(The 2018 AFI Docs Film Festival runs June 13-17 in Washington D.C. Hammer to Nail lead critic Chris Reed, who also hosts a killer podcast on documentary filmmaking called The Fog of Truth, is at the fest and will be providing his usual excellent reviews and interviews.)
A delightful romp through the annals of TV-fandom history, director Michael Sparaga’s new documentary United We Fan offers a series of entertaining anecdotes to illustrate the many ways in which diehard media enthusiasts have saved – or tried to save – their favorite shows since the 1960s. It all began with Star Trek, a program beloved of many, today, but which had a rocky start, struggling to find its audience in its original three-season run, 1966-1969. A letter-writing campaign saved the series from cancellation after the second season, but was not enough to prolong it past season three. Still, that effort became the model for future such crusades, and Sparaga (The Missing Ingredient: What is the Recipe for Success?) starts with that, then moves forward through other notable fan successes (and failures). Peppy and fast-paced, it’s great fun, and a joy to watch.
Beyond Bjo and John Trimble, who spearheaded the “rescue Star Trek” enterprise – and are still very much alive – we meet folks like Dorothy Swanson, who loved the 1980s show Cagney & Lacey so much that she contacted the writer and producer (whom we also hear from) when she heard it was going off the air. Swanson’s initial (successful) foray into this arena – and the national coverage it garnered – led her to found Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) with a cohort of like-minded individuals. From the late-1980s through the year 2000, VQT promoted shows, and gave out awards to those shows, which they felt elevated the quality of programming. It wasn’t a morality-based organization, just one of people who banded together to make their particular views on storytelling known (and felt). Eventually, the rise of the internet would make VQT less relevant and powerful, and they disbanded.
From there, we travel through a variety of campaigns, including those for shows like The 4400, Jericho, Roswell, Veronica Mars, and more. Sometimes the fans get their way; other times, not. Additionally, Sparaga explores what happens when the emotionally invested cognoscenti lobby for a series, then grow disappointed with the direction it takes, as happens with Person of Interest. Whether we know these specific shows or not, most of us watch – or have watched – some kind of television and/or long-form drama (since TV is oh-so-20th-century, these days), so we can relate. As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I was especially fascinated with that story, but found all narrative threads of interest, and love how Sparaga weaves them into a cohesive cinematic tapestry. United We Fan is therefore a quality documentary for all viewers of all television, past and present.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)