Must Shrug TV: Why It May Be Time to Let Community Go

NBC announced its midseason schedule yesterday; Community is not on it. I fear it’s not long for this world – something I hate to say that about my favorite current TV series, but I have to accept it. So much of the show works. It’s well-acted and well-written; the study group at the show’s core comprises a genuine ensemble of multi-faceted characters. Episodes teeter on a knife’s edge between absurd comedy and heartfelt drama without slipping into the excesses of either.

Community’s signature move is its theme episodes: full-length parodies of mafia movies, say, or of Westerns. One even spoofs the single-camera sitcom itself, in the form of a mock-mockumentary. Done poorly, these would be time-sucking detours, but writers and the cast have so thoroughly developed the characters’ relationships that even a show that overreaches or misses the mark enhances the series as a whole. There are bad episodes of Community, to be sure, but no unnecessary ones. It’s the first show in years where I make sure never to miss an episode.

If only more people felt this way. The website Metacritic gives Community a 69 percent favorable score among professional reviewers: not spectacular, but solidly respectable. It’s been nominated for Critics’ Choice awards and Entertainment Weekly’s Ewwys. Its 2010 Christmas episode won the Creative Arts Emmy for its stop-motion animation. But the Emmys have ignored it in the high-profile acting and Best Comedy Series categories. Forget victories – Community has never been nominated.

Awards don’t automatically translate to ratings or longevity, but they can help, and the show needs all the help it can get. Community’s ratings are abysmal. Worse, the very elements for which reviewers praise the series, the very reasons for which I enjoy it, are the parts that drive TV watchers away.

For me, the last show like this was Arrested Development – the go-to example of a show beloved by critics, but shunned by all but a tiny audience. And by the end of its run, Arrested Development hated its audience, or at least the audience that it felt it deserved. Third-season episodes were filled with tongue-in-cheek references to its unlikeable characters, its serialized plots and serialized jokes, and the underlying fact that the show couldn’t find an audience. Its cast and creators mostly blamed Fox; David Cross’ rant about Fox’s promotional incompetence on the second-season DVD collection is almost as well-known as the show itself.

But Arrested Development, and its audience, also targeted American television viewers for ignoring the show. As viewership plummeted through its third season from a combination of scheduling blunders, misconceived stunt casting and non-existent promotion, the show’s universe collapsed in on itself. Reviewers and fans became ever more strident in their insistence that the show was worth watching – to the point that it became the only show worth watching – while, at the same time, Arrested Development became its sole point of reference. A first-time viewer at the end of its run would have found the show almost impossible to untangle. By the time Fox burned off the final four episodes against the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics, its fans had become a clique for which liking Arrested Development became a marker of coolness – of being someone who “gets it.”

***

I still live at home, in a household that’s never had cable. There’s one TV – whatever one person’s watching, everyone watches. We’ve watched Community consistently for about a year now. My father and I usually drown out the TV with laughter when we watch Community. (Dad hated Arrested Development by the way.) But after we watched “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” the other week, my mother immediately flipped to CBS to catch what she could of The Big Bang Theory and whispered to my father sotto voce, “This show is so much better.”
It’s not that my mother dislikes Community. She thinks it’s clever. But she also thinks the characters are too mean and that it’s often gimmicky (theme episodes, continuity jokes, cultural allusions). After a while, she says, it all blends together. Her tastes are pretty ordinary, and for her, The Big Bang Theory is easier. Its laughter is more immediate, even if its humor isn’t as deep. She wishes she could watch both, but, given the choice, The Big Bang Theory will always win out.

I’ve only seen a few minutes of The Big Bang Theory, but from what I gathered, it’s utterly conventional sitcom fare. Broad; premise-driven; wacky hijinks. As it turns out, The Big Bang Theory is a Chuck Lorre production. Lorre is the creator of, among others, Dharma and Greg and Two and a Half Men, the television equivalent of classic-rock radio: decent time filler, repetitive and boring in large doses. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. Plenty of Americans never tire of classic rock, though; plenty of Americans never tire of Lorre’s shows, either. Since Two and a Half Men premiered in 2003, it’s never left the Nielsen ratings’ Top 20. The Big Bang Theory took a couple of seasons to build an audience, but its third and fourth seasons both cracked the Top 20 as well.

Impressive showings, especially for an era when TV reviewers pronounced the multi-camera sitcom dead. Last season, CBS moved The Big Bang Theory against Community’s 8:00 PM Thursday timeslot. At the end of the 2010-2011 television season, it was the 12th-most watched show overall, beating out Two and Half Men for the title of most-watched sitcom. Community paled beside it. Its season-end ranking was 115.

At the end of its second season, Arrested Development ranked 110 in the Nielsens. By the time of its cancellation, it had slipped to 123.

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It’s not as if Community is the sole dark spot in an otherwise-thriving NBC lineup. The network’s comedies have ranked last among the Big Three for years. In the 1990s, NBC’s Must See TV dominated Thursday night viewing with such hits as Friends, Frasier and Mad About You. Oh, and Seinfeld. But Must See TV’s ratings preeminence has long since evaporated. Actually, it’s not even Must See TV anymore. Since 2006, NBC has officially nicknamed its Thursday lineup Comedy Night Done Right, tacitly acknowledging its decline in popularity. If it can’t pull in the numbers, at least it can boast of its shows’ artistic quality.

NBC’s two prestige sitcoms – The Office and 30 Rock – are both single-camera workplace comedies. The former, an adaptation of the British series by the same name, takes Arrested Development’s mockumentary style one step further. Characters mug for the camera and address it directly as interview subjects. (Parks and Recreation, originally conceived as an Office spin-off, follows a similar format.) 30 Rock, in contrast, is a tightly-scripted behind-the-scenes peek at the television world as seen by former Saturday Night Live writer Tina Fey, a more sophisticated, more specific update of multi-camera workplace sitcoms like NewsRadio.

Both series, I should note, have received the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. The Office won it in 2006; 30 Rock took it in 2007, 2008 and 2009 – three seasons in a row. They’ve also garnered a slew of other awards and nominations, from Screen Actors Guild Awards to Peabodys to Golden Globes. If awards are any indication, NBC is indeed handling comedy night correctly.

And yet NBC definitely can’t pull in the numbers. The Office, its Thursday night flagship for its longevity if nothing else, was the block’s only show to crack the Top 100; it was the 53rd-most watched show of 2010-2011. Second-in-command 30 Rock only crawled to 106. Parks and Recreation, which premiered mid-year due to Amy Pohler’s pregnancy, ranked one slot below Community at 116. Outsourced reached 108 and got axed. I found no season ratings for Perfect Couples and The Paul Reiser Show, which disappeared almost immediately; NBC cancelled the latter after two episodes.

Why do people watch sitcoms? Relaxation, usually. Escapism. Therein lies the major structural flaw in NBC’s signature comedies: it’s hard to escape into them. The Office’s humor revolves around making the viewer cringe. Watching it can be a chore, a half-hour game of chicken with the remote. Despite its critical accolades, many people I know hate The Office specifically because they too closely recognize the characters. The show’s much-lauded realism nails the details of office work all too well, so watching it feels like work too. Conversely, it’s easy to tar 30 Rock as a show that “won’t play in the sticks,” but the issue isn’t so much its New Yorkiness as the vibe that it’s a show about sausage being made. It’s a television comedy about making a television comedy, populated by stars but also executives, writers, camera crews. Where The Office seems uncomfortably familiar, 30 Rock makes TV more distant, less relatable, by letting the electricians expose the wiring. Reviewers often evaluate shows by how much they want to hang out in their artificial worlds; by that token, watching 30 Rock can be like trying to relax on scaffolding.

Community takes NBC’s alienating tendencies to an extreme. Stylistically it’s a better match for 30 Rock than The Office, but its premise goes one stage further. 30 Rock is television about making television; Community is television about loving television. Abed, its breakout character, is a debatably-autistic pop-culture fanatic who relates to the world through his encyclopedic knowledge of television and film. Hardly an episode passes where he doesn’t state that “this situation is like (insert movie/show here),” so much that his cohorts sometimes beg him to stop. But all the characters, and the show itself, lean hard on references to popular culture – especially cult television shows. So far I’ve caught references to Firefly, Cougar Town and Doctor Who, and I know there are more.

To TV critics and the television-savvy, Community rewards them for the time they’ve spent paying attention to entertainment. It’s a show for hobbyists – or, to put it more harshly, for geeks. People talk about the mainstreaming of “geek culture”; liking science fiction or obscure pop-culture trivia has become socially acceptable. But that doesn’t mean that people identify with geeks. They just recognize their right to exist. It’s not that “middle America” doesn’t understand what makes Community funny; it’s that they don’t care. They don’t share the show’s fascination with its universe. To someone who doesn’t get its references, Community is at best come pleasantly quirky; at worst, it’s an arrogant gimmick. I understand why a lot of people would rather laugh at the geeks on The Big Bang Theory on Thursday nights than with them on Community: no one likes a smartass.

***

Recently I asked a friend at a party whether he’d ever watched Community. “No,” he answered immediately. “I don’t usually watch shows everyone’s telling me I should watch.”

Ultimately, Community is a show for and about fans. Not its fans, but fans in general: the way fandom works, the way fans filter their experiences through their interests and obsessions. It’s about subculture, and subcultures function around exclusion as much as inclusion. The study group forms a subculture of its own – witness how they test, and ultimately reject, potential new members. Their in-jokes, their preferences (mentioning the bland-but-inoffensive pop group Barenaked Ladies provokes naked rage), their awareness of their roles in the group: all are markers of how a subculture operates.
There’s a concept in TV known as the audience surrogate, the character who bridges the gap between the real world of the viewer and the imagined world on the screen.

For fans of Community, that’s Abed. He’s an unabashed fan of pop culture, an exaggerated version of the pop-culture fanatics that form the show’s fanbase; he’s who they “see themselves in.” But I’d argue that for most people, the surrogate is actually the people in the show outside the study group. Community has a large cast of supporting characters, and a recurring theme is that most of them dislike its primary ensemble. To outsiders, the group is elitist, smug, neurotic, and – most importantly – overblown far out of proportion to its actual importance. Its members see themselves as the center of the universe; its detractors (increasingly, nearly everyone else they encounter) see a bunch of jerks laughing at their own cleverness.

It follows suit that its fans often come off the same way. Again, that’s the nature of being a fan, but Community’s fans are especially vocal, especially on the internet. They evangelize in the comments sections of The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly, and other pop-culture sites, often ignoring the topic of the of the article they’re commenting on. Like Arrested Development fans before them, many of their remarks take the tone that Community is the only show that matters. Critics choose their words more carefully, but their attitude towards the show is often similar: it’s the underdog that should be a hit, the best show you’re not watching. Again, understandable – critics are fans who learned to make a living at it.

But for someone who’s never seen the show – or for someone who has and didn’t care for it – hype only drives them further away. Remember, in the 1960s most people weren’t hippies; in the 1970s, most people weren’t punks. We get that impression because the critics who documented those subcultures came out of them, but their historical influence doesn’t match up with those periods’ mainstream tastes. Likewise, Community feels inescapable to TV viewers because of its support from influential media outlets and its fans. But the “silent majority” of viewers simply don’t think the show is worth their time. It doesn’t invite them into its world; instead, it ridicules theirs. It’s a show for deliberately contrary, insular, stuck-up hipsters – a term that’s meaningless for anyone who’s actually part of a subculture, but the ultimate dismissal of subculture for those who aren’t. At best, an “ordinary” viewer could appreciate the group from the outside and laugh at them, but not with them. More likely, that viewer will respond with hostility towards a show they don’t get, don’t like, and don’t want shoved down their throat by a clique of snobs.

***

Remember S#*! My Dad Says? It lasted for 18 episodes last season on CBS right after The Big Bang Theory. The show was based on a marginally-amusing Twitter feed – the modern-day adult equivalent of Eighties kids’ shows about toys. Critics hated it; it defined lowbrow. Eventually, despite its success, CBS killed it.

Numbers aren’t everything. Still, I should point out that every episode of S#*! My Dad Says drew roughly twice the viewers of any episode of Community for the 2010-2011 season.
To its credit, NBC has been good to Community. Arrested Development suffered timeslot shifts, absent promotion, frequent preemption for special events (forget about gaining new viewers; dedicated fans couldn’t find it half the time) and second- and third-season cuts to the number of episodes. Community’s timeslot has been pretty consistent. It’s always aired on Thursday night, at 9:30 during its first season before moving to 8:00 for its second and third. Its first two seasons enjoyed full episode orders (25 and 24, respectively), and the network has allowed series creator Dan Harmon great leeway in indulging his conceptual whims. It hasn’t been stiffed on promotion, either.

Best-case scenario: NBC brings Community back from its hiatus to finish out the third season and renews it for a fourth, so the series can conclude its college arc. If the show could pick up some high-profile awards, too, that might put some pressure on the network to keep it in the schedule. (Not that awards are a magic bullet – Arrested Development won a pile of them, to no avail.) And if NBC does decide that the show’s through, I could see Harmon pitching it to another network. Probably not cable, whose 10- to 13-episode seasons wouldn’t suit a show that takes full advantage of its network-length runs. The best fit for it would actually be The CW. While it’s not known for its sitcoms, its schedule is filled with shows that inspire devoted fandoms, and many of its series enjoy long lives despite overall low ratings. And Community’s rapid, quip-filled style should be familiar to a network whose history includes, via The WB, Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The CW has its niche, and Community fits into it nicely.

Probably, though, it will disappear quietly. Community’s an expensive show to make; reviewers have commented that the running gag so far throughout season three about the college’s financial problems is a barely-veiled reference to the program’s reduced budget after last year’s season of concept episodes. If NBC gets to the point that it must cull established shows, Community’s an obvious target: high costs, very low returns. That’s the way it goes, unfortunately: art and economics usually don’t get along. Network shows have to sell advertising to survive. Fewer viewers mean fewer advertising dollars to go around; eventually, something’s got to give, and I think Community will be that something. NBC gave it a chance to succeed, but they can’t let it tread water forever.

I haven’t given up on the series entirely. I intend to catch every episode to the last. But I’m reminded of a quotation from Robert Herrick (misattributed to John Keats by Phil Hartman on NewsRadio): “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” I have to appreciate the show while I can, how I can, and accept that lasting success probably isn’t meant to be. I watch it online now, while the TV on Thursdays will be given over to The Big Bang Theory. You can’t force someone to love a show like Community, especially when they’ve already tried. No point in making it worse.

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