Ron Swanson has achieved cult status so quickly it’s hard to believe he’s only been around for three years. And given the passion he inspires in his acolytes, it’s even harder to believe Swanson’s not a real person. Deftly played by Nick Offerman, the mustachioed man is the carnivorous, government-hating anti-hero of NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Like nearly 800,000 others, I’ve “liked” the show on Facebook, which means I regularly receive such status updates as, “Last day to keep Leslie & Ben in the running in Zimbio’s TV Couples March Madness Challenge!” and “Tom reveals his go-to moves for making the ladies swoon!” A recent post suggested I visit Dukesilver.com, a website run by NBC for Ron’s alter ego, a saxophone-wielding ladykiller for the 50-plus crowd. That’s right: A website for a character’s character. Something tells me we’re not in Pawnee anymore.
In a world of 24/7 connectivity, the idea of waiting a whole week for something new is almost unthinkable. Television networks are finding ways to feed the the bottomless pit of the internet by creating supplementary content for their websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. The problem is, these extras are sucking the fun out of the shows themselves.
The Office was an early instigator. Back in 2007, when this was still a relatively novel approach to marketing, its website introduced “Creed Thoughts,” a blog written in the voice of the character Creed (played by Creed Bratton), an ex-hippie musician known for his screwball non-sequiturs. Today, The Office’s website features trivia games based on minor happenings in an episode, deleted scenes, and no less than four blogs written in the voices of different characters. The writers have taken charming quirks—like Dwight’s trademark intensity, or Oscar’s penchant for life’s finer things—and beaten you over the head with them until you can’t remember why you liked these guys in the first place.
Television merchandising used to be as simple as plastering a character’s face on a lunchbox. Now, networks rely on social media, or opt for meta-marketing through products that exist within or refer to the world in which a given show takes place. The Office famously sells Dunder Mifflin paper on its website, and a recent Parks and Rec Facebook post urged me to buy “Ron F***ing Swanson BBQ Sauce,” exclusively at the NBC store. In addition to the standard mugs and t-shirts, you can purchase “Ron F***ing Swanson” aprons, a Li’l Sebastian plush toy, a Knope 2012 button set, a Pawnee logo iPhone cover, and a Snakehole Lounge pint glass, among other items.
Networks are eager to remind audiences that they’re not just viewers—they’re participants. You can buy a Pawnee Parks and Recreation staff t-shirt and imagine yourself strolling through Parks and Rec’s absurd little town, or sign up to hear about the latest projects through the Pawnee newsletter. Pawnee is, of course, a fictional town, just as Ron Swanson is a fictional character. But you can search for Swanson on Facebook and find a character page that looks remarkably like your friends’ profiles. Or you can follow him on Twitter, where his bio claims his tweets are written by his assistant, the deadpan April Ludgate, played by Aubrey Plaza.
This torrent of auxiliary content undermines what’s fun about being a fan. In the lead-up to last Sunday’s premiere of Mad Men, the show’s website boasted “Ten Ways to Get Ready for the Season Premiere,” complete with decorating tips and wardrobe suggestions (“Get yourself a ‘hostess apron’ to set that ‘happy homemaker’ tone”). Since when do we need AMC to tell us how to throw a retro-themed party?
It’s flattering to feel like you’re being invited to take part in the world of your favourite show. But that invitation is part of the dumbing-down of our TV culture. Do you know who was invited to take part in TV shows decades ago? Children. And ironically, all this online activity encourages passivity. We’re reduced to inert recipients, clicking “like” on a Facebook update likely written by a social media intern at NBC.
Virtual marketing is eroding the critical distance between us and the shows we love to over-analyze. Networks are essentially dumping their writing room leftovers onto the shows’ websites, creating a ghetto of bad ideas and lame inside jokes. This practice also exposes the marketing skeleton beneath the flesh of popular television: What might otherwise be a great program becomes a shameless link-bait machine. Seeing a character referred to online as if he’s just one more Facebook friend, promoted by the network and delivered straight to your newsfeed, is like seeing an actor parade around in costume in the lobby during the intermission of a play: It ruins the magic. Ron Fucking Swanson wouldn’t stand for it.