Sunday, May 20, 2012

Community Blues

The flag of "Greendale Community College"

Years ago I used to watch a lot of shows on NBC. St. Elsewhere, Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, the entire "Must See TV" Thursday night lineup of the '80s including The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues. I find these days that the series Sarah and I follow are not on "regular cable" but the extended channels. Our favourites are Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead on AMC, and Dexter, Boardwalk Empire and Treme on HBO Canada. (Breaking Bad is easily our favourite among these; it's one of the finest things I've ever seen on television.) There are still a couple of shows we watch on NBC, such as The Office (although I think we might be done now because this past season was pretty horrible) and the occasional SNL. However, there has been one show on NBC the past three seasons that is so original, so deeply warped and so flat-out hysterical that it has become one of my favourite comedies of all time: Community.

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"
My son, Tim, was hooked on this show from the beginning. He tried valiantly to get me interested in it as well, but to no avail. I saw a couple of clips and it just didn't push the right buttons for me; the cast was a bunch of no-names except for Chevy Chase and I don't really find Chase particularly funny nor engaging at the best of times. I really paid no attention to the show at all until finally, midway through Season Two, Tim called me and said I absolutely had to watch the Christmas episode because it was done entirely in stop-motion animation. Sarah and I streamed it on the computer and it was so brilliant that we were hooked for good. Last year I asked for and received the DVDs of the first two seasons so we could catch up on the in-jokes and deep humour from the very beginning.

The problem with this show is the same problem that exists for all original, deep, critically-acclaimed shows on "Network Television": the ratings are ridiculously low. I have read several reviews over the past couple of years with variations on the theme that "Community is the best show you're not watching" and it's absolutely true. Unfortunately, every third episode on average is absolutely inaccessible if you're sitting down to watch it for the very first time and that doesn't make it easy to raise their viewership above the number of rabidly loyal fans they have already accumulated. This past season, their third, Community was under almost constant threat of the axe from virtually the first episode last fall. At one point just after the 2011 Christmas episode aired in December, NBC put the show on mid-season "hiatus" for a couple of months. It seemed quite likely that the end was near; even when the show returned to finish out Season Three the future looked very bleak indeed. There has been a long-standing feud between the show's creator, Dan Harmon, and Chevy Chase; but then, who in Hollywood can't lay claim to a long-standing feud with Chase at one time or another? And just when it seemed inevitable that the show was headed for the junkyard come season's end the news came down that Community had been renewed for a fourth season, albeit a shortened, 13-episode arc. Things suddenly looked a bit brighter. And then NBC went and shot themselves in the foot by firing Dan Harmon, the creator and warped genius behind the show. Brilliant.

"Digital Estate Planning"
Last Thursday night NBC aired the last three episodes of Season Three all on the same night. It was obvious from the tenor of the Season Finale that when they shot it they were well aware that it may have turned out to be the Series Finale. The very ambiguity of their future made this episode a considerably less than memorable one for a finale, especially when stacked up against the two-part Paintball Episodes that ended the previous two seasons. However, earlier in the evening - in the "normal" time slot of 8PM - they aired an episode where every ounce of the brainpower and creativity the writing staff possessed was squeezed into half an hour of brilliance and mayhem. For about 90% of the show the cast were characters in an 8-bit video game (the purpose of which is unnecessary to explain here) and when I look back on all the shows I watched in the 21st century I think I will rank the "8-Bit Community Episode" (entitled "Digital Estate Planning") as one of my top five favourite episodes of all - either right behind or right in front of "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas".

I can't pretend to understand the reasoning behind NBC's decision. I don't know anything about Dan Harmon other than what he has posted on Twitter and his blog or what I have read about him in the trades. I have to say he sounds like an incredibly difficult person to work with, but then most creative geniuses seem to be that way. All I know is the driving force behind a show unlike any other on television has been removed from his post and it's very likely that we will be the poorer for it. I think back on how much Sarah and I enjoyed The West Wing (ironically, another NBC show) before Aaron Sorkin departed; although the show itself lasted for three seasons after his leaving Sarah and I only managed to stomach two more episodes before we threw in the towel, so drastically had the show's vision been diverted from what attracted us in the first place. I fear Community is headed for the same fate; I truly hope I am wrong. Is it any wonder that NBC is wallowing in last place in the "network rankings"?


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