TELEVISION: What’s next for “Community?”

by Couch Sessions

Let’s welcome our newest SCREEN (Television and Film) writer, Chris Kelly. Chris comes to us from PostCultural and lives in Washington, DC.

If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, Community is the show about sitcoms. Since its first episode, it has been a meta commentary on the very concept of “meta.” It deconstructs the tropes that decades of television have established, and it does it with a fantastic ensemble cast and some of the funniest writing on TV. Community challenges the audience’s expectations about what a sitcom is and can be.

Unfortunately, audiences don’t want to be challenged, at least not by sitcoms (premium cable dramas are a different story). Community is in rarefied air; the show closest to its intellectual exercise is 30 Rock. Before that, there was Arrested Development, and we all know how that turned out.

With this in mind, the news of Community’s absence from NBC’s midseason schedule should not surprise anyone. Even as the show has gotten better, moving further down the rabbit hole and certifying show creator Dan Harmon as an evil genius, ratings have declined. It averaged 5 million viewers in the first season, down to 4.48 million the next, and finally 3.68 million this season. Those are extremely low numbers, even for NBC, the fourth place network. Ironically, NBC’s across-the-board struggles may be keeping the show alive.

This year, the Thursday night comedy block has consisted of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, and the incongruous throwback Whitney. With 30 Rock’s midseason return and Up All Night’s promotion from Wednesday to Thursday, NBC was left with six shows for four slots. The network continues to stand by its heavily promoted Whitney, shifting it to Wednesday with the similarly-schlocky Are You There, Chelsea? leaving Community as the obvious choice for the bench.

NBC could have avoided this, if they had stuck with an old idea instead of scrambling for something new. At midseason last year, NBC tried a three-hour comedy bloc, featuring Community, Perfect Couples, The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Outsourced. The experiment failed because Perfect Couples and Outsourced were weak offerings, but Up All Night and (the already cancelled) Free Agents would have been perfect fits for a three-hour powerhouse of comedy. Instead, we’re left with this. C’est la TV.

As of now, Community hasn’t been cancelled, and production hasn’t stopped (as it has for fellow benchwarmer Prime Suspect). So is there any hope? Some, thanks to the financial windfall that is syndication. Traditionally, shows needed to cross the 100 episode barrier before being sold to syndicators; these days, 88 episodes will do the trick. Community is about a season and a half away from making Sony Pictures Television a lot of cash, giving the production company an incentive to lower its price for NBC (possibly by cutting production and cast costs).

Could NBC decide to ax Community, only to see it show up on Netflix or Hulu? Community is an established property, but clearly without the audience share that its fervent fan base would suggest. Netflix seems like a better fit, if only because of their willingness to spend and their desire to bring Reno 911 back from the dead. To this point, however, streaming revivals have all been hypothetical, and don’t count on Community to break that trend.

Six seasons and a movie seems unlikely at this point, but fans should find solace in the fact that Community made it this far. Challenging audiences isn’t easy, yet Harmon and company continue to raise the stakes, week after week. And if cancellation is imminent, just imagine how meta things will get. If the final season of Arrested Development is any indication, impending doom is a great motivator for television excellence.