If you wanted to come up with a playbook for how to handle TV promotion and publicity in the age of social media, a few of the major rules might look like this:
- Don’t mislead fans or raise their hopes unrealistically.
- Don’t promote your show as an ideal proponent of a certain kind of storytelling, and then drop the ball in a major way with that very element of your show.
- When things go south, don’t pretend nothing happened.
- Understand that in this day and age, promotion is a two-way street: The fans that flock to your show and help raise its profile can just as easily walk away if they are disappointed or feel they’ve been manipulated.
It all sounds like common sense, right? Except that “The 100” managed to break all those rules and more in the last ten days or so. And the tumult surrounding the show contain lessons that other shows and showrunners could learn from.
The short version (and this paragraph contains spoilers): A number of fans of the CW show are angry about how the exit of a lesbian character was handled, both within the narrative and by representatives of the show on social media. Given the slipshod and dismissive way things played out in both spheres, they have every right to be upset. The character, Lexa, was killed off in the middle of the season in a manner that invoked any number of cliches about lesbians on TV, and the fact that in January, showrunner Jason Rothenberg took to Twitter to tout the actress’ appearance in the season finale made her death all the more baffling and disappointing.
One fan on Twitter summed up the general mood among a substantial subset of fans by saying, “I feel like I’m being used to keep up their ratings.”
I’ll get into more details in a bit, but “The 100,” a cult show with a rising profile, really stepped in it by breaking every single one of the rules above. For two years, the show has sought deep and frequent engagement with its fans — but once it was clear that the March 3 episode of “The 100” had set off an ever-expanding array of firestorms, especially among LGBTQ fans, many of the powers that be associated with the show acted as if nothing were particularly amiss. That was one of many mistakes.
What has occurred since March 3 is not just a problem for “The 100” and the CW, it’s a cautionary tale for all of television, which increasingly depends on fans to bang the drum for shows and increase their profiles.
As it happens, the resurgent CW just made a big bet on fan-driven entertainment as the future of TV. The network just renewed all of its shows, in part because it measures engagement in a host of ways; overnight ratings are no longer the be-all and end-all. Social media engagement counts for a lot, and word-of-mouth promotion is often what makes or breaks a marginal show. That’s especially true at the CW, but in the age of 400-plus scripted shows, that’s also the case for many other programs on broadcast, streaming and cable.
But intense fan engagement is a double-edged sword. The fans who know how to help raise a show’s profile and make noise on social media are also whipsmart in any number of other ways. Today’s TV viewers won’t stand for being used as pawns, nor will they help promote a show when they feel it has let them down. With the events that occurred in the March 3 episode of the show, many think “The 100” did just that.
The response of the showrunner has, outside of a few unenlightening interviews, has been disappointing. Rothenberg live-tweeted the March 10 episode of the show as if thinkpieces and damning critiques were not still being churned out. In the limited array of interviews he did in conjunction with the March 3 episode, he has given little indication that he understands the depth of the sense of betrayal or the multitude of reasonable objections to the death story line. Since March 3, it has fallen to co-executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who wrote the episode, to engage with fans in any significant and meaningful way, but his compassionate and committed response has only highlighted Rothenberg’s abdication of responsibility.
It would seem that the attitude of the showrunner and others associated with the show is that if they just ignore everything for long enough, it’ll all go away. Meanwhile, fans are passing around lists of ideas for how to lower the show’s social media profile (Rothenberg himself has already lost thousands of Twitter followers), and the March 10 episode got the series’ worst-ever ratings. To understand how the balance of power has shifted in the fan-driven age, a subset of viewers got #LGBTfansdeservebetter to trend for hours during the show’s time slot on March 10, demonstrating that they can use their collective might to very different uses than a network might like.
This is not a call for showrunners to pander to their audiences — far from it. It’s a reminder that every story turn and promotional effort should be thoroughly thought through. Sloppy, dismissive and tin-eared moves by a show or its personnel aren’t easy to bury or ignore these days, and fan engagement is a collaboration, not a spigot to be turned off whenever things get inconvenient.
Before getting into the specifics of what got fans riled up, I’ll just note that in this brave new world — a future the CW just bet the farm on — what fans choose to do or not do matters more than ever. TV shows should always pursue admirable artistic goals in the way they see fit, of course — but they shouldn’t take the loyalty and energy of their fans for granted along the way.
I’ll stipulate two things at this point: The rest of this post will discuss plot details from “The 100’s” third season. Also, fans who said threatening or unacceptable things to anyone associated with the show went too far.
But I was in the thick of it as this storm over “The 100” raged during the last ten days, and in my experience, only a tiny fraction of fans went that route. I did hear from hundreds of fans who were confused, disappointed or deeply hurt. As I said in a March 4 post on the fracas, I could understand why they were upset — but in dozens of posts, tweets and emails, they helped me understand why they felt betrayed.
These fans were smart, eloquent and impressively well-versed in promotional strategies, media conventions and tropes. They’re also right.
So here’s the nitty-gritty: The character who died, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), happened to be one of the few well-developed and complex lesbians on TV, and it’s an unfortunate but enduring TV cliche that lesbians rarely, if ever, live happily ever after. In the March 3 episode, “The 100,” which had touted its commitment to quality LGBTQ storytelling, invoked one of TV’s oldest gay cliches by killing her off mere seconds after she consummated her relationship with another woman, Clarke (Eliza Taylor).
Many fans, regardless of sexual orientation, were left shaking their heads in disbelief.
On a story and thematic level, Lexa’s death (despite being well-performed by the actors) had little resonance and almost no meaning. But all things considered, the blithe manipulation LGBTQ fans and the show’s willingness to deploy harmful cliches about gay characters remain the things that rankle most.
On Jan. 21, while “The 100” was shooting its season three finale, Rothenberg tweeted to his more than 100,000 followers that fans were welcome to visit the show’s set in downtown Vancouver. A cast member also tweeted about Debnam-Carey’s presence on the Vancouver set that day; fan videos and tweets soon confirmed that she was there.
To call Lexa a fan favorite is putting it very mildly. Any morsel of news about her and her relationship with Clarke is instantly circulated through a thriving network of sites, Twitter accounts and Tumblrs devoted to the show, and fans were soon crowing over the fact that one of their favorite characters had made it through the entire season, right through to the finale. “The 100” isn’t shy about killing off characters, but here was evidence — and a rainbow-themed photo — that indicated that Lexa was just fine.
The problem was, Lexa had been killed off months earlier.
The episode in which Lexa died — the seventh one in the current season — was shot in the fall and aired March 3. To be sure, it wasn’t all that surprising that the character was written off, nor did most fans — or myself — have an innate problem with her exiting the show by dying or leaving in some other way. Debnam-Carey is a series regular on “Fear the Walking Dead,” so fans had been speculating about Lexa’s survival chances for some time.
That’s why it is baffling that the show all but ensured that its most hardcore fans knew that Lexa would appear in the season finale. The trumpeting of her appearance at the end of the season prompted many viewers, especially fans of the Lexa and Clarke pairing, to keep hope alive, but in reality, there was no hope to be found. If her appearance in the finale had been secret, that might have allowed the show to unleash a potentially interesting surprise, but in addition to taking the air out of that presumed twist, the way “The 100” shamelessly toyed with LGBTQ viewers — who are among the show’s most active promotional allies — constitutes inexplicable and deeply unwise misdirection.
Adding to the sense of betrayal was the manner of Lexa’s death. She was felled by a stray bullet from an angry male servant, mere seconds after she and Clarke had sex for the first time. The servant, Titus, disapproved of Lexa’s relationship with Clarke, whom he tried to kill, but Lexa caught the bullet. This woman — the most fearsome warrior in the show’s history — didn’t die defending Clarke; she just happened to be in the bullet’s path. And by following her only moment of bliss with her lover, the Grounder queen’s death followed a time-worn and disturbing TV pattern.
Autostraddle came up with a list of more than 130 lesbian and bisexual women who have been killed off on TV shows, and it’s a damning roster. Whatever progress you think TV has made on the front of LGBTQ representation, the sheer number of dead women on the list is profoundly troubling, to say the least. If nothing else, it shows that the Bury Your Gays trope is alive and well on TV, and fictional lesbian and bisexual women in particular have a very small chance of leading long and productive lives.
Critic Nicola Choi wrote that when they spot a lesbian or bisexual woman on TV, many LGBTQ fans simply resign themselves to the fact that the character will die.
“What would happen if every straight, white, male character got inexplicably and deplorably killed off in every show you watched just to further the plot?” Choi wrote. “To a point where you see a straight character and immediately think: ‘Yep, he’s gonna die when he walks into a room without a bulletproof vest.’… What message do you send out, when you write these cheap deaths? That LGBT fans do not deserve to love who they love? That they should fear every door they open?”
Lexa’s cliched death was especially galling given that recently, the show had leaned into the idea that it was a beacon of enlightened representation for LGBTQ characters. Rothenberg gave multiple interviews on the topic — Variety included — and retweeted stories from an array of publications that praised the show’s representation of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters.
Aided by the enthusiasm of the show’s many LGBTQ viewers, the outreach campaign worked. “Until last week, you had numerous marginalized teens and young adults who were feeling engaged, feeling represented, and feeling (dare I say it?) hopeful,” a writer named Kylie noted in an eloquent deconstruction of tropes and how they operate on TV. “Which inherently put you in a position of power over them.”
To writer and professor Elizabeth Bridges, “The 100” used that power in an irresponsible and harmful way.
“We knew [Lexa] could possibly be killed, and we knew that [Debnam-Carey’s] fate for any potential future seasons was questionable,” Bridges wrote. “But we also had constant reassurance from the writers and showrunner that we could trust them not to screw up these characters, that they were aware of the [dead lesbian] trope and would avoid it even if” the actress left the show.
“Maybe she would go into exile. Maybe something else would separate them, but it was clear that they would be the main couple at least for this season,” Bridges wrote. “How wrong we were to trust them. We were queerbaited in the most elaborate way imaginable. They made our pairing canon. They assured us not to worry, that they wouldn’t take it in that worn-out direction, that they were progressive and cool.”
And then Lexa was gone, just like that, via a death that in no way reflected her status as a leader who would risk everything to protect her people. Her demise was badly conceived on every level. Perhaps Rothenberg thought killing off Lexa in that manner was shocking, but her death ended up feeling rushed, off-kilter and poorly handled. Thus it was of a piece with much of the rest of the season, which has been big on bombast and short on compelling logic and believable character development.
There has been one positive development out of the Lexa debacle; fans have coordinated a campaign to raise more than $40,000 for the Trevor Project, a charity that assists LGBTQ teens in crisis. It’s a worthy cause and disgruntled fans of “The 100” are to be commended for channelling their ire in such a positive direction.
Even so, it’s hard not to wish that the show hadn’t led them — or misled them — into this difficult place.
Lexa’s death, “The 100” and TV deaths in general are discussed on the most recent edition of the Televerse podcast, which is here.