Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why 'Community' Isn't Doomed...Yet

How could you let a cast this sexy be taken off television? Just look at that smouldering look Chevy's giving all of us!
Or, Why Community Doesn't Have To Be Cancelled, and How You Can Help!

Even though I tend to write about film on this site, it's not my sole interest. In fact, it may not even be my main interest anymore, since over the last couple of years I have found myself coming to the conclusion that television is the most fertile and interesting medium going (an idea I've explored in my articles for Hope Lies) and there are few shows that have delighted and surprised me as much as NBC's Community, a funny, heartfelt and insanely ambitious sitcom which has routinely and hilariously shifted the boundaries of what a comedy can do, with its mix of genre-bending episodes and a phenomenally talented and varied cast.

I love Community. I love it more than I love tea, walking through the park on a cool autumn morning, and the dead embrace of sweet lady morphine. I like it a lot, is what I'm trying to say. So it was with some dismay that I read the news yesterday that NBC had left Community off its midseason slate. (A decision that may or may not be the work of those bastards at City College. No confirmation on that as of yet.) Indeed, expressions of anger, fear and dismay have been the main responses to the news from the show's small but fiercely dedicated fanbase, and with good reason. The show has never been a huge hit and it has been "on the bubble" (a TV term meaning on the verge of cancellation) for much of the last two years, with its ratings this season, which saw a marked fall from its already meagre numbers last year, adding to the sense that the show was living on borrowed time. This announcement seems to confirm that the students of Greendale Community College may not be long for this world.

However, after the initial shock had subsided, I started to think about the situation more calmly, read the analysis of several critics that I follow (particularly Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club, to whom this whole post owes a great debt) and realised that things are not as bleak as they might first appear, and there is still a chance that Community might get renewed for a fourth season either on its own, or with the help of its fans. Let's break it down, but let me first say that

Community has not been cancelled

Sorry for the garishly large font, but I really cannot stress how important this is, especially when the news could easily be misconstrued as a cancellation. But the fact is that the show has not been cancelled, it has just had the airdate for the second half of its third season pushed back from January to...well, whenever. (Word has it that it might be late March, but that's just speculation at this point.) It's also worth pointing out that all the episodes that were scheduled to air will do so, so we aren't going to end up with a truncated third season, which is another point in favour of the show not getting cancelled in the short term; if NBC were dead set on getting rid of Community, they wouldn't commit to completing the season. At worst, they are taking a "wait and see" approach to the show, basing their ultimate decision on how it does when it comes back.

Now, that "whenever" is troublesome, because logic would dictate that if NBC were fully committed to the show, they would choose a date now, but the fact is that Community's fate is as reliant on how other shows perform as it is on its own ratings up to this point. The main reason that Community has been pulled is so that 30 Rock, which has been on a hiatus of its own due to Tina Fey's pregnancy, can return, and since the pretty good Will Arnett-Patricia Arquette sitcom Up All Night and the inexecrable Whitney did well enough to earn full season orders, it means that NBC's midseason slate is too full, and the low-rated Community was the logical show to drop.

I'm glad this show exists so I don't have to be mad at Will Arnett. However, it can burn in hell now, thanks.
So, does the success of these new shows mean that there is no chance that Community will get a fourth season? Not quite, and to understand why requires consideration of NBC as a whole.

NBC is currently going through a period of spectacularly terrible luck as far as its shows go, with a number of high-profile failures over the last couple of years (the most recent being the Maria Bello-headed remake of Prime Suspect, which has also been left off the midseason slate and will probably get put out to pasture) leading it to rely on shows like Community, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock since they are the closest thing they have to a sure thing, ratings-wise. Ten years ago, none of those shows would have made it past three episodes before getting pulled off the air since they get really low ratings, but because they all get great critical notices and command small but loyal fanbases who will watch every week, buy the DVDs and discuss the show online, they have kept those shows running for three, four and six seasons, respectively. At this point, NBC's

In the case of Whitney, which has become the punching bag of the Thursday night line-up on NBC on account of it being truly, truly horrible, that maxim has proved true once again. Despite debuting to good numbers and holding well enough to get a full season pick up, the show has seen steep declines over the last few weeks, and it is close to being at the same level that Community is. NBC are moving it to Wednesdays, a night that is ruled by comedies on ABC, so it seems that they have made the move as a way of killing it without it contaminating the shows around it on Thursdays. Whitney doesn't have the desirable fanbase that Community does, and as ratings have become increasingly less important and demographics and ancillary revenue streams more important, this is a big boon to Community.

If Whitney and the other new shows NBC has lined up (including the zeitgeist-riding decision to make a TV version of John Grisham's The Firm, because that is exactly what the world was asking for) fail, then Community will probably get renewed purely because NBC have almost nothing else to offer, and since the end of the third season will leave the show with just over a season until its 100th episode - the traditional line at which a show can enter syndication - it would make more financial sense to keep it around than to get rid of it, especially if Sony, who produce the show, can come up with a deal sweet enough to let NBC keep it around for a few years more, which is more or less the only reason that Chuck is still on the air, and that show is a piece of shit. (Yeah, I said it. Come at me, bro!)

All of this makes it seem like the ultimate fate of the show will be due to external factors over which the fans have no influence, and whilst that is true to an extent, there are things that we can do to save the show, and I'm going to list them right now, because who doesn't love lists? Anti-McCarthyites, I guess, but why bring them up at this time?

Keep watching the god-damn show!

This might seem obvious, but it really cannot be overstated that the best thing for the show is for its ratings to remain at the level they have been at (except for them to improve, obviously, but we'll get to that in a moment). Ratings are not the be all and end all that they once were, but they still matter to advertisers, and the more people watch the show live, rather than online or through their DVR/On-Demand service, the better chance the show has. Viewing it on other formats helps in a roundabout way, but since Nielsen only really monitor live broadcasts then that is what will decide the show's fate. Watch the show, watch it live, and watch it every week. At the very least, leave the TV on NBC when you go out for of a Thursday evening. It's a good way to scare off burglars.

Use the hiatus to your advantage

A show being taken off the air for an undetermined period of time seems fatal, but there is a recent precedent for a hiatus being of benefit to a show; Community's NBC stablemate, Parks and Recreation. The show began production on its third season in the summer of 2010, then went on an indefinite hiatus as a result of Amy Poehler's pregnancy, and at the time there was a sense that the show might get unceremoniously axed if the crass culture-clash comedy Outsourced became the hit NBC was searching for. In the end, Parks and Rec returned in January 2011 to some of its best ratings, considerable critical adulation and a fourth season renewal. Whilst the key difference here is that Parks and Rec hadn't started airing episodes when it went off the air, something which makes Community's position seem more treacherous, there are some shared features; the survival of the show relied on how other shows did, and the time away gave people the opportunity to catch up on its first two seasons so that when it returned there were more people ready to dive into the story of Leslie Knope and co.

This is where you can really help the show; tell your friends, lend them your DVDs, share funny clips from the show on Facebook and Twitter (or rallying cry-style blog posts like this one), make a fuss about it until they watch it or until they stop talking to you. If the show can come back to stronger ratings than it left on, then NBC will have more reason to renew it.

Now, having said all this, there is still every chance that Community will finish its third season and not come back for a fourth. If that's the case, then you know what? We got two seasons of great television out of it, a whole half a season yet that we haven't even seen, and if you at least try to convince people to check the show out, then you'll be able to say that you did your best to save it.

Or you could just sit back, put on a black felt beard and accept that we live in the darkest timeline. I, for one, am going to fight for Greendale!

Okay, that wasn't as inspirational as I hoped, so here's Jeff Winger making a better speech.