So, I've been cruising some of my old USENET haunts. you know, the ones that always seemed like a fun idea at first and usually were? Such as alt.movies.blair-witch-project, rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc, alt.tv.red-dwarf, alt.tv.simpsons and alt.games.final-fantasy Yes it's a long list, but my .jnewsrc is 'hella long'. As you can see from above, I was feeling nostalgic for my more media-related newsgroups, though they're not the only kind that I browse. I'd really been hoping that somehow, by my absence, these groups would have somehow magically changed their tenor... you know, like the story of the Shoemaker and the Elves, only I'd go to sleep and these magic USENET pixies would clean my favorite sites of what I found most odious and offensive. I'm not talking about spammers or Meowers here -- I'm talking about a sort of reflexive inertia that eventually calcifies many regulars against innovation. Or to quote Garth from Wayne's World, "We fear change."
Let me illustrate by looking at two opposite polarities in this: rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc and alt.tv.simpsons. Both are groups that I have recently been reading again and both of them are well worth the read (unlike, say, alt.movies.blair-witch-project which currently projects all the warm fuzzy feelings of a dysfunctional trailer home in the middle of a humid summer heat-wave). I'd also like to go into this by saying that I'm making broad generalizations about various demographics here; so please remember that there are always going to be exceptions to every rule in the book. Without further ado...
I came into rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc about the time of the Mike/Joel changeover, which you might imagine tended to get a bit heated. Tempers flared. People said things that they couldn't take back. Arguments raged like a raging.... thing. And yet in the midst of it all, the newsgroup was still fun. People still went about the business of debating the pros and cons of life, the universe and everything (ratm3k is a very eclectic channel. For a while I rarely needed to read anything else -- news of the day was covered by its diverse populace bringing up the news stories of the moment to be skewered on a shishkebab and tossed on the barbie.)
Later, an even 'greater' changeover happened: MST3k moved from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi channel. You may wonder whether or not there was ballyhoo about this change. Well you better bet your sweet patootie there was! There was concern, elation, anger and even cheez about what this move would do to the show. Once the move had taken place, there were still concerns and nay-sayers, but you know what? For the most part, people accepted the change and went on with the serious business of being a MiSTie. Even to this day, when MST3K has gone off the air, the newsgroup is still going strong. People debate topics under every sun there is, find new things to bring up about the show, make fantasy castings for their favorite book-to-movie conversion and generally have a darned good time. The fact that this group and survive even after their source material has gone away shows how very strong it is and lets me enjoy reading it every week or so. You might even say that the group's transcended its boundaries as just a piece of fandom and become a community.
Now, let me hit alt.tv.simpsons. I read this group weekly too and I enjoy it a great deal.... mostly. The people in this group are similarly tight-knit and happy to be a part of each other's lives, for the most part. It's filled with lots of intelligent people who can see TV-watching as a serious and funny business at once. All of this is very good. However, unlike ratmst3k, alt.tv.simpsons tends to verge towards a sort of iron-clad aesthetic principle that 'older is better'. Or to quote from The Psychic Circus "I've never been to the Psychic Circus before, but I've read all about it and I know that it's not nearly as good as it used to be". There's an ever-increasing negativity that's directed towards new directions in the show's tone, new plot styles, character changes and the like. Do I think that the Simpsons deserves this kind of scrutiny? You better believe your hot momato I do. IMHO, the show has been going downhill on a freight train, but that's not really my point. What concerns me is a two-headed hydra: the inertia that seems to require many people to throw up their hands and say 'everything new has been crap', which is an assertion with which I just cannot agree... there have been many pearls amidst the swineage; and secondly -- related to the first, but far more worrying -- a sort of Foxhole mentality (please excuse the pun if you got it and if you didn't, you sure didn't miss much) towards the writers of the show.
To explain the latter, I do need to delve into how ats tends to work. There is an excellent resource which is culled from the newsgroup which can be found at this link, being essentially a very compleat knowledge base of Simpsons lore and containing capsule commentary on many, specific episodes. If you love the Simpsons at all, you will want to check it out. Because the knowledge base's information is gleaned from reviews, commentary and obsessive fan postings of 'what was in this frame when I freeze-framed my VCR' that come from the newsgroups, quite predictably the group is absolutely jam-packed with ratings (letter grades being the de facto), reviews and comments whenever a new episode is aired. It's sort of like being a kid at Christmas around that place, since I love to feast on the thoughts of others and dwell on minutiae with the rest of them. Naturally, there is a lot of negativity -- but also a good deal of praise from many quarters, don't get me wrong -- about the new directions the show's taking. In possible response, the Simpsons writers may have aired a few episodes designed to tweak fan noses. The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie show seems rather pointedly directed at fandom and Saddlesore Galactica was rather visibly an episode put together to lampoon the Simpsons' current direction (much as was the Simpsons Spin-off Showcase). The Comic Store Guy (an aged, portly, unkempt fellow meant to lampoon the obsessive nerd in all of us) has taken to pointedly commenting on things in true fan style: with plenty of low wit and lots of sarcasm.
However, some of the posters on ats have taken to firing hotly at the Simpsons every time they detect someone from the show has been eating their porridge and reading their newsgroup, and thus parodying what they're doing. There seems to be a 'how dare you! You're pissing in your fans' faces!' mentality. It can be incredibly amusing to watch, as what they don't seem to remember is that the Simpsons is the show that's always bitten the hand that feeds it. Long before there were obsessive viewer jokes, they were jumping up and down on Fox, kicking it with glee ("Wow, Fox turned into a hard-core porn channel so gradually, I didn't even notice it happening..."). If the writers are reading the group -- and I have no idea whether or not they are, really -- then honestly of course they're going to parody! If you make yourself visible on the radar of this show then of course they're going to skewer you. It's just what they do. No one gets hurt. People should laugh. Etc, etc. It's far too much like walking up to Mike Tyson and starting to slap him in the face with a 2x4, then getting upset and incredulous when he punches you in the stomach in response.
I find the notion of being 'untouchable' to be too ludicrous -- not to mention frightening -- for words. If the writers of the Simpsons had served the newsgroup a C&D order I would have been astounded and hurt and shocked by such petty actions. But instead, I'd see this kind of attention as flattering. Words have reached ears. The vox populace has spoken. Eat Tostitos!
In closing, I really wish the inertia and panic in some of these groups would fade away. I want these places to be fun again, darn it. Simpsons is. MST3k is. But there are so many more that I've abandoned because they've fallen into various, unfortunate traps.
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