People come to Comic-Con International to gawk. The reason everyone always has their smartphone in their hand isn’t because they’re texting, it’s because they want to be able to snap photos of celebrities they spot. It’s as much of a con tradition as sleeping in line and posing with superheroes. But this year, fans weren’t just looking at the TV and movie stars on the panels—they were also staring at the moderators.
The big Hall H Comic-Con panels generally call in magazine writers (hi!) or other industry types—or, more often than not, perma-host Chris Hardwick. This year’s convention, though, brought a much stronger moderation game. Damon Lindelof emceed the Twin Peaks panel. Patton Oswalt handled Stranger Things. British chat show host Jonathan Ross moderated Fox’s panel for Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Reggie Watts oversaw the Q&A for Westworld. And, in a particularly fun and bold move, Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews moderated Netflix’s movie panel featuring Bright and Death Note. All those gatherings were, to put a fine point on it, a lot livelier.
Some were even more poignant. Lindelof, for example, opened the Twin Peaks with a remarkably personal—for Comic-Con Hall H panel, anyway—story about growing up “a quirky misfit” in the 1990s and finding a sense of belonging thanks to David Lynch’s bizzarro show. “Suddenly, I was no longer alone, I was in Twin Peaks,” Lindelof said, proudly displaying his “Damn Fine Coffee” T-shirt. “It turned out I was not the only weirdo obsessed with the goings-on in this small town on the border of Washington State and the Black Lodge. Twin Peaks not only thrilled us, it inspired us. There would be no Sopranos without Twin Peaks, no X-Files, no True Detective, no Broadchurch, no Fargo, no Stranger Things, and, most certainly, no Lost. I owe my entire career to this incredible show—and I couldn’t think of a better place to say that out loud than in Hall H in San Diego in a room full of weirdos just like me.”
Watts, for his part, was pure Watts, addressing the Westworld panel with the same weirdo stream-of-consciousness patter that’s become his comedy signature: “I have a couple comments to make, first of all. Level of detail in the world? Incredible. That makes me relax when I watch a show. The way people are holding their weapons correctly is really nice. The size of a hat and the way it’s worn, the angle of the head of the person, is a huge deal. Having really believable user interfaces on small tablets which can fold up to a really convenient size that can be put into a back pocket very quickly—and then throwing away that technology because “we don’t need to explain that”—is also a welcome addition. When the actors freeze and the camera continues to pan, but they’re still perfectly frozen? That’s amazingly well done. There’s a little nub on the bottom of the barrel of some of the pistols which I conclude is a differentiator between androids and humans, that little device there; I’m probably wrong, I just like to say things like that. Overall, i’d just like to thank you guys for creating a show that doesn’t pander.”
Call it prestige convention programming. As the outcomes of con panels become more and more predictable—or in the case of shows like Twin Peaks and Stranger Things, more opaque because of the mysterious nature of their subject matter—a compelling moderator can keep things from getting stale. Oswalt did it during the Stranger Things panel by taking jabs at Finn Wolfhard’s porn-y name; Crews did it by making his sizable pectorals dance during the Netflix movie panel. And, in a wonderful bit of meta-ness, Kristian Nairn (aka Hodor) did it by asking which dead characters the Game of Thrones cast would like to bring back from the dead during the GOT panel. (Fun fact: Not everyone immediately said Hodor.)
To be sure, having a killed-off cast member moderate the panel of the show they used to be on can feel a little bit like wearing the band’s T-shirt to their concert—it’s a little insider-y, maybe even self-serving. (A few years ago, George R. R. Martin moderated the panel for Game of Thrones and made references to how much he loved Dianna Rigg, who had just been cast as Lady Olenna Tyrell. It was … uncomfortable.) But at the same time, the moderator’s podium can be a place to bring back long-lost characters or let famous fans get to ask the questions. And sometimes it can do both—like when Shannon Purser (aka fan-favorite Barb) popped out of the crowd to ask the first audience question during the Stranger Things panel.
Of course, 2017 wasn’t the first year for bold-faced-name moderators. Last year, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Rob McElhenney moderated the Thrones panel (Seth Meyers did it the year before that) and director Kevin Smith handled Preacher (this year, the latter was moderated by Hardwick). And a couple years ago Conan O’Brien handled the emcee duties for the Hunger Games panel. But this year the featured guests seemed like a much more curated list than in years prior. It was like a DJ Khaled album.
Granted, bringing on a few smart moderators does not a revolution in programming make. But if 2017’s line-up is indicative of a shift, it’s a positive one. As Comic-Con’s clout grows—and as the standard convention panel format gets increasingly predictable—something is going to have to be done to make going to Hall H, or any meeting room, worth the long lines and hassle. Adding Terry Crews to the mix isn’t the only way to do it, but when a table of stars is trapped in a room full of people asking questions they can’t really answer, the dancing pecs are a nice distraction.