Combustible Celluloid
With: Amy Acker, Scott Bakula, Adam Bartley, Donald P. Bellisario, Tom Fontana, Eric Goldman, Gray Jones, Jason Katims, Jeff Knoll, Zachary Levi, Tory Mell, Matthew Miller, Nichelle Nichols, Jonathan Nolan, Pamela Nordick, Daniel Ornstein, Greg Plageman, Rod Roddenberry, Barney Rosenzweig, Trevor Roth, Kaily Russell, Gil Sery, Dan Shotz, Jonathan E. Steinberg, Dorothy Swanson, Rob Thomas, Harry Thomason, Bjo Trimble, John Trimble, Skeet Ulrich
Written by: Michael Sparaga
Directed by: Michael Sparaga
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 97
Date: 03/15/2019

United We Fan (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

TV of Interest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Michael Sparaga's documentary United We Fan captures that warm feeling that happens when misfits and outcasts discover that feeling of belonging at, say, a Science Fiction or Comic Book convention. Creators of much-loved TV shows and their passionate fans come together in a feeling of mutual appreciation. The only real bad guys are the money-obsessed, clueless, uncaring network executives, who are barely even depicted here. This is a love-fest for us nerds.

The documentary tells the story, mainly, three parties who started letter-writing campaigns to save their favorite TV shows. The first, the couple John and Bjo Trimble, are well-known as they walk through a convention hall, getting hugs from Star Trek fans and creators alike. (Well, almost well known... when the interviewer asks some random passerby, they all assume he meant to say "Tribble.") The Trimbles knew Gene Roddenberry and were guests on the set of the original 1966 show. When they discovered that their favorite show wouldn't see a third season, they began their campaign, and saved the day. (None other than Nichelle Nichols appears here to express her gratitude.)

Later, when the 1980s show Cagney & Lacey was facing cancellation, fan Dorothy Swanson began her own campaign that was also successful. She formed an organization called Viewers for Quality Television that set out to protect other, superior shows that were misunderstood or mishandled by the networks. Quantum Leap (a grateful Scott Bakula appears) and Designing Women both benefitted from their efforts. Her story takes a twist as she befriended certain writers and producers and was then expected to like and get behind all of their subsequent efforts.

We also meet young Kaily Russell, who tells her painful story of shyly attempting to come out as a lesbian in her small town, being bullied, and retreating into an introverted life, working at Wal-Mart. She connected with two characters on the show Person of Interest, Root (Amy Acker) and Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), and began her own campaign to save it from cancellation. She found a new lease on life after collecting some 80,000 signatures. Acker, show creator Jonathan Nolan, and producer Greg Plageman all appear.

More recently, these show-saving campaigns have become more common, and United We Fan can't cover all of them, but it spends a little time on Jericho (Skeet Ulrich is here, as well as the story of the famous "nuts" campaign), Longmire (actor Adam Bartley appears, along with his aunt, who helped save the show), Chuck (a Subway sandwich stunt piqued the attention of network executives, and Zachary Levi appears), and, of course, the Kickstarter campaign that funded the movie version of Veronica Mars (the documentary doesn't mention that, despite its small budget, the movie flopped).

Sparaga maintains a positive vibe throughout, and takes enough time to really get to know some of these folks, their sweet little quirks, their regrets, etc. The creative people that took time to be involved are totally endearing with their humility; they are all genuinely touched that their work is so well and fully appreciated. There's even a cultural anthropologist to explain that while, yes, it's just TV, the emotions we feel while connection to characters are absolutely real. It's one of the rare documentaries that you wish would go on a little longer, so we could spend just a little more time with these folks. But, after it's over, there are always new (and old) TV shows out there to discover, and new friends to be made.

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