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|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Monday, 19 March 2012 03:16|
Last Thursday, a rabid cult of fans for NBC's largely unwatched (we'll get to that) but also largely adored Community had their every wish come true when the show came back from a mid-season hiatus. When the hiatus was announced, the devoted fans of the show took to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook decrying the decision by NBC to hiatus (yes, I am using that as a verb now) the much-adored show. Several twitter hashtags were born: the title of this article is arguably the most popular, but there was also #twelveseasonsandathemepark, #savecommunity, #thedarkesttimeline, #occupyNBC, and many, many more. Flash mobs were staged in support of the show (including evil Abed goatees), and hundreds of online critics and bloggers took to the webpage to speculate about what the hiatus could mean and to encourage others to get behind the show. A common theme in many of these articles and posts is that the show is simply too good to be cancelled.
Without a doubt, Community is one of the very best comedies on television right now (I would put it right up there with Parks and Recreation). What makes it great is actually somewhat hard to describe, but I'll give it a try here. To begin with, the show is really funny. I know this seems like an obvious point when talking about a comedy, but I have seen an episode or two of Two and a Half Men (the Charlie Sheen years) and an episode of Whitney, and didn't laugh a single time. Not so with Community. The laughs here are often and varied. You get physical comedy (see: mostly Chevy Chase as Pierce Hawthorne), satire (the recent take-down of Glee is a good example), and believably and endearingly flawed characters (everyone on the show). The show also taps into a cinematic and televisual pop-culture database that is very rewarding to fans of television and film alike. It does this with themed episodes and through the characters' experiences of life. For people who live with (some might say through) TV or movies, these references are infinitely satisfying and ultimately amusing. They range from an homage to mob movies (and specifically Goodfellas) in "Contemporary American Poultry," and a brilliant mirror of westerns in the first part of the paintball episode in season two, "A Fistful of Paintballs," and right down to repeated digs at the baffling success of Jim Belushi. The most recent gem comes from our beloved Annie Edison: "That's the Jim Belushi of speech openings! It accomplishes nothing, but everyone keeps using it and no one understands why." It is this kind of overly-referential content that seems to keep large audiences and bay but also draws the love of a good portion of dedicated viewers.
So much has been written on the perceived failure of the show (Todd VanDerWerff from The A.V. Club has a great article about the hiatus). Even more is being written now about its big comeback and how the ratings from last week's re-debut might bode well for the show's future (my favourite headline is from The National Post: "Community's return delivers Dean-alicious ratings for NBC"). I do not know enough about how the ratings systems work to really give an accurate picture about what all of the numbers (new and old) mean for the show. Instead, I would like to talk about a general problem that Community faces and the interesting situation it has created for itself.
When you ask someone who loves the show why you should watch Community, quite often, the answer you get is that the show is really ambitious. And it is, absolutely. The aforementioned use of satire and homage really elevate the show in a way that is not often (perhaps never) seen in 22 minute sitcoms. The show is very high-concept and often asks more of its viewers (which is something die-hard fans love about it). This is great if you love this kind of content (and clearly I do), but the problem is that television as we know it doesn't always work for high-concept art. Television is a medium of entertainment that relies on access to a very large audience of like-minded consumers. The funding model of network TV is one where advertisers pay a huge premium for space during a program, provided the network can prove they have X millions of people watching the show. Advertisers want access to those X million people so that they can take a shot at selling them commercial goods. The high-concept shows like Community attract a much smaller group of viewers than broad comedy like Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, and even The Big Bang Theory. Do not get me wrong here, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of comedy (well, there is something wrong with Two and a Half Men, but I digress). But the humor found in those shows is more likely to appeal to a mass audience than that of Community (at least at first blush).
There certainly are other shows that work with a high-concept or a highly cinematic style that is expensive to produce and attracts a smaller audience. I am thinking of The Sopranos, The Wire, Big Love, Six Feet Under, or Deadwood, but there are others. For the most part, the shows that have done this and succeeded have been dramas, not comedies. Even more telling, most of these shows are from HBO, which uses a very different model of financing than network television. HBO is subscription-based, meaning that individuals pay a premium to their cable provider to view the channel's content. The shows do not rely on commercial advertising to make a profit. HBO itself advertises this difference in their most famous slogan: "It's not TV. It's HBO."
Community doesn't air on HBO. It airs on NBC, a large network seeking viewership from millions of people who will buy consumer goods. In some ways, it is no wonder that the show has struggled to find a huge audience as measured through traditional ratings (the mystical Neilsen box method). The argument has been made that the type of people who love and watch Community aren't watching it live on a cable television hookup at all, and that is part of the problem for NBC. People are clearly streaming, legally and (more likely) illegally downloading, and consuming this content in ways that aren't being accounted for. We know this from that strong fan reaction that shows how many people care deeply for these characters and the product. This is NBC's problem, and one it should invest in solving. When you have a great product, and you have a willing (nay, demanding) audience, it makes business sense to find a way to bring the two together. It may not look like anything NBC has done before, but that just makes it more appropriate. Community pushes the boundaries of the television sitcom -- NBC should take that lead and find a way to push the boundaries of monetizing their content.
One interesting thing about television is that it is a serialized art form. Each week (or 22 weeks out of the year), the shows' creators produce an episode that exists within a season. The serial creation of new content and the development of characters and plots create a relationship between viewer and author that is very different than in most cinema. People care deeply about television. There has always been some amount of feedback between a show and its viewers (whether that feedback was through ratings numbers, sponsored product sales, or old-fashioned fan mail). But today, the creative team behind Community (and any show) has access to its most committed and invested fans through social media. Right now, you can tell the show's creator, Dan Harmon exactly what you thought of this week's episode on Twitter @DanHarmon. For the record, Dan, I thought it was a stellar episode that somehow managed to live up to all of our expectations and hype while also maintaining a "good ole Community" vibe -- a feat I am in awe of. My favourite line this week? Britta Perry's shameful admission that she "comes from a long line of wives and mothers."
This ability to interact with art (and its creators) at such a personal, direct level is a powerful tool that the Community team continues to use to the benefit of the fans. If there is a caution here, though, it is for all of us to remember that while technology moves at a rapid pace; large, old corporations do not. Here's hoping that NBC invests in trying to make Community as popular as we all know it should be -- using any means necessary.
Lauren Cheal is an Editor and Contributor at (Cult)ure Magazine. She really loves Shirley L. Jackson, the airplane bathroom story, Garrett, drinking cognac in the bath, and "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons." She can be reached for praise at lauren[at]culturemagazine.ca. You can also read her quoting Mary Wickes movies and view pictures of her awesome cats on Twitter @laurencheal.
Both Pierce Hawthorne and Dean Craig Pelton took home a (Cult)y award this year. It's no Oscar, but it is still an honour.
Tags: community, dan harmon, dean craig pelton is amazing, evil troy and evil abed, flash mobs are still happening apparently, jim belushi is the worst, jim rash, nbc, nerd culture is mainstream, occupynbc, release, save community, sixseasonsandamovie, social media, television, to hiatus, too good to fail, troy and abed being normal, twelveseasonsandathemepark, twitter