Being Jeff Winger in a sea of Abeds
Over a year ago, I saw an advertisement that would change my life: Amy Sherman-Palladino & Lauren Graham were going to attend a Gilmore Girls panel at the Austin Television Festival (ATX). I bought my ticket on a whim and planned on using the festival as an excuse to visit Austin. By the time the festival actually rolled around, the Gilmore Girls panel had grown into a full blown reunion. It was emotional, nostalgic, and entirely overwhelming. However, despite attending great panels and collecting wonderful celebrity stories, I wasn’t entirely sure I would go back to ATX. As much as the weekend delighted me, it also left me with a feeling of discomfort.
When I first attended ATX in June 2015, I was dissatisfied with my job and unhappy about the general direction in which my life seemed to be going. Being surrounded by fellow TV lovers and bloggers (all imminently more successful than I was), with nuanced and well-developed thoughts about the new season of Fargo or the Orphan Black’s decline in quality, was both lovely and horribly jarring. It reminded me of how insignificant I was and how my knowledge of TV writers was not unique. It reminded me how hard it is to be a TV writer, and how I didn’t have the guts to truly pursue my passion. It reminded me of my unwillingness to take a chance.
This year, I thought I was prepared to deal with the torschlusspanik. I love my new job in Cambridge (a change I made because I left the festival in 2015 motivated). I feel challenged and purposeful again. I was excited to reunite with my TV friends and discuss TV as a medium for social change and bask in the presence of Norman Lear and get into a weird fight with Eric Mabius from Ugly Betty (all of which happened). I was prepared to see TV critics that I respected waiting in line in 95 degree heat with me and fangirling over the cast of Ugly Betty. I was prepared to deal with being confronted with the humanity of my idols, seeing Todd VanDerWerff and Libby Hill interact awkwardly with each other IRL instead on Twitter. I was prepared to acknowledge Alan Sepinwall as having human form and not just being an endless fountain of Game of Throne reviews.
Yet I still left the festival with an underlying feeling of...ickiness. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It’s the anxiety you get at a party when your high school and college friends meet for the first time or the feeling of being unable to control your limbs. If I may, it seems appropriate (albeit cliched) to use a TV character to illustrate my unease. By day 3 of ATX, I started to channel Jeff Winger from Community. The earnestness on display made me uncomfortable and unable to truly identify with the loveable weirdos I met. TV geekdom is still a relatively new fandom. Sure, people who are super-fans of TV shows have existed for decades (see Star Trek or Doctor Who), but that fandom has an established universe with boundaries. What does it mean to be a television super-fan? It goes beyond blogging and mastering trivial knowledge. It means acknowledging that I care about a medium that is inherently uncool and mainstream. A medium that has been commercially for decades and whose worth as a medium of art and social change is only now being properly acknowledged.
I may forever be a small fish in the big ATX pond, so I had to confront and accept my own mediocrity. This became apparent the first night of ATX 2016 during the TV trivia competition. Quick! Name the fictional magazines from Ugly Betty and Just Shoot Me! Which show started first, Futurama or Family Guy? Answering any of these questions correctly would earn me big points at normal trivia nights, but at ATX it’s just the bare minimum to keep up. Panels are moderated by prominent TV critics- what do you mean you don’t have a favorite critic? Other attendees knew more about classic TV shows than I did or were able to speak more eloquently about the “Bury Your Gays” trope at the GLAAD panel discussion and instead of celebrating the fact that I was among my television peers, I felt threatened. Being confronted by your own limitations is supposed to get easier with age, yes?
I have come to realize that just because I can’t be Abed doesn’t mean I should be Jeff. As I navigate my relationship to TV fandom, I just have to accept it will be uncomfortable and sometimes humbling (like the time I met Dan Harmon). Spoiler alert- I am not going to be an influential television critic or even a remotely successful blogger. I may have to let that dream go. But I got to spend three full days interacting with TV creators (such as Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman and the Knick’s Jake Amiel), watch Aaron Sorkin and the cast of the West Wing reunite, learn about the process of producers giving studio notes, and meet Norman freakin’ Lear. It’s a different kind of dream and one I’m excited to relive next year at ATX Season 6.
PS. If I ever do meet Emily Nussbaum, it would go exactly like this