Monday, March 16, 2009

20 YEARS OF FC DE KAMPIOENEN - THE SECRET OF ITS SUCCESS





As I write this post, we're hard at work on the 20th season of Flanders' premier sit-com, FC De Kampioenen. It may not be the world's longest-running sitcom, but it's getting close. And it's been on top of the ratings for most of its run.

So what are the elements that make this series such an incredible success?

I've 'only' been with the series from the very end of season 2 (in 1991), so I wasn't there when it was devised (though I was heavily involved in the changes and evolutions the series went to from season 3 to 12, and again from season 18). But I have heard from the people who were involved with its inception (producer Bruno Raes, director Willy Van Duren and script-editor/executive Luc Beerten, working on a concept by Willy Van Poucke and Peter Cnop) what elements they deliberately introduced to make the series an almost surefire hit.

1) A POPULAR TOPIC

FC De Kampioenen is a series about a soccer team. Soccer is Belgium's national sport (together with cycling). So there's a huge inbuilt audience who like the sport ànd who enjoy comedy.

2) AIMED AT MEN AND WOMEN

FCDK (as we call it around the office) is a comedy about a sports team - and about the relationships of the people who make up the team. In fact, many episodes don't even feature the soccer element at all and are purely relationship comedy episodes. The wives and girlfriends of the (featured) team members get as much air time as their menfolk. So someone who doesn't like sports (ummm... like me, for instance) can still enjoy the show as soccer is only part of the appeal.

3) UNDERDOGS

De Kampioenen (the Champions) are the worst of the worst soccer team in the country. The basic concept is that they always lose their matches. Of course, over the years they've won their fair share, but only when the team was in danger of being disbanded, or they had a huge stake. Despite their loser status, the Kampioenen still enjoy playing, hanging out together in their bar and there's always at least one character who dreams of sporting triumphs.

This underdog mentality is very typical for Flanders. The underdog immediately gets sympathy. But, and this is pretty specific for Flanders, I think, the underdog shouldn't ever become a top dog. They can have their occasional successes, and they certainly shouldn't become whiny and depressed about their failures, but if they were to overcome their weaknesses and triumph continually, the audience would lose interest in them.

4) SURROGATE FAMILY

The couples and families who make up the universe of FCDK form a surrogate family of people who like each other and enjoy each other's company. There may be intense conflicts during an episode, and some of the characters are pretty abrasive, but the pervading emotional framework is one of acceptance and friendship. It's fun to be part of the Kampioenen, and that's what the audience relates to.

5) AN EXTERNAL ENEMY

This is a crucial point. The cohesiveness of the group is increased by the threat of a (largely ineffectual) external enemy who wants the Kampioenen out of his life (and who generally covets their soccer playing field as well). These enemies might be wily and clever, but never form a real threat as they are too flawed to ever see a plan of theirs come to fruition.

Without the external enemy, the universe of the Kampioenen is too one-sided. A Dutch remake/rip-off of the series, FC Victorie, copied many of the characters but neglected to include an external enemy in the mix. The resulting series barely lasted a season if that. The reason: lack of conflict in the basic set-up.

6) A LARGE CAST

FCDK has a cast of +/- 10 main characters. That is a LOT. In fact, it's too much - but on the other hand, this voluminous cast makes sure that there are many character types in the mix, that the writers have many options for generating stories (though some characters have been less well served than others over the years), and, intially, the characters also covered the age-groups from 20 to 45, appealing to a large part of the audience. (Twenty years later, most of the original actors are still in the series, so this initial spread has fallen by the wayside a bit).

And then there are the elements which popped up as the series developed:

7) FOR ALL AGES

The series is intended for a family audience, although its primary focus is on the adult viewer - there are a lot of double entendres and sex jokes. But there's also a lot of slapstick and comedy of errors. And over time many of the characters have become more extreme in their comedic archetyping, they appeal more and more to younger viewers (even as the actors grow older). The very succesful comic strip series (which the makers of the show have nothing to do with) also increases the popularity of the series and the characters with a very young audience.

8) VARIED STYLES OF COMEDY

As I already mentioned, the series has a very wide palette when it comes to possible styles of comedy. There's farce, slapstick, comedy of errors, double entendres, word gags, occasionally even absurdist humour and metafictional self-reference. This means that there's something for everyone here, and that the series can accomodate many different registers. Truth be told, though, slapstick and sex gags always get the loudest response from the audience...

And finally

9) LUCK AND TIMING

The series came along at the right time - there were no other Flemish sitcoms on air, and the creative decisions (with regards to cast, style etc.) appealed to the audience. That's always a gamble, one which in this case paid off.

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