That reason is known as The Vegemite Effect, and I am here to explain it to you.
Vegemite, according to Wikipedia, is a dark brown savoury food paste made from yeast extract. It originated in Australia, and is now considered a national icon, but it has quite definitely failed to catch on with the rest of the world (despite being a yummy substance of goodness that should be known as the most awesome food in existence… but I digress).
Actually – no. I don’t digress. That last point was important. Why is it that Vegemite, which is really really delicious, is so despised by everyone who didn’t grow up in Australia? Is it racism? Aussie tastebuds being numbed by all the beer drinking? Cultural snobbery?
None of those, actually. It’s the salt.
I’ve met a number of Americans over the years, and no matter what I said or did, they all hated Vegemite with a firey passion. Until, one day, I suddenly realised how to get them to like it.
It goes something like this:
“Have you ever tried Vegemite? Yeah, it's this really salty stuff that you eat on toast, and it's pretty salty. You should try some - it's really nice, and really salty. Did I mention it's salty? Anyway, I'll make some toast, and spread some of this really salty Vegemite on it, and it'll taste kind of salty...”
As a general rule, I need to mention the word “salty” at least six times to get an American to like Vegemite when they first try it. Why? Because pretty much every time they have ever eaten something that you spread on toast, it will have been sweet. Jam, jelly, honey, peanut butter - all fairly high in sugar. And eating Vegemite for the first time is like putting a spoon of sugar in your mouth, and discovering it was actually table salt. A horrible experience.
This is what I call The Vegemite Effect: No matter how good something is, if you were expecting something else, you'll hate it.
It’s not just the horrible taste of salt, either. Expecting something to be salty and finding out it’s sweet will get the same reaction of disgust. Because you were expecting something else.
How can we see this principle in action? Well, staying with the food theme for a moment, let’s look at McDonalds.
I like good food. And, no matter what way you look at it, McDonalds does not sell ‘good’ food. But when I spent three months in Munich, I quite often ended up eating at McDonalds – even though I was surrounded by places selling authentic Bavarian cuisine. Why? Because as delicious as the Bavarian food might be, I hadn’t eaten it before, so I didn’t know what it would taste like until I started eating. Surrounded by a world providing me with more new experiences than I could handle, there was something incredibly comforting about ordering a Quarter Pounder meal, and knowing exactly what it would taste like before I even opened the bag.
People like food to taste like they think it will. This is why McDonalds will never go out of style.
As well as going to Munich, I’ve also been to Adelaide. Yes, that’s right – I braved the culture of a town a whole day’s journey away from Melbourne. It was pretty fun, actually. But their bus tickets sucked.
After getting home, I had a protracted argument with a South Australian friend about this issue. Surprisingly, she couldn’t see the obvious stupidity of their bus tickets – instead, she kept maintaining that Melburnian tickets were the crappy ones.
It took several hours before we realised that this was purely Vegemite Effect. As wonderful as Melbourne bus tickets are, an Adelaidian won’t see them that way, because they’re not like the tickets back home. And no matter how many times the virtues of Adelaide’s tickets are explained to me, I’m still going to be put off because they’re not like tickets are supposed to be.
Let’s move on to the much more interesting area of mass entertainment.
There is a very good reason why Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t do well. Rick Berman has been quoted as saying he was trying to make the show “dramatically different” from the normal Star Trek style. Well surprise, surprise – the fans didn’t want something different. This was supposed to be a prequel for the show they already loved, and it was messing with their ideas of what the backstory should look like.
Ever bought a cd by a band you loved, even though you hadn’t heard any of the songs on it yet? Chances are you probably liked it better the second time you played it. Because bands try to re-invent themselves slightly with every new album, it takes some time to get past the fact that it doesn’t sound like the old album did. Once you do, you might love it. Or you might hate it. But when you listen to it again, it will at least sound like you think it will – and that jarring Vegemitey reaction will be gone.
The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered as the best film in the Star Wars universe. But, interestingly enough, when it was first released, it wasn’t very well liked. People were expecting it to ‘taste’ like the original Star Wars, and when it tasted all salty they got annoyed. It was only when they rewatched it on its own terms that they realised how awesome it was.
There’s a reason that I don’t like the Harry Potter movies: they suck.
But as well as that, there’s the fact that scenes aren’t playing out the way I picture them. And Hermione’s hair is different to what I thought. And the Weasley twins should have dark red hair. And when they say “Expecto Patronum” they’re emphasising a different syllable to the one I do. And Lupin shouldn’t wear cardigans. And Voldemort’s eyes…
You get the idea. A lot of this stuff has nothing to do with the quality of the film, and everything to do with things being different from the way I thought they’d be. That’s pure Vegemite.
But the movies are still crap.
This is why blurbs, summaries, or previews (depending on the medium) are important. You don’t want to give away the plot, but you want the readers/viewers to know what they’re getting into – so that they won’t go in expecting one thing and then get smacked in the face with The Vegemite Effect halfway through.
Firefly was a victim of this, actually. Fox wasn’t quite sure how to market it, and they got their previews wrong. Viewers who might have liked it didn’t tune in, and viewers who did tune in watched an episode, went “Eww. It’s all… salty…”, and never returned.
Angel season 5 almost fell to The Vegemite Effect too. It was so dramatically different from the previous seasons that it took viewers quite a while to make the jump into the ‘nice Wolfram & Hart employees’ mindset. Thankfully, the fans had been through enough of the show by that time that they were willing to give it a chance, and wait until they got used to the new flavour.
The Vegemite Effect is weird, actually: the more popular and long-running a show is, the more likely it is to go all Vegemitey at people.
The reason? It’s been on for a while, so viewers know what they think it should be like. And it’s got a lot of viewers, so they can all talk amongst themselves, and reinforce each other’s expectations.
Take Buffy, for instance.
I started watching this show after it had already finished, so when I read episode reviews that people had written while it was still going, I got to see them from a having-seen-the-whole-thing perspective. And they’re fascinating.
It starts in season four: “Remember when Buffy was in high school? That was so much better...”
And continues in season five: “Remember when Buffy was in college every episode? That was so much better. And before that, when she was in high school? That was the best...”
By the time season seven arrives, it's got six other seasons to be compared with, and they're all different from season seven. It doesn't matter how good season seven is, it will never have as good reviews, because it's not what people were expecting.
This is even more noticeable because, by the time season seven started, the internet fandoms were out in full force, dissecting every element of Buffy the moment it arrived. And the fandom would make predictions about future episodes, establish a consensus between themselves about what they expected to see, and then complain when that wasn't delivered because “we weren't expecting this!” Thus the enormous attention paid to “the Scrappies”. Even by episode 14, some reviewers are still complaining that we aren't seeing enough of the Scrappies, even though we haven't seen them since episode 1, and the show never promised more of them. Regardless of how good the episodes are, at least three quarters of each review will be spent lamenting the absence of the Scrappies, and complaining that the show isn't delivering what the fans expected.
This, in my opinion, is the main reason why people tend to think the show wasn’t as good in the later seasons. It’s just getting Vegemitey.
The same thing happens with the introduction of Dawn.
She appeared at the start of season 5, so viewers were pretty confident that they knew how the storylines tended to go. And then Dawn arrived.
Not only did her appearance change the storylines, it also changed the characters around her.
Buffy, instead of being a slightly spoiled only child, was now wishing that she would get spoiled like her sister. And then, later in the season, morphing into a parent.
Xander, rather than being the slightly goofy guy, was now the cool guy who younger girls might have a crush on.
And so on.
All this stuff was really great - it showed us another aspect of the characters that we would never have been able to see. But it wasn't what we were expecting.
You’re trapped, really. As a writer, if you change things around occasionally, people will start complaining about the Vegemite everywhere. If you keep everything the same, you end up with Friends.
Of course, tv shows have an extra issue to deal with: multiple writers. Because each writer brings different things to the show, individual episodes will be markedly different from each other – and you’re in danger of viewers being Vegemited every single week.
No matter how good your show runners are at fitting it all together, the different styles will still make themselves known: I defy anyone with sense to confuse a Jane Espenson-written episode with one by Marti Noxon.
This is why I tend to pay close attention to the opening credits, these days. If I know going in who the writer was, I’ll have a much better idea of what to expect – and I’m much less likely to encounter The Vegemite Effect.
A change of medium can do it, too.
There are a lot of valid reasons not to like the Buffy Season 8 comics. Whether it be giant girls, bank robbers, or just a refusal to believe that someone could survive being skinned alive – it’s your choice. But quite a few people stopped reading early on, because the story was in comic book form. And it’s not that they think comic books are crap, exactly. It’s the fact that they’ve never really read comics before, so they don’t know how stories are supposed to ‘flow’. The story just isn’t hitting the same ‘four acts with ad breaks’ structure, so they can’t get into it. That’s Vegemite for you.
The Vegemite Effect is the reason franchises tend to work. If you go to a Die Hard movie, you expect to see Bruce Willis blow things up, lose his shirt, swear at idiot policemen, and say “Yippee Ki Yay!” a lot. And lo and behold, the franchise delivers. No Vegemite required.
It’s also the reason sequels tend to do badly. Studios know that, if they change anything, they risk viewers being Vegemited and annoyed – so they don’t change anything. And what happens? Everyone who sees the movie walks out complaining that “it’s just a rehash of last time”. You can’t win, really.
Of course, once you get past the Vegemite obscuring your vision, you might discover that the story really is crap, that the characters really are that uninspired, and the writers really should go into hibernation until they learn how to make a show that doesn’t require a lobotomy to tolerate. But you should always be conscious of your own potential to be Vegemited. Never let an unfamiliar flavour drive you away from something worth watching.
’Cause sometimes? Vegemite can taste pretty fantastic.