Endless devotion: How passionate fans are resurrecting lesser-known genre shows

Billboards in Times Square. Aerial ads over Los Angeles. A social media tsunami. The highly coordinated campaign to save Toronto-shot series Shadowhunters is the latest impressive rally by superfans driven to save their favourite genre TV shows.

'To see so many young adults put their passion into action' inspires hope, says producer

The Toronto-shot Shadowhunters is the latest sci-fi series fans worldwide are trying to save from cancellation. (Freeform)

This summer, you may have noticed the phrase #SaveShadowhunters turn up in high-traffic spots around the globe. Billboards in New York's Times Square, for instance, or Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square or Seoul's Gwanghwamun Gate station.

The hashtag flew over Netflix's downtown Los Angeles HQ in an aerial ad and ran down the length of British double-decker buses in London. Pedicabs emblazoned with the phrase ferried people around San Diego Comic Con.

Then there were the tweets — more than 14 million of them — along with old-school emails, letters and postcards sent to the sci-fi show's creators as well as a variety of network executives. 

This highly coordinated campaign comes courtesy of the Shadowfam, champions of the recently cancelled, Toronto-shot Shadowhunters. It's the latest rally by superfans driven to save their favourite TV shows.

"Shadowhunters has such a global fandom. We're literally everywhere," said Maria Jose Garcia, who helped wrangle the Toronto billboard. 

"It's been really amazing online: to see all these people sharing their stories, in particular situations of how the show saved their lives or changed it drastically," Garcia continued, noting that fellow fans said Shadowhunters helped them grapple with their sexuality. Meanwhile, others rejoiced at seeing relatable characters that defied ethnic and cultural stereotypes.

Loosely based on a bestselling young-adult novel series, Shadowhunters revolves around a young woman who learns she's the latest in a line of supernatural heroes destined to protect the world from demons. This spring, when American network Freeform announced it was cancelling the genre series (seen internationally via Netflix), the worldwide fan base, known as Shadowfam, kicked into high-gear in hopes of saving their beloved program. 

When Shadowhunters was cancelled, 'fans mobilized,' said producer Chris Hatcher, who noted that the campaign has taken many forms, from postcards and billboards to social media appeals to thousands raised for charity. Fans created a book to detail the ​#SaveShadowhunters drive and it includes messages about the impact the show has had on their lives. (CBC)

"Pretty much right away, these fans mobilized," said Shadowhunters producer Chris Hatcher, who noted the ​#SaveShadowhunters campaign has taken many forms, including raising more than $20,000 US for charities such as The Trevor Project, a U.S.-based suicide prevention effort, and the UN's Girl Up initiative.

"They've been writing letters and postcards to us," said Hatcher, who also flipped through a book fans created that details the #SaveShadowhunters operation and includes fan messages about the impact the show has had on them.

It's easy to see why they put in the effort. From the legendary late-1960s letter-writing campaign that saved the original Star Trek to the social media outpouring that revived police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine in just two days this spring, notable fan attempts to rescue cancelled TV shows have been rewarded with subsequent seasons, pick-ups by rival networks, a movie adaptation or, at the very least, an extended-length special or finale.

'You never want to write off any fan campaign'

"The thing about television these days is fan campaigns really can work and they really can revive shows," said Liz Shannon Miller, TV editor of entertainment industry outlet Indiewire.com. 

"We've seen it numerous times, so you never want to write off any fan campaign as being impossible, especially when you have a really devoted and passionate fan base that will not let it go."

When you're making a point of emphasizing or supporting  LGBTQ  relationships or underrepresented communities on television, that has an impact on people- Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

Science-fiction and fantasy shows in particular can earn these incredibly devoted fans because increasingly they're more inclusive — showcasing actors, characters and storylines that reflect different ethnicities, sexual orientations or gender identities  —  compared to mainstream drama or comedy programming.

"When you're making a point of emphasizing or supporting LGBTQ relationships or underrepresented communities on television, that has an impact on people," Miller said.

"The good shows — the best shows — create that sense of escapism, that sense of being in an alternate realm, while still also delivering relatable characters, relatable scenarios and also drawing out the emotions inside us that we otherwise might have a hard time expressing. And I think that's what kind of leads to these sorts of deep connections.

Producer Chris Hatcher takes CBC's Deana Sumanac for a set tour of Shadowhunters, the Toronto-shot sci-fi series. 2:19

Though Shadowhunters has wrapped the Toronto shoot of its series finale — slated to air as part of 12 episodes next spring — the #SaveShadowhunters campaign barrels onward, with plans to revisit Los Angeles again shortly.

After all, as recent precedents have shown, anything is possible.

"There's hope out there for anything and to see so many young adults put their passion into action and push forward such a highly coordinated effort, I think for me personally, it gives me hope just for the future in general, TV aside," Shadowhunters producer Hatcher said in Toronto.

"When you have that sort of mobilization happening, anything can happen."


Genre shows recently boosted by fans

The Expanse

Premise: Set 200 years in the future, space thriller The Expanse centres on a freighter crew and hardened detective who attempt to solve a mystery — unravelling a conspiracy that threatens the entire solar system and humanity itself. 

Fan campaign: Widely praised and among the best-reviewed sci-fi series on television, the drama was nevertheless cancelled by Syfy, a U.S.-based channel owned by NBCUniversal, in May. This lead to vociferous outrage across social media, online petitions and a #SaveTheExpanse rally by fans that included flying a banner over Amazon HQ (not to mention cakes sent to its execs). 

The result: Days later, Amazon Studios picked up The Expanse for its fourth season. What may have helped? High-profile and influential fans, including Danish astronaut Andreas MogensenGame of Thrones author George R.R. Martin and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (the latter two reportedly reached out to Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, himself a fan of the books the series is based upon, personally).


Abigail Spencer speaks about her NBC series Timeless in New York in 2016. (Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press)

Timeless

Premise: A history professor, soldier and scientist travel through time in pursuit of a mysterious fugitive bent on changing the past to influence the course of American history.

Fan campaign: NBC cancelled the favourably reviewed time-travelling series a few months after its inaugural season ended in early 2017. Amid a fan-led social media campaign to save the show, the network changed its mind (in just three days) and green-lit a shortened second season, which premiered in March. 

The resultThis past June, NBC cancelled the show once again, leaving devotees (so-called Clockblockers, including singer Kelly Clarkson and SNL's Leslie Jones) stranded after a dramatic cliffhanger. Fan appeals to streamers (Amazon, Netflix and Hulu as well as newer entries like Apple TV, YouTube and Crackle) to save Timeless have yet to yield any interest, but in late July, NBC agreed to produce a two-hour movie to wrap up the cult drama. It's tentatively set to air during the holiday season. 


Lucifer

The premise: An unusual take on the police drama, the supernatural show revolves around a charming devil (literally: he is a fallen angel/ruler of hell) who assists an LAPD homicide detective in fighting crime.

Fan campaign: Fox cancelled the fantasy drama (inspired by Neil Gaiman's comic book writing) in May, after three seasons. Fans pushed back with a major campaign that kept #SaveLucifer trending on social media for weeks. 

The resultNetflix was once again the white knight, riding in mid-June for a fourth season pick-up. New episodes are slated to air in 2019.


Sense8

Premise: A group of eight strangers, living in different countries around the world, suddenly develop a mental and emotional connection before finding themselves targets of a mysterious organization.

Fan campaign: Netflix cancelled J. Michael Straczynski, Lana and Lilly Wachowski's bold, lavishly produced, Emmy-nominated series in June 2017 after two well-reviewed seasons. Fans of the globe-trotting show — lauded for its multinational cast, stunning use of international locations and devotion to tackling LGBTQ characters and themes — responded with online petitions, social media call-outs and old-fashioned phone calls to Netflix urging a change of heart.

The result: The streaming giant agreed to producing an epic, movie-length finale special that reunited the sci-fi drama's cast and tied up loose ends. It was released this past June.


With files from Deana Sumanac and Alice Hopton.

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