A seemingly insignificant little bit of news from the world of television came out last week when NBC announced its new fall lineup. The low-rated sitcom “Community” was renewed for 13 new episodes; however, it will be returning without showrunner and creator Dan Harmon who was, for all intents and purposes, fired.
Now before you tuck this away in your “I couldn’t possibly care less” file, I believe the plight of “Community” reflects a greater truth about the entire television landscape.
To paraphrase Harry Doyle: In case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the ratings you haven’t, “Community” is an ensemble comedy about a group of oddballs, non-traditional students at the weirdest community college on the planet.
The show has earned a very small, very passionate group of fans (myself included) for being exceedingly self-aware and loaded with pop-culture references. In its mere three seasons the show has pulled off entire episodes in the style of a zombie horror movie, a Ken Burns documentary, a Claymation special, “Law and Order,” a spaghetti western, an eight-bit video game, and “My Dinner with Andre,” a movie so obscure most shows wouldn’t even be bold enough to reference it, let alone dedicate an entire episode to it.
“Community” doesn’t always work, but when it does it flirts with brilliance. Even its failures are unlike anything else you’ll see on television.
But while the idiosyncrasies of the show appeal to me and roughly 37 other people it is clear its wacked-out nature makes it harder for “Community” to attract a larger audience.
Because the strange beauty of the show is pretty much from the singular vision of Harmon, it makes sense that NBC would give him the boot to make its product more accessible. Also, the rumor that Harmon is apparently a world-class jerk didn’t help his case any either.
So, the result will likely be a watered-down version of “Community” that will be nowhere near as bold or innovative which gets me to my broader point: broadcast television will likely never be bold or innovative again.
It wasn’t that long ago that networks held a monopoly on scripted television and since viewers had fewer options, riskier shows had an opportunity to grow into cultural forces.
Then came “The Sopranos,” and the cable floodgates opened, diluting viewership and pulling eyes away from the networks. With less pressure to attract ratings, a cable could foster more challenging, higher-quality shows.
With fewer discerning viewers, the networks were left to chase the lowest common denominator, which leads to bigger ratings, but leaves viewers much less passionate and engaged in the shows.
Looking at the top of the Nielsen ratings from last week, if you exclude the reality shows, the list comprises nothing but procedurals and broad comedies. Nary a “Seinfeld” or “Twin Peaks” to be found as the networks continue to take fewer and fewer chances.
The top-rated show last week was “NCIS,” a fine program I’m sure, but how many of your co-workers were standing around the water cooler the next day saying “Hey, did you see what happened on ‘NCIS’ last night?”
Odds are higher that they were talking about “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones” or some other show they watched on cable. Even though significantly fewer people watch those shows, the fact of the matter remains they are the only thing on TV worth talking about the next day.
This is why the neutering of “Community” is an important story even if you couldn’t stand the show because it represents another nail in the coffin of compelling network television.
As for the show itself, I offer up this epitaph for “Community” in the form of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson: It was too weird to live, and too rare to die.