Community Crisis

11.15.11

'Community' on Hiatus: Why NBC Is Making a Mistake

After fans went ballistic when NBC benched Community yesterday, Jace Lacob looks at the case for and against keeping the brilliant and subversive comedy around.

Community fans, this is your St. Crispin’s Day moment.

Yesterday, NBC decided to bench the comedy Community. The show, now in its third season, will take an indefinite hiatus during the winter months so the network can reconfigure its sagging Thursday-night lineup and shift around some of its half-hour programming.

Lest we forget: it’s show business.

Television, like any other commercial endeavor, is an exercise in generating revenue. According to a recent Ad Age report, Community generates $93,533 per 30-second spot. Yes, this is a far cry from The Office’s $178,840 price tag or time-slot competitor The Big Bang Theory’s $198,348. The show’s most recent episode grabbed only 3.5 million total viewers, but NBC should be used to low ratings by now. Dumping Community in favor of shifting around the Thursday-night comedies feels a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Community, after all, is not the iceberg that’s sinking NBC.

Yet it was how NBC handled the news of Community’s limbo-like fate that further canceled any semblance of good will that the network might have among the show’s small but rabidly loyal fan base. Rather than address the fact that Community would be taking a break, the network opted simply not to mention the show in the press release unveiling NBC’s midseason schedule.

This was stupid, but when it comes to NBC—the fourth-place network battling for its existence—stupidity is often its go-to position. What NBC did was generate near-hysteria among Community’s fans, who include critics, when the network failed to address just what had happened to the show. Speculation ran rampant. Was it canceled? Or merely put on the bench? (Also missing from the PR missive: any mention of troubled midseason drama Awake and struggling freshman procedural Prime Suspect.)

A source close to the production yesterday told The Daily Beast that Community will go on hiatus after its upcoming musical Christmas episode next month, and that 12 episodes will remain on the shelf until NBC decides what it wants to do with the innovative show. Several media reports subsequently indicated that the show will definitely return at a later date.

This is a good news/bad news situation. After all, NBC could use the opportunity to relaunch Community sometime in the spring and perhaps even gain some newfound momentum after the outcry. The decision to put the show on hiatus doesn’t necessarily signal its demise, nor does it mean that it won’t be renewed for a fourth season. The Office is on the way out the door and 30 Rock may not have many more seasons left, possibly making the known quantity of Community more valuable.

The bad news is that NBC may consider Community to be expendable or financially unviable. Perhaps if the show had scored an Emmy nomination, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. (Just look at Mad Men’s ratings to see the prestige factor.) But the show has gotten passed over time and time again for awards consideration, despite numerous critics cheering for it over the past two seasons. Sadly, it’s neither a ratings success nor a show that is earning executives statuettes. Which is a bit of a problem when it comes to Community’s future, particularly as NBC doesn’t own the international or DVD rights (Sony Pictures Television does), making the ad revenue/ratings issue all the more central to the show’s survival. Just how generous can NBC be when the show isn’t pulling in the numbers it needs to?

Community is a thinking person’s show, and it does require more of a viewer’s attention than just allowing him or her to laugh vacantly at penis and horse-poop jokes.

But what Community does offer NBC is something that can’t be calculated by Nielsen boxes. It's a daring and visionary show that tests the boundaries of the American sitcom form, presenting a limitless canvas on which it dazzles, provokes, explores, and parodies. Its very oddness at times may present an obstacle to new viewers (though there’s no better time to hop on than now), but to those who have figuratively set foot in its fictional community college populated by a cast of misfits, the show’s winning uniqueness is its utmost virtue.

This is a show that’s not just about the ways in which we come together as a collective (hell, the title spells that out) but also about pen-stealing monkeys, zombie apocalypses, alternate timelines, chaos theory, Dungeons & Dragons, paintball, and so much more. It often has moments of sheer genius—see the impressive recent “Remedial Chaos Theory” to sample its staggering intellect—that make it stand out far from the pack of hyena-driven Tim Allen family sitcoms or the facile quality of CBS’s Two and a Half Men.

Community is a thinking person’s show, and it does require more of a viewer’s attention than just allowing him or her to laugh vacantly at penis and horse-poop jokes. It’s a show that, like the much-mourned Arrested Development before it, is understood and embraced by those who love it, those loyal few who try their best to get their friends and family to see just how clever and subversive their favorite show is before it’s too late. Unfortunately, for Community, if more viewers don’t tune in—if those Nielsen televisions aren’t set to the last few remaining episodes of 2011—there won’t be more gonzo, out-there adventures of the Greendale crew to be seen.

And that would be a shame because, while NBC may not feel it needs Community, network television needs shows like it if the medium has any hope of remaining creatively relevant in the age of cable programming. And, as human beings and Human Beings (that's a Community joke! You’d get this if you watched the show!), television viewers need the originality and intellectual exuberance that Community has to offer.