And now, if not precisely the other side of the story, at least a different perspective on fan-dom.
The admirers of television, movie and sports stars proudly call themselves "fans". Few consider, perhaps, that the term originates from "fanatic", defined by Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary as "one having an excessive zeal or irrational attachment to a cause or position". Nowhere can that origin find truer meaning than in the cyberworld of fan forums and newsgroups, where the true believers congregate. A quick trip across the World Wide Web and Usenet reveals hundreds of forums dedicated to the discussion of our heroes. The Law & Order forums, newsgroups, mailing lists and chat rooms fall easily into the pattern.
It starts innocently enough. One person, two perhaps, put up a note saying "Chris Noth is really hot." Others respond, and the original poster glories in the knowledge that they are not alone. Others share their devotion, so it cannot be silly or strange or anything else to find Noth (or Waterston, or Hennessey, or . . .) exceptionally attractive. Strength in numbers then amplifies the individual response.
Where the one admires and appreciates the actor, the many, finding validation for their affection, form ardent loyalties and unfailing devotion. Next comes the formalization of the group identity. We become Trekkers, X-Filers, Logan Lusters, McCoy Toys, Hearts of Stone.
What starts in simple affection, grows as the group mentality strengthens. Each assertion receives approval, and the process of amplification starts. With the firm belief that "if the group agrees with me, I can't be wrong," the believers' assertions become increasingly lofty.
The point comes when the true believers become incapable of mere admiration. It is not enough to say "this man (or woman) is a fine actor, and I appreciate his (her) work." In the mind of the fan, the actor is not simply good; he is great. Before long, he (she) becomes "the greatest actor to ever grace the planet." It is no longer enough to say, "I think Chris Noth is sexy," he becomes "the sexiest man in the world."
When fandom reaches this stage, another phenomenon occurs, if the object of our affection is the best, then anyone who challenges that position must be bad. Perhaps this position develops because of the tenuous nature of the group. The foundation of our conviction lies in "others agree with me." When different "others" arrive, who, in fact, don't agree, the group circles its wagons to protect its own against the perceived threat. When we push our idol into the realm of superlatives (good isn't good enough, he has to be the best), we push ourselves into the corner of "if you might be right, then I might be wrong." The concept that admiration is subjective and both groups are equally right falls by the wayside. We are right-- we have to be right-- because the "group" agrees with us.
Whatever the reason, hackles arise at the idea another actor could possibly "replace" the object of our devotion. It happened when McCoy replaced Stone. McCoy was likened to Satan himself. Moriarty's fans bemoaned the loss Ben Stone, predicting the demise of Law & Order. How, after all, could the show survive, much less thrive, without our hero?
Unable to admit that both characters have merit, the true believers elevated the very human Stone to a status approaching sainthood. He became not merely a good prosecutor doing his job, but the embodiment of American Justice. The die-hard Stone fan vilified McCoy's every word, every action. Selective in their memories, Stone's devotees glossed over his failings; equally, they bypassed McCoy's strengths. The fact that both these characters reflect different sides of the same coin lay somewhere in the middle, ignored.
No single cast change in Law & Order's eight-year history demonstrates the vehemence the loss of an idol can produce than the departure of Chris Noth. When the announcement came that Noth would not return to the show, the hew and cry went up. Dick Wolf suddenly found himself (or would have, had he entered the cybercommunity of LoganLusters) cast as the arch villain. Dire premonitions abounded that the show could not survive the loss. Benjamin Bratt, before he ever opened his mouth, found himself condemned simply for assuming the mantle of L&O-ness.
One problem with allowing our fandom to reach such epic proportions comes when reality fails to live up to our expectations. L&O did not expire when McCoy replaced Stone. In fact, the ratings went up and the critics praised Waterston's casting. L&O did not wither and die when Noth departed. The ratings, again, increased and the critical praise rolled on.
Rather than admit that our expectations were false, that our heroes were not the heart and soul of the show, the steadfast dig in their heels and find ways to explain away reality. The "old" show is so much better than the new one. The fact that the general audience and critics do not agree holds no meaning for them. L&O won the Emmy in its seventh season "on the backs" of the previous casts. The fact that the previous casts were also nominated (and did not win) means little. L&O faced "weak competition" and couldn't possibly have won otherwise. In fact, it stood beside stiff competition; ER, Chicago Hope, NYPD Blue and The X-Files hardly qualify as weak. Anything and everything becomes a reason for the show's current success, anything except the admission that the show continues to maintain the highest quality on television and the current cast can hold their own with any previous grouping.
The true believer cannot seem to grasp that admitting the new is not evil does not negate the quality of the old. Moriarty's contribution to the fictional world of L&O does not diminish in the face of Waterston's considerable talents. McCoy does not need to be evil for Stone to be good. Noth's physical charms do not pale in the light of Bratt's chiseled features.
Far more problematic for the die-hard fan, the fantasy world we build can come crumbling down when our heroes fail to meet our expectations. We build our perceptions of these people from fictional characters and the few scraps of reality that filter to us through the media. Few of us have met the objects of our affections; none know them well enough to form a reasonable picture of their characters. Still we imbue them with traits (invariably idealized) and hold them dear to our hearts. When they stray from that ideal, the true believer faces a crisis of loyalty.
"TONY: Are you aware of a group of LAW & ORDER fans on the Internet who call themselves the Logan Lusters?
CN: A woman sent me some kind of newsletter in the mail once called ALL THINGS NOTH. I found it incredibly bizarre. I tried to laugh about it. I was bored with that show by my last season. Let's face it, being on LAW & ORDER for five years is not growth, it's stagnation." (1)
When this article appeared, Noth fans reacted strongly. Some lost all faith when the Great One spoke of them in less than flattering terms. The true believers found excuses for it. He was having a bad day; he was quoted out of context-anything but admit "their" Chris might not appreciate the degree of their devotion. Few managed to say "Okay, so he doesn't appreciate our loyalty-so what? I still admire him." In the largest measure, the believers continued believing, his comments excused, forgiven and forgotten.
In another article, prior to his departure, Noth states he is considering leaving the show unless more emphasis is placed on the personal lives of the characters. His most ardent fans let these comments pass without comment, despite (or because) of the fact they contradicted some of the essential elements of their convictions. Noth cannot be portrayed as the innocent victim of the villainous Wolf if he was openly (and vocally) dissatisfied with his role. The new show cannot be "dreadful" for showing more glimpses of the people behind the jobs, if Noth desired that very thing (with enough intensity to openly threaten to resign if it did not come to pass).
A similar crisis of faith arose when the image of the sainted Ben Stone ran headlong into the real Michael Moriarty. August 15, 1997, Moriarty and his female companion found themselves in a Halifax drunk tank, after assaulting a waitress and using racial slurs to a police officer. Palpable disillusionment filled the L&O forums as fans tried to reconcile the real world to the fantasy. The pattern played its course as the true believers found excuses to exonerate his behavior, while others laid down the mantle and lost their faith. To be fair, more people seemed able to separate the man Moriarty from icon Ben Stone, but the fact remains that the truest believers leapt to find ways to absolve their hero of his failings.
Does any of this mean fandom is evil? Of course it doesn't. The first actor to step from a Greek chorus probably had his groupies, all willing to swear on Zeus' eyebrows that he was the greatest actor ever to live. However, fandom separated from its roots in fanaticism holds less chance of disappointment. Sam Waterston is an incredible actor, but he is not the "greatest actor" on earth. Chris Noth is handsome, but not the be-all and end-all of male pulchritude. Ben Stone may be an admirable, moral man, but he is not Michael Moriarty, a man with failings and weaknesses. Dick Wolf is not Satan incarnate, but a producer, fallible and brilliant by turns.
If we accept our admiration as personal preference, not universal truths, we can live peaceably with those that do not share our opinions. If we accept that our group is not the only viable group, we can occupy the same corners of cyberspace without conflict. If we accept our heroes, real and fictional, as human, we do not suffer the anguish of the hero fallen. If we accept that our veneration exists in a world largely of our own making, we can accept it when reality does not meet our expectations.
We'd probably all be happier for it.
(1) Martin, Bret. TIME OUT NEW YORK, July 17 - 24, 1997 issue. "Nothing Personal: Ex-LAW & ORDER heartthrob Chris Noth is still a diamond in the ROUGH."