Monday, May 14, 2012

The Weirdest Timeline: The Complicated Nature of Community's Fourth Season Renewal

Back in November, I wrote about NBC's decision to hold the second half of Community's third season back until a later date, one which, at the time, was undetermined.The aim of that article was to establish why the news was not necessarily a sign that the cultishly adored sitcom was in imminent danger of being cancelled, and that everyone should calm the fuck down already.

As it happened, things seemed to work out pretty well for the little show that could, but would rather not: Community came back in March to better ratings than it had left with, the producers signed a syndication deal with Comedy Central, and the show was as ambitious and nutty as it had ever been. Everything seemed great, and the news last week that the show had been renewed for a fourth season came as a real vindication for both the show and the fans who had kicked up such an almighty fuss online trying to keep the red-headed stepchild of NBC's comedy line-up alive. (Which stands in contrast to our opinion of actual red-headed stepchildren, who we would all just as soon beat to death with a sack full of doorknobs.)

Yet just as its disappearance from the schedule last winter wasn't entirely bad in terms of the future of the show, this renewal is not entirely good. There are a a metric ton of caveats attached to the proposed fourth season, all of which make this news less of a slam-dunk than it might at first appear. Conversely, the seemingly bad things about the renewal, the ones that suggest that it is not long for this world, could also be considered positives, depending on how you interpret them. It's all very confusing, so in the spirit of the earlier article, I'm going to try to sift through the conflicting opinions to give a clearer sense of where things stand with Community. Also, to break it down into the clearest possible terms, I'll be using the foolproof metric of "That's Good! That's Bad!", as established in this classic scene from The Simpsons.

Community Has Been Renewed For A Fourth Season


It really can't be overstated just how great, not to mention unlikely, it is that Community has been renewed for a fourth season. The show has never been a ratings hit (it debuted to a mere 7.89 million viewers back in 2009, and now struggles to get 4 million on a weekly basis) and has pretty much had to fight for its life every year that it has been on the air. This year seemed like a particularly tough fight, though, since it came back to a distressingly low 3.93 million, a full million viewers lower than its second season premiere, and it never seemed to recover from those faltering steps.

This was not a problem unique to Community, since all of NBC's comedy series were down from the previous year, but since Community didn't have the Emmy-winning prestige of 30 Rock, or the advantage that Parks and Recreation has of being an in-house production for NBC (Community is produced by Sony), its low ratings seemed to leave it particularly vulnerable to being axed, especially since new shows Whitney and Up All Night seemed like they might break out and become decent hits for the network. (Though, in the end, neither show did match their early promise, which makes their renewals this week almost as surprising as Community's. But I digress.)

So, for the show to come back after what has been a very rocky couple of months is wonderful news. Getting any episodes of the show is infinitely better than getting none at all, so it is really great to see that the show is coming back. However...

It's Only Getting 13 Episodes, Rather Than 22


Most TV series that air on the major networks in America run for between 22 and 24 episodes a season, giving them enough episodes to run pretty much continuously - barring holidays, sporting events or the network just deciding not to air them - from September to May. Occasionally you will get shows that start with a 13 episode first season as they are brought in as mid-season replacements to take the place of a show that failed in the interim (Buffy The Vampire Slayer is probably the most famous example of this), but generally speaking, once a show has got past the hurdle of its first season, they tend to get renewed for the full 22 episodes in each subsequent one.

However, this time around Community has only been given a shortened order of 13 episodes, which could suggest that NBC have renewed the show to give it one last shot at finding an audience, whilst also giving themselves the option to pull the plug without having to foot the bill for a further nine episodes and all the accompanying marketing. NBC has picked up a heap of new comedies this year that executives hope will provide them with the hits that have eluded them since the early '00s, and if any of them do particularly well, then they might decide to clean house and get rid of shows like Community that, realistically, have had way more chances than anyone could have possibly expected.

That's certainly one interpretation of the 13 episode renewal, and one that is incredibly possible, if maybe not necessarily likely, but I tend to view it as NBC hedging its bets, rather than showing a lack of confidence in Community. NBC is a mess right now. In the last ten years they have gone from being a critical and commercial juggernaut, when they had long-running hits like Friends, Frasier and ER, to consistently finishing fourth of the four major networks, with some of its programming being outperformed by that aired on Univision, a Spanish language network. They have routinely struggled to launch new shows in the last five years, and the main reason that Community has lasted as long as it has is because it has a small, dedicated audience who are incredibly desirable to advertisers.

There's no guarantee that the new crop of shows will develop large or devoted audiences, but the last three years have proven that Community fans (who I assume must be called Communists) will stick with the show come rain or shine, and so the 13 episode order could be their way of covering their bases. If none of the new comedies do well, they have the option to order the so-called "back 9" episodes for Community to take the show through the Spring. (Plus, if NBC weren't contemplating ordering more episodes for the show, they probably wouldn't have scheduled it for the Fall. If they were really intent on killing the show, well, they would have cancelled it when they had the chance, but they also could have put it on in the Spring when there wouldn't be enough time in the schedule for them to order more episodes beyond the initial 13.)

The same strategy was applied successfully to Chuck, which was given 13 episode orders for its third and fourth seasons, then had those numbers bumped up to 19 and 24 episodes, respectively, after the show maintained its viewership. The same could very well happen to Community, especially since...

Community Is Getting Moved To A Much Less Competitive Time Slot


One of the reasons that Community has struggled over the last few years is that it has aired directly opposite CBS's The Big Bang Theory, one of the most popular sitcoms currently airing and one which, given its propensity for geeky pop culture references, has a fair deal of audience overlap with that of Community. 8pm on Thursdays has long been a danger zone for any show that isn't The Big Bang Theory, an idea that was underlined when 30 Rock returned from its prolonged hiatus in that timeslot and struggled to match the numbers that Community had been getting, even though 30 Rock has traditionally been the more popular show. The timeslot is pretty toxic, and some have suggested that the fact that even one of the network's verteran shows couldn't hack it there might have bolstered the case for Community's renewal this time around. Maybe the show could do better if it had a better timeslot.

So, when NBC announced yesterday that they were moving Community from this killer (in a bad way) time slot, it seemed like a vote of confidence for the show. Or it would have, if the show was not being moved to 8:30pm on Fridays, which is a problem because...

Friday Is The Elephants' Graveyard of Television


With a very, very few exceptions (one of which I will mention in a moment), no shows do well on Fridays, to the extent that the night is considered to be an accursed place where shows are sent to die an unmourned death. That might sound melodramatic, but there is ample evidence to support the idea, as this list of shows which were cancelled after debuting on Fridays or after being moved there demonstrates. It has reached the stage where most networks don't even put original programming on Fridays, choosing instead to air re-runs rather than risk putting new shows on that could get slaughtered. This could be NBC's way of moving Community to a time when absolutely no one will be watching, then quietly putting it out of its misery.

Except that might not be the case at all. In fact, it could be NBC's way of keeping the show alive. Sure, Fridays have long been considered a wasteland on network television, but the lack of competition has actually benefitted some shows by allowing them to be the most viewed show on the night with a fraction of the viewers that would be required to do that on any other night of the week. The most obvious example of this phenomenon would be Fox's Fringe, which moved to airing on Fridays partway through its third season.

Fringe debuted to good numbers in 2008, but steadily declined to the point where, when it was airing on Thursdays, it look to be in serious danger of cancellation. Fox moved it to the much less competitive Friday and it maintained its small viewership, but it did so on a night where its relatively meagre numbers looked more impressive. It's the difference between a small, relatively unknown band trying to play the main stage at Glastonbury, then that same band playing a gig in a local club; if the same number of people show up both times, in one scenario the crowd looks paltry and sparse, but in the other you've got a sold out venue. Within the barren context of Friday nights, Community could, well, not thrive exactly, but at the very least not fall down in the street and die.

At this point, all Community needs to do is bring its fans over to Friday nights - where it could also do double duty helping to prop up Grimm, one of the few bright spots on the NBC schedule - and it could happily play on Fridays for a few more years as Fringe did. Considering the dedication the fans have shown to the show thus far, that seems very possible, even if the absolute best case scenario - that the show does what The X-Files did and becomes an improbable hit despite airing on Fridays - seems incredibly unlikely at this point.

Then again, the time slot might prove to be the least of Community's problems, since there are rumours swirling that...

Dan Harmon Might Be Stepping Down As Showrunner


As news was breaking that the show had been renewed for a fourth season, it also became apparent that creator and showrunner Dan Harmon had yet to sign a new contract with Sony, the studio behind the series. Apparently serious talks have yet to happen between the two parties, which makes sense since they didn't know that they had been renewed until a few days ago, and it may be the case that we get an announcement in the next few weeks saying that Harmon has signed and everything is hunky dory.

Yet during a conference call relating to the renewal, NBC President Robert Greenblatt said, in response to questions about Harmon's contract, that, "Shows lose showrunners all the time and do well. We have to figure out [wh]at makes sense[...]I think he’ll be involved in the show to some degree." As that last sentence suggests, it may be that, were Harmon to continue with the show, he would do so as a consultant, rather than as the day-to-day showrunner. (Though any change is probably due to the demands of the show on Harmon, which are considerable, rather than bad publicity surrounding his feud with Chevy Chase - who also may or may not be returning, but probably will be back - it's hard to imagine that won't at least be a factor, however minor, in the negotiations.)

What could this mean for the show as a whole? Well, it could mean everything or nothing. As Greenblatt pointed out, showrunners leave shows all the time, and in a lot of instances the damage done is pretty minimal. In the early days of The Simpsons, for example, a new showrunner (or showrunners, as in the case of writing teams like Mike Reiss and Al Jean, or Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein) would be appointed every few years, and the show rarely suffered from the change, largely because the writing staff of the show were of a sufficient quality that the show could weather the change in regime each time. (That is, unless you subscribe to the theory that the show went downhill as a result of Mike Scully being appointed showrunner. Personally, I think that any decline in the show came from the fact that it had been going for eight years by the time Scully took over, and was probably due to general fatigue. Though the confluence of events is hard to deny.)  

Community itself has already seen a lot of turnover in its three seasons, with new writers joining the staff between season one and season two, and again between season two and season three. Given the news that producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan (the namesakes of Fat Neil and spilt human Garrett on the show) will be leaving the show this year, an influx of new talent will probably be on the cards again. Since the heavy lifting of establishing the characters, style and tone were done in the first season, it may be the case that Harmon stepping down, either into a consulting role or altogether, might have relatively minimal impact.

On the other hand, Harmon's fingerprints have been all over Community since the beginning, and the level of obsessive control he has exerted over every aspect of the series suggests that the show would have an awkward time adjusting to any change in his involvement, especially if he decides to walk away from the show entirely. There are examples of shows losing obsessive showrunners and soldiering on in the past; Aaron Sorkin being forced off of The West Wing after its fourth season, David Milch being fired from NYPD Blue after its seventh, or Larry David leaving Seinfeld, also after seven seasons, to name but a few. All three of those shows continued after the departure of those key creative forces - NYPD Blue ran for a full five more years after Milch left - but you'd be hard pressed to find a fan of any of those shows who would argue that the post-departure years were of quite the same quality as those that came before.

This doesn't mean that the show couldn't come back with a new showrunner and be great - again, The Simpsons is the perfect example of how this can work, as each new showrunner (up to a point) revitalised the show by giving it new focus - but there aren't a huge number of other historical examples of that happening. What's worse, though, is that the mere fact that a new person might step into the role could hurt the way in which people perceive the show. Currently, if the show airs a sub-par episode, fans are happy to write it off as an off-week, and are happy to see what else the show has to offer. But if the show airs a single episode that isn't a scintillating work of genius under a new showrunner, then it's a sign of a sudden and irreversible decline. Perception is a very powerful thing in television, especially when the show in question can't really afford to lose an part of its audience be being perceived to be off its game, so the appointment of a new showrunner would be fraught with risk.

After all of that, what does the renewal and all its caveats mean for the future of the show, as for the many fans who have campaigned for it to stay on the air?

Well, we should all be very grateful that we get at least another 13 episodes of the show we love. That's a hell of a lot better than the darkest timeline version of events, which would be that we get the three episodes that are airing this Thursday and that's it. Also, we need to keep supporting the show as we have been by watching it when it airs, even if that is on, ugh, Friday, and generally spreading the word and getting people to watch the show.  If Community follows the path that Chuck and Fringe did, we could have another three whole seasons of the show, finally making #sixseasonsandamovie more than just a hashtag, but a beautiful, intensely insular and self-referential reality.

In short, it's kind of incredible that Community, a show that by rights should have been cancelled ages ago, is going into a fourth season, regardless of how long that season may be. That's something to be thankful for, even if it does make us the only people in history who have ever wanted to spend even more time at Greendale. Seriously, that place is the worst.