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‘Community’: Why is no one watching TV’s best comedy?

Published: December 9, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.


Last month, the Internet—or at least pop culture blogs—collectively gasped as a result of the latest news from NBC: The struggling network was placing the sitcom “Community,” now in its third season, on indefinite hiatus after its Christmas episode.

Fans immediately feared the worst. Things looked—and still look—dire, with increasingly frequent whispers that the show would go the way of “Arrested Development,” another acclaimed comedy that was plagued by criminally low ratings and yanked off the air after three superb seasons.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer show. “Community” focuses on a ragtag study group at Greendale Community College, one of the most pathetic institutes of higher learning you’ll ever encounter. None of the group’s members actually want to be there, especially its de facto leader Jeff (Joel McHale), a lawyer disbarred after his undergraduate degree is revealed to be a fake. His study group (a “Community,” if you will) consists of a strange assortment of people. There’s annoying activist Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and oblivious millionaire Pierce (Chevy Chase), alike only in that they possess the ability to irritate everyone else in the group. There’s also deeply religious single mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), overachieving ex-pill popper Annie (Alison Brie) and former jock Troy (Donald Glover). Abed (Danny Pudi), a film student obsessed with pop culture, rounds out the group.

Aside from its setting, “Community” didn’t start off that differently from a show like “The Office” or any number of sitcoms. Strange, oft-conflicting characters forced to inhabit a single space? That’s a classic sitcom formula.
Gradually, though, the show increasingly laced its episodes with pop culture references and narrative tricks, becoming more and more self-referential and meta. One episode served as an homage to “My Dinner with Andre,” while another explored the concept of alternate timelines using Greendale’s finest. Abed once predicted the end of an episode based purely on his own encyclopedic knowledge of TV tropes.

In short, “Community” became something more than the average sitcom—it’s perhaps the closest thing the sitcom world has to a purely auteurist vision, with the show springing largely from the mind of its creator, Dan Harmon.
As the show has become brazenly experimental, its acclaim has only increased—yet, at the same time, its ratings have only dropped. In its first season, “Community” averaged five million viewers, barely cracking the top 100 at the end of the season. This year, that figure has dropped to 3.7 million viewers, lower than the viewership of NBC’s most recently canceled program “Prime Suspect.”

Why such a disconnect between ratings and reviews? The answer may lie in one of the show’s chief strengths: its sense of humor.

In some ways, “Community” is the epitome of postmodern television, deconstructing the usual character types found on sitcoms while simultaneously employing them. Critics and fans have gobbled this up; one person I know is even writing her senior thesis on “Community,” using narratology as a lens.

If history is any indication, though, the typical viewer is not exactly entranced by the show’s penchant for meta humor. While the show is certainly unique, its spirit is not unlike that of “Arrested Development” or “30 Rock,” neither of which have ever had a large audience. “Arrested” barely lasted three seasons, while really only the star power of Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin has helped keep “30 Rock” alive through its sixth season. Unfortunately, “Community” possesses neither the stars nor the award-winning prestige of these examples.

With “Community” seemingly destined always to remain a cult favorite, fans have every right to be worried about its future. Today, most shows peak during their first or second season in terms of audience; if a show isn’t immediately a hit, it’s lucky to last 13 episodes. When there was less competition, networks could afford to let shows like “All in the Family” or “Cheers” grow an audience. With TV viewing increasingly fractured among hundreds of channels, there’s little opportunity for that to happen.

It’s not all bad news for “Community,” though.

Ostensibly, it will return at some point this spring, as 12 episodes remain unaired. Additionally, the show is owned by Sony, an anomaly in an environment where networks primarily order shows produced by their partner studios. This means that Sony, having no connection to NBC, will be more likely to strike a deal in terms of the show’s budget, because “Community” needs at least one more season before Sony can sell it into syndication. The same thing happened to the much maligned sitcom “’Til Death,” which lasted four seasons on Fox only because Sony essentially paid the network to keep it on the air.

Considering that NBC has little in the way of marquee shows, it may also be in the network’s interest to keep a show on-air that at least has a cult following. Few of its other shows can claim even that.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t gotten the chance to check out “Community” yet, do so now. After all, isn’t catching up with TV what winter break was designed for?