All Hail (McHale) Community's Return to Thursday Nights

5 years ago

Community-fans, rejoice!  The phoenix is rising and Greendale Community College is finally cracking open the book on 12 new episodes starting this Thursday night.

It's been a long wait for Community fans. In December, NBC cited poor ratings and pulled the plug midway through the show's third season. 30 Rock slid into the show's early evening timeslot, and while you know I love my Big Beef'n Cheddar, and my Tina Fey, I want it all. Like many other fans I lamented Community's passing.

Image Courtesy of NBC

It just didn't seem right that one of the best television shows that is in some sense about television should go away. Community is post-modern television at its best, smartly written meta fun for a pop culture savvy audience. The characters and setting are an absurdist's joy, and the cultural references, parodies and in-show jokes and trope homages are unparalleled. You want to watch Community with that friend who gets it, or a Twitter feed that gets it. It's totally "I see what you did there" scripting rooted in a deeply human appreciation for the comedy of everyday life, plus Halloween zombies and paintball-to-the-death.

So much good. It also functions as a very enjoyable sitcom, too, set in an under-appreciated but universal setting for American life. The unfortunate tradeoff of having all of that greatness in one show that doesn't pander to the common demoninator: Community is not mainstream viewing and never found serious network sitcom level audiences.

But, oh, does Community nail what's going on and what we are talking about. Like this line

Jeff: Oh please, not liking Glee club doesn't make us bullies, and implying that is reverse bully-ism! 

The layers in that one line, from online culture to the current focus on defining and fighting bullying built into a hilarious parody of the distintive offering of Fox's Glee--oh yes, that's Community rocking it.

The writers also excel with off-handed meta commentary on television's tropes and history:

Shirley: I've seen enough episodes of Friends to know that co-habitation leads to sex, drugs, and something Parade magazine calls "Schwimmer fatigue".

Or they serve plain old awesomeness, too:

Professor: As somebody who spent the majority of their life in prison, what happened to Legos? They used to be so simple.

Troy: If you want to get us a gift we're registered at Linens n' Things.
Abed: We have plenty of linens. We only want the things.
Britta: Do you know sugar is like baby meth? That's what my homeopath says.
Shirley: Well maybe your gay friend should mind his own business!

But within that meta humor, with its jokes about Napster, texting, Adderrall and TV evil twin plot lines, lies a medium/audience problem. Critics are pointing to Community's rating struggle as one of several television problems prompted by new technology.  Community's audience of younger, pop-culture obsessed viewers increasingly find their entertainment online, so how are ad-driven television networks going to navigate the evolving landscape?

Show creator Dan Harmon says that the hiatus in December was instructive and that an online deal was the solution. The New York Times interviewed him and wrote:

“The brass wasn’t happy,” he said. “We weren’t happy. The audience was confused. So something had to happen, some kind of cardiac event, for life to get renewed.”

The event, he said, that brought the show back from near death was a deal in December with the Web site Hulu, making earlier episodes available to an audience that had not yet caught up to them. This experience dovetailed with what he called anecdotal evidence that “Community” is one of the first shows of the so-called post-television era.

Mr. Harmon said, “The most coveted demographic, and most coveted of that demographic, these very smart, upwardly mobile, college-age kids just don’t watch TV anymore.”

I'm much older than typical college-aged (whatever that is anymore), but I love Community's wicked sense of playfulness, and though I do look online for much of my entertainment I watch still watch a lot of television. I'm thrilled Community's writers and cast are back. Abed (Danny Pudi) is my spirit animal. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), you guys, we get more Shirley! And Joel McHale and Chevy Chase? Please, so brilliant.

So my Thursday nights are once again complete, thanks to NBC's willingness to hang in with this little experiment in excellence. If you aren't already in the Community, don't worry about catching up on the prior episodes. You will, in time, want to circle back to them, I'm sure. But you can jump right in to this series mid-season. Just know that if a plotline or setting is feeling absurd, or it all feels like a play within a play at times, it's probably not that you don't understand all of the connections. That's just part of the fun. Bumble through it like the rest of us freshmen on a new, confusing and exhilarating campus and give the returning student of Community a chance.


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