thoughts about Dawn. Do you want to hear them?
When you finally pry yourself away from this woman, the very last thing you would ever think about her is that she has a fun and satisfying time when she watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All fans are a little obsessive, but that obsession should make them happy. When it stops making them happy, the obsession still has to go somewhere, so it’s nothing but long meaningless lists and forced repetition. Fans in this stage become like the friend who makes you listen six times to a lackluster voice mail message to analyze, “What he meant by that.” It doesn’t matter what he meant, because your friend isn’t happy—but they can’t see that yet.
Okay, you can admit that you’re not engaged with your once-favorite thing right now. But there’s an event coming that’s totally going to change this around. Or there’s a new writer that’s about to take over the series. Or you heard there’s an episode coming that’s going to change absolutely everything. Or there’s always one actor that you enjoy so much, and she’s going to be featured on an upcoming episode. It’s going to be great! You’ll see!
Happiness is always just another season away. And, to be fair, sometimes it is. All forms of serial entertainment, including relationships, go through rough patches. Sometimes it just takes a little while to recover from a misstep, and sometimes you get to like the new world order of your fandom, once you take a little while to get used to it. But other times it’s not a phase. You don’t like your fandom anymore, but it takes a year of waiting “just another few months” to realize that. And that is not a fun year because . . .
Sometimes the anger manifests itself as huge eruptions. Sometimes it comes across as constant nit-picking. Sometimes it looks like that intolerable smug cynicism that causes you sit back and laugh like you’re Humphrey Bogart in the first act of all of his movies and say, “Well what do you expect when Foo Foo McFoopherson is the show runner?” You’re awful. Awful.
But here’s the unfair part. You don’t have to be wrong to be the angry jerk. That’s why it’s an unavoidable phase of falling out of love. Love is blind, and when you take the blinders off, you see a lot of flaws. Most of the time, they’re legitimate flaws, but that doesn’t matter. Some of you have watched one half of an unhappy couple wait, increasingly angrily, for their significant other—who shows up an hour late. Is the injured party right to be mad? Sure. Does the inevitable fight ever make them look anything but terrible? Never. They aren’t just mad about an hour-long wait, they’re mad with all the pent-up anger of the entire unhappy phase of the relationship, and it shows.
We all remember when The Phantom Menace came out, and we all remember that it was bad, and we all remember that it got parodied. Only the non-fans pulled their parodies off, because they were making fun of a bad movie. The fans weren’t doing that. They were taking their rage and pain and sense of betrayal and pasting a smile on it.
Do you know how many unsatisfied Angel fans showed up at Twilight screenings? You don’t want to know. You don’t want to think of them staring up at the big Cro-Magnon forehead of the tortured male vampire, wishing that that was enough for them. You don’t want to see them tearing their ticket into a thousand pieces and depositing the pieces in different garbage bins on their way home. You don’t want to see their hollow-eyed stare the next morning when they looked in the mirror, thinking, “What have I done? Do I really love vampires so much that I’ll go to anything? Is this the person my parents raised? No. Back to my well-worn DVDs. I’ll never think of this again.”
When you love something, you don’t need anything but that. When you fall out of love, you still need to love something, but you’re no longer good at finding out what that something is. Often you’ll start by stuff that’s kind of like what you want, but that you didn’t go to in the first place because it wasn’t good. And when you’re willing to try it out, it’s still not good.
Ever read a couple of really good independent comics after reading nothing but the Big Two for years? It’s crazy incredible. It’s like heroin, except it’s heroin that stays available to you to use again after you’ve used it. And it works the other way around, of course. A lifetime of avoiding mainstream superhero comics won’t stop you from loving some of the great books that the genre has produced.
The major revelation that you get when you find something that replaces the thing you loved for so long is, “Oh yeah. I remember when doing stuff like this made me happy.” This will come as a great relief to you. You don’t have to be angry about optional parts of your life. More importantly, it will come as a great relief to all the people around you, who have been watching you stew for a long time, and would like to hear something other than, “Can you believe they did this crap again?”
One day you find yourself somewhere else when your favorite show is on. It’s recorded, so that’s fine, and you’ll watch it, except you never do. You don’t want to fight the crowds when the next installment of the movie series premieres, so you let it go for a week. And then another week. And Wednesdays aren’t Comic Book Day anymore—not if you have anything else to do on that day.
This is one of the major ways fandom “break-ups” differ from real life. There’s never a big dramatic end. Entertainment companies, justifiably, don’t worry when the message boards fill up with declarations of, “I’ll never watch this again!” It’s the slow fade that kills them. As long as you’re mad, you’re still interested. I don’t know anyone who has broken off from a series they love because they’re mad. They break off when they’re tired of paying attention to it.
I didn’t go to see a single installment of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. I was crazy about the books in junior high, and I came up with my wizard name, and I kept having to re-buy the paperbacks because I read them until they were shredded, and I’m done. I’m done with Middle Earth forever. However, I do know that Martin Freeman is playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, and that Ian Holm played him in The Lord of the Rings, and I laughed at the Sherlock team-up when Benedict Cumberbatch got cast as Smaug.
I’d know these things even if I didn’t work at this site, because while you can realize you’re not getting what you need out of what you love anymore, you don’t become a complete stranger to it. There’s always a part of you that will prick up your ears and ask a follow-up question when you hear about it.
Your reactions that will tell you a lot about how over it you are. They will vary. One day you’ll be checking your newsfeed and think, “Huh. Chris Hemsworth is playing the receptionist in the new Ghostbusters movie. Not what I would have done, but that could be interesting.” One day you’ll check it and think, “Joel McHale is in The X-Files? You go to hell, Chris Carter! You go right on straight to the deepest pit of hell!” If you have the second reaction, I would avoid whatever it is you’re reacting to. If you have the first, maybe check it out. But don’t get drunk.