Photo: Photos: BBC, NBC, Bravo, Anton Jackson/flickr
Superfans of a particular TV show are used to arguing among themselves: Which was the best season ever? Most talented writer? Most regrettable character arc? But these arguments implicitly begin with the same unspoken preamble of “Given that this is the greatest TV series in the history of the medium, what do you think about … ?” So what happens when superfans step out of their like-minded clan and find themselves facing another superfan who has the same unwavering sense of superiority, but over a different TV show? Game on! As part of Vulture’s weeklong look at fandom, we staged a Superfan Thunderdome, gathering three passionate True Believers of three vastly different shows on our 25 Most Devoted Fans list that’s only commonality is their ability to rally devoted viewers — BBC America’s sci-fi staple Doctor Who, NBC’s meta comedy Community, and Bravo’s reality Über-franchise Real Housewives — and asked them to fight over why their favorite series is the Best Show on TV. The brawlers: Barnaby Edwards, a British expat and president of the Doctor Who New York fan group; Kim Rogers, a leader of the “Save Community” movement; and Brian Moylan, a pop-culture writer who has been recapping the Real Housewives for three years (currently for Hollywood.com). Whose show emerged victorious? Read the impassioned debate below, then cast your vote in the comments. This may get ugly.
I’ve gathered you all here today to argue over which of your favorite shows is the most worthy of an intense fandom. Let’s respect our elders and begin with the oldest show, the 49-year-old Doctor Who. Barnaby?
Barnaby (Doctor Who): I actually come from a place where Doctor Who’s been a part of my life since I was 6, so it really is like family. And I can honestly say that there is not a single episode of Doctor Who that I do not enjoy; no matter how dreadful, I can always find a piece of pleasure in it. And if I’m ever down, I can look through a great big list of episodes that go from drama to tragedy to comedy to adventure to action and find something that fits my mood. There’s always a Doctor Who story for it. That’s a pretty special thing.
Kim (Community): Fifty years; yeah, that’s amazing.
Barnaby (DW): You only wish you’d get five.
Kim (C): I mean, I’m going to be happy if we get a full fourth season. But the thing about Community fans is we’re scrappy. We’re like the Goonies — we never say die. And what I think sets Community apart from the other shows is how the fans are so involved with the people on the show, especially through social media. There’s such a connection between the writers and the actors and the fans. As an example, there was an art show this summer called the “Six Seasons and a Movie Art Show,” and it was all fan art and put together in, like, a legit gallery in Los Angeles. Dan Harmon went to it, and a lot of the actors and the writers bought things. And I just think that the relationship that we have with the show is what sets us apart from all the other fandoms.
Brian (Real Housewives): I think that you can say that about The Real Housewives, too, all of which have Twitters which are in the hundreds of thousands — except the difference is Housewives are actually real people that exist in the world, that you can interact with, as opposed to, you know, fake people that are on a fake show.
Kim (C): Except for the writers and the actors.
Brian (RH): But you’re not interacting with the characters. You can see the Housewives on television, and then you can go in public and meet them and talk to them on Twitter, and they are the actual people who you see on television. Also, I mean, Housewives fans are keeping a whole industry of shitty products alive. I mean, there are clothing lines, there’s books. There’s a new cookbook every week.
Barnaby (DW): So, the Housewives are vitally important to the American economy.
Brian (RH): Exactly! These are the job creators. These are the one percent that we hear so much about.
Barnaby (DW): I think it’s interesting what Kim says about the struggles of Community, though, because it’s something that Doctor Who went through nearly 22 years ago, when it was canceled by the BBC in 1989. And the thing that makes it a massive hit now is actually that the vast majority of the people working on the show are fans. And the reinvigoration of Doctor Who started in the early-nineties with a whole bunch of fan novels and then fan audio dramas, which then became professionally licensed by the BBC. And that kept the show alive from 1989 to 2005, kept it in the public consciousness, and the people who were writing those books and audio dramas are now making the TV show. And the conventions around Doctor Who have this incredible creativity in them as well. All of them have art shows, and there are props that you see at these conventions that people spend all of their time building during the year. People are building Daleks. People are building perfect replicas of some of the historical costumes you see. There is a Steven Moffat episode from 2006, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which features Madame Pompadour, so eighteenth-century France. And I’ve seen an almost-perfect replica of that dress, and it must have taken the woman hours and hours and hours to make. I mean, amazing.
Okay. So, Barnaby’s pointing out that Doctor Who fans go to great lengths for the show. Let’s have Brian respond to that first. How do Real Housewives fans demonstrate more passion than Doctor Who fans?
Brian (RH): I think that the passion for Housewives has to do with engaging in a sort of lifestyle, as it were, rather than making things based on something someone else created. There’s lots of recapping and reading and talking about it, of course, but then there’s also engaging in this way of life, as it were — either ironically or not ironically. I think that the Housewives have more of an impact on the way people live, as opposed to an impact on people’s hobbies. First of all, we have Bethenny Frankel, who’s decided she’s going to tell us all how to live our lives through various assorted talk books and self-help shows. And I think that the idea of the Housewives has always been sort of aspirational in that either you want to live like these rich women who fight a lot or you are learning lessons from these poor women who fight a lot, like how not to go bankrupt. You know, it’s not about costumes or stories or so on; it’s more impactful in a real-life way.
Kim (C): We’re a young fandom, obviously. We’ve only been around since 2009, but I think it engendered something so quickly with us that we really are, as cheesy as it sounds, a community. There’s an instant kinship when you meet someone who’s a Community fan, because you all feel like you’ve been in the trenches together and that you’re all fighting against the Nielsen ratings and against the network. Several of my Community friends that I’ve made on Twitter, I’ve met them in real life, and it’s, like, all you have to do when you meet them is just hug each other. You’re like, Yes, I understand. I’m a big TV fan, and I’ve never had a TV show that affected me like this. When I came home that day last November and found out that NBC put it on hiatus — I’ve never written a network executive before, and that’s the first thing I did. And when you find other people that love it, you feel less weird.
Brian (RH): My problem, though, with Community fans is that I feel like though you say it’s a community, it’s especially unwelcoming to new viewers in that if you haven’t watched it since the beginning, you don’t know every reference and every joke. And if you’re not on the fan boards talking to everybody, you don’t get the in-jokes, you don’t get the full experience of the show. And I feel like part of the reason why it struggles so in the ratings is that it’s always holding popularity off at arm’s length. You can’t just turn it on and watch women fighting like you can with Housewives or start with a new Doctor Who every couple of years. Those stories are all sort of self-contained in a way, and there are bits of the mythology you can kind of do without, whereas Community, you can’t. Like, if you haven’t watched it from episode one all the way through, it’s just completely impenetrable.
Kim (C): I’ve definitely heard that said before. But I would say, early in the third season, there’s an episode called “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which is the one that had the six different timelines. It was amazing …
Barnaby (DW): Totally ripped off from Doctor Who.
Kim (C): … and I had told one of my co-workers, who hadn’t watched an episode ever, to watch that episode. She texted me and was like, “Oh my god. That was amazing. That was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I need to watch all the other episodes.” So, it can be standoffish, but I’m also always like, “Why would you just jump into a show?” I mean, I haven’t watched any of the classic Who, but when I started watching the modern Who, I went and started at the beginning.
Barnaby (DW): Yeah, but clearly you’re a fan of TV, and it sounds like you’re a completist, and that’s what completists do.
Kim (C): Maybe.
Barnaby (DW): I actually tend to stick people right in the middle myself. My jumping on point for Doctor Who is always “Blink.”
Kim (C): Well, that’s a good one, too, like “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
Barnaby (DW): It’s absolutely, interestingly enough, like “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
I don’t know if I like how well you guys are getting along.
Kim (C): It’s hard because I’m a Doctor Who fan, too.
Brian (RH): My problem with Community fans is that it wants to succeed, it wants more people to watch it, it wants to stay on the air, but it also wants to keep people out.
Kim (C): I completely disagree with that.
Brian (RH): You’re saying, “Oh, everybody should watch every episode.” So it’s like, if I want to start to enjoy and watch Community in the way that you do, I have to watch all of the DVDs and then catch up with the season, and frankly, I don’t have that much time. But I have an hour of a Doctor Who I could add or an hour of a Housewives of a new city. And I mean, every new city of the Housewives I’m like, “I’m not watching Miami, I’m not watching Miami … okay, I’ll watch the first one.” And then you end up watching the whole thing, but you can pick it up anywhere.
Barnaby (DW): But be honest, do you really have to exercise your mind when you’re watching The Real Housewives?
Brian (RH): Oh, absolutely. The Real Housewives is a great American tragedy, and what’s so great about the Housewives is that, as much as they try to contain the darkness underneath, it always comes through in strange and unexpected ways. I mean, they’re dealing with issues of addiction, of infidelity, of poverty, of lying, of people trying to steal each other’s husbands. Every one of them is a Tennessee Williams character that couldn’t be created by a playwright.
Barnaby (DW): Yes, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what the playwright has to say about it?
Brian (RH): No, because that’s fake. This is real life.
Barnaby (DW): No, it’s not. It’s tabloid culture put on TV.
Brian (RH): What’s wrong with tabloid culture?
Kim (C): Everything. The Kardashians —
Brian (RH): Oh no, I’m not defending the Kardashians. I’m defending The Real Housewives.
Barnaby (DW): I don’t see any difference between any of those shows.
Kim (C): I don’t either.
Brian (RH): How many Real Housewives have you watched?
Kim (C): And you can’t tell me that some of that drama on The Real Housewives isn’t manufactured by the producers.
Brian (RH): Like any reality show, there are some things that are staged, but the real interesting parts of the Housewives comes in moments where you can’t put that face on for the cameras. I mean, when Kim Richards shows up at an event sauced and is talking about her days being a Disney starlet — that has nothing to do with, like, some manufactured birthday party that someone is at.
Kim (C): It’s just tragic.
Brian (RH): That’s the point! That’s the point!
Kim (C): But I don’t want to spend my time watching that. There is genuine emotion and genuine heart in the scripted shows that make me see things in my life when I watch it. And you can’t say that it’s all fake or whatever, because it all comes from a real and genuine place of …
Brian (RH): Fictional. Fictional. These characters do not really exist in the world.
Kim (C): But they do.
Barnaby (DW): But fiction is art. Fiction is art, and fiction allows you to feel stuff that maybe …
Brian (RH): Fiction is art, but people are art.
Barnaby (DW): Seeing people behaving badly, sure, you could do it every so often, and there’s a little bit of fun in it but …
Brian (RH): But it’s not just people behaving badly. There are people that you root for, there are people who are doing good things, there are people helping each other out. I think that reality always gets a sort of bad rap, like, “Oh, these people don’t do anything.” Yeah, they do something — they be on television. That’s what they do. They’re famous for being on a television show just like any other actor on a television show.
Barnaby (DW): Well, actually, they’re famous for having absolutely no qualms about being on television 24-7. They don’t have better career prospects, therefore they just sign their lives away to be filmed.
Brian (RH): That’s not true. There are plenty of Housewives who have a lot of money coming into it and don’t need to be on the show, and those are always the most interesting Housewives because they have everything to lose.
Doctor Who has been a scripted serial television program for as long as it has existed. How is this old format superior to the newer format of reality TV?
Barnaby (DW): Well, it’s not an old format. Yeah, the basic concept of Doctor Who — you’ve got a man traveling around time and space in a police box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, having adventures and doing the right thing — has existed since 1963. The genius of it is that, three years in, they suddenly wrote into the structure of the show the ability to change actors, and what that means is that it’s constantly evolving. The relaunched show follows new television trends. If you watch a show from 1989, the pacing is eighties television. The pacing today is 2012 television. The pacing in 1963 was black and white, basically watching a stage play happening in front of you, because that’s how TV was in 1963. So the fact that it constantly evolves and has constant change is one of the reasons why it appeals to so many people. And it crosses race, gender, sexual orientation, almost every boundary you can think of. Because it’s such an inclusive show and the message that’s behind it: You’ve got this message of exploration and inclusion and keeping an open mind about everything. It’s interesting, the first producer, in 1963 in England, was a 26-year-old woman. The first director was a 24-year-old East Indian immigrant. Tell me that is not important for a show that has this philosophy.
Okay, so Kim, Doctor Who is inclusive of everyone. Can Community compete with that?
Kim (C): The thing that I love about Community is that you can see all these seven different characters and see yourself in one of them. It’s about finding your place in the world. Just look at the basic makeup of the study group. I mean, you have an old dude, an African-American woman who’s older and who’s a mother and a family woman. You have the young African-American quarterback. And then you have an Indian guy who basically has Asperger’s; they’ve never really come out and addressed it in that way. And then you have the thirtysomething anarchist feminist wanderer, and you have the young , straight-A student who’s very driven and very smart. And then you have Jeff Winger who’s always gotten by on his silver tongue, and it’s bitten him, and he’s discovering that he doesn’t have to rely on that. So, I mean, it’s as diverse as anything.
Barnaby (DW): But they’re all pretty self-absorbed, and they’re all pretty nasty people, and they’re all out for themselves.
Kim (C): They’re not, no. They’re out for each other.
Barnaby (DW): They may have found a community together, but you look at a lot of them from the outside …
Kim (C): Who are we but self-absorbed people? Not pointing at you, pointing at, you know, the Housewives. I mean, they’re as self-absorbed as any character on Community. And again, I love the Doctor, but he is a little bit of a conundrum in himself.
Barnaby (DW): He does the right thing.
Kim (C): So do the people on Community, eventually. But people don’t always do the right thing right away.
Brian (RH): One of the few good things that I can say about Community is that it is much more diverse than other shows on television, which usually engage in some sort of tokenism in one way or another. It does have people of color, it gives prominent roles to women — all of the things that other network sitcoms should be doing and often don’t.
Okay, so old dudes, South Asian pop-culture buffs: not very well represented on Real Housewives. How is that a more inclusive show?
Brian (RH): Well, there are old dudes: the husbands. The Housewives are all female, of course. There are some franchises that are whiter than white, but there are all the black ladies in Atlanta, there’s a bunch of Latino ladies in Miami. So if you look at the Housewives as a whole, it’s a fairly inclusive bunch. If you look at them individually, they tend to be sort of racially segregated. Which is problematic. But I think that in terms of all their gay best friends, all of their husbands, all of the people that they interact with — I think you see that it’s a really diverse group. And I think you learn a lot of lessons about inclusion and how people who are unlike each other can draw each other in. It also teaches you a lot about how people unlike each other can bitch about who did or did not bring a bottle of wine to a party.
Barnaby (DW): People go to a party without a bottle of wine? That’s just wrong! You’re just clearly watching a dreadful show if there are people in it who don’t bring wine to parties.
Brian (RH): If you have a party and you don’ t order Ramona Singer’s wine and then Ramona shows up, she’s going to be very upset that you’re not helping to support her.
Barnaby (DW): Oh, so self-absorbed again and not like the lead character in Doctor Who, making people better. There’s a reason why he’s called the Doctor.
Kim (C): He’s also called the Oncoming Storm and a lot of other things.
Barnaby (DW): No, he’s called the Oncoming Storm by the people whom he’s defeated because they were trying to do Nazi cleansing. Wouldn’t you like to be called the Oncoming Storm by Hitler?
I watch all of these shows, if I hadn’t made that clear. And I do think each of them has at least one compelling and unique character who stands out. I’d like you all to make a case for why a character on your show is the best character on television right now.
Brian (RH): I’ll start. It’s Kim Richards from the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I don’t know if you know about Kim Richards, but she was sort of famous in the eighties: She was in a bunch of Disney movies, she was in Return to Witch Mountain, and she was a tween star back before Lindsay Lohan. She’s Paris Hilton’s aunt, so she watched Paris come up and be famous. And she is a mess. She struggles with addiction, with alcoholism, she’s been married a bunch of times, she has a bunch of kids, and she’s just a sort of disaster. There’s one particular scene that I always love to talk about. She was at a birthday party for one of the other Housewives’ children and it was, like, a rodeo-western-themed sort of birthday party. And there was a horse there, and she goes, Oh, I remember when I used to work at Disney, and they would bring the horse over and it would sit down for me, and then I could climb right on top of it, and then I would get up and they trot me all around and I would ride horses, and it was so great. And then, after that, I went and tried to ride a horse, and the horse wouldn’t sit down for me and I couldn’t get on it, and I’ve never ridden a horse again. And that is Kim Richards in four seconds. It was the most brilliant piece of television ever. It was like a monologue out of an acting class that some woman just randomly pulled out of her ass at a birthday party.
A child’s birthday party.
Brian (RH): Yeah, exactly. And she doesn’t quite recognize how sad it is, but it just makes you want to give her a big hug and tell her, “It’s going to be okay, and you can get up on that horse, Kim Richards.” She’s my favorite. Probably compelling for the wrong reasons, but you couldn’t write Kim Richards if you tried.
Kim (C): I would say the standout character of Community would be Abed. This past season, Dan Harmon started delving deep into the psyche of Abed, and it was kind of a scary place and a place I couldn’t believe was actually on television. You had the whole episode with him and Annie in the Dreamatorium, where it really got into his head, and you see that he’s viewing the world the way he does because he’s just desperately afraid of being alone and that his friends will always outgrow him and he’s just going to be left alone. Because he knows that he is pretty incapable of change. Danny Pudi plays it so well because he’s not supposed to be relatable and yet he is, and you kind of just want to snuggle him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay. But at the same time, he’s still almost like a puppet master of the group, trying to manipulate everything. And a lot of people argued that “Remedial Chaos Theory” was all in his head.
It would be interesting to find out that the whole show is in Abed’s head. Or that all of Real Housewives is in Kim Richards’s head.
Brian (RH): No, Housewives is for real. There’s no disputing that. It’s really happening.
Barnaby (DW): I could chose a bunch of standout characters, but Matt Smith, the current Doctor, says that Doctor Who is the greatest role in TV. I think it’s incredibly difficult to argue that. You get to inspire, you get to provide hope, you get to do incredibly dramatic scenes. The end of season five, when he’s talking to young Amelia Pond and he tells her the story of the man who left Gallifrey and he’s just a man with a box who’s got a lonely soul and just wants to have friends, is heartbreaking. And right now, I think we’ve got one of the best actors who’s ever played the role. And there hasn’t been a bad actor in the role. Some Doctors are less popular than others. But Matt Smith, as an actor, I think we possibly have one of the greatest actors on television playing this role right now. Every single thing he does is a master class. And the other thing about him that’s remarkable is he knows he’s got a dream job right now, and he embraces it and he plays up to it and he’s loving every second of it: He interacts with the fans, is always trying to be very open. They’ve done a bunch of screening events in New York. He loves New York. There’s a bar in Brooklyn called the Way Station which has the Tardis bathroom. No event; he just went there, he signed the bathroom. He signed up above the toilet, they framed it, it’s just absolutely brilliant. That’s a guy who gets it, and it’s very rare to get that in a show that’s getting the hype machine all over the place to have actors who are accessible. They’re not above it all.
Kim (C): I found that’s a lot the same with the Community cast. I’ve met Joel McHale on two occasions, and he’s delightful. One of them, we actually gave him a trophy, because there’s an episode where Jeff Winger got very upset that he did not win a Most Handsome Young Man award, and this was right after the Emmy nominations came out and he didn’t get nominated, and we were all mad. And he was doing stand-up at Caroline’s, and we made him a trophy that said “Most Handsome Young Man,” and we attached a bunch of notes from Community fans. And we got it to him, and he was like, This is so wonderful. And creepy! And then when he stopped and saw all the notes, he was like, Thank you, thank you. He looked us all in the eye and shook our hands and was like, Thank you for supporting Community. The actors get it. I think that’s why we care about them so much, it’s just because they get it.
Brian (RH): It’s different with the Housewives. I always say it’s a double-edged sword, because when you meet the Housewives, they’re exactly how they are on television because they’re not playing a role. But what makes Ramona Singer compelling on television makes her an awful dinner companion. She just won’t shut up; she always talks about herself. It’s just crazy. I’ve met a bunch of them and worked with a bunch of them professionally, and they’re all exactly like they are on television. Which is different from actors but not necessarily better.
All right, let’s do closing statements. I want you each to argue briefly for a Vulture reader who has not seen any of your shows why your show is the one that they should be watching.
Barnaby (DW): You should watch Doctor Who because it will show you a world of possibilities outside your typical sphere of influence, and you’ll get to go take an adventure every week that can take you to unexpected places and will take you away from everyday reality.
Kim (C): Abed has a line in the Christmas episode where he’s says, “I just like liking things.” Community is for people who love to like things. I haven’t connected with a show like I’ve connected to Community ever, and just the concept of finding your place and finding your friends and knowing that you’re not alone even if you’re weird, even if you haven’t found anyone before, you can find someone. Connecting with the Community fans has been, it’s been amazing for me, and I really feel like I’ve found a community of my own.
Brian (RH): I would argue first and foremost to anyone who doesn’t watch The Real Housewives to watch Beverly Hills, which starts shortly, over any of the others; I think it’s the best and the most interesting, though I watch and enjoy all of them. But I think that The Real Housewives shows you a sort of unbridled and unvarnished humanity at its best and certainly at its worst, and I think that anybody who wants to gain insight into real-life human beings would enjoy it. And there are fights.