Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Darkest Timeline

The episode in which an evil version of one of the show's central characters threatened to saw another character's arm off, a murder took place in a secret society of Air Conditioning Repair Men, a previously assumed-dead character made a startling re-appearance and an old Korean War Vet (who fought for the North Korean Army) reviewed potato chips on his video blog, was recognized and will be remembered as one of Community's "normal" episodes. The two episodes that aired before it were the "weird" ones. Those ones involved the Greendale 7 getting warped into a 16-Bit video game created by Pierce's dead, racist, 100-year-old dad; or organizing an Ocean's 11-style heist to rescue the Dean of the school, who has been kidnapped by an ex-Spanish teacher--who at the beginning of the season was living in the school's air vents, but who has now turned the school into a fascist dictatorship.

Community has created a show predicated on jumping the shark every week, and as a result, it has become a show incapable of jumping the shark.

But see, it isn't quite that simple. Lots of shows do "weird." Family Guy does "weird." That terrible Napoleon Dynamite show was "weird."  Neither of them make you tear up with genuine sentimentality. Neither of them make you care about their characters, their lives or their relationships with one another. The whole point is that you don't care. That's why it's funny when Meg gets run over by a car or Peter breaks his leg and nobody watches Napoleon Dynamite so I can't even reference that. "Weird" shows are created for the sole purpose of creating characters that are easily disposable, or at least easily malleable. You can brutally injure them or have them be attacked by zombies or even kill one of 'em off, and none of it matters, because it's all part of the "weird" package.

In Community, it mattered. Weird as the episodes were, when Pierce got brutally injured, it lead to a season-long story arc that lead from everywhere to acts of extreme villainy to drug addiction, culminating in a Western Style shoot-out with the rest of the study group. When Starburns was killed, it lead to a series of events that culminated in the Greendale 7 starting a riot and getting expelled from school for the next several episodes, pushing their sanity to the breaking point. And when zombies attacked them it drove Shirley into an unlikely relationship that served as a dramatic backbone to the rest of the season. And the "weird" thing was, we cared. The stories were told with such craft, the character had been developed so vividly, and their relationship to the rest of the group mattered so much that, even though the idea behind something like the zombie episode is pure silliness, the episode had a genuine sense of terror and tension. Because Community isn't a Weird Sitcom in the traditional sense--it's a Weird Sitcom that uses its ridiculous scenarios as jumping-off points for uncommonly human, grounded, emotionally resonant stories. Which is to say, Family Guy could very well make a hilarious episode involving Yatzi, creepy flaming Troll dolls and multiple timelines--but only Community could do all that and still find a way to make you tear up a little at the end.

This is what's at stake. Dan Harmon, the creator of the show, has been fired from Community by Sony Pictures Television and won't be returning for its recently-announced fourth season in any capacity. This is stupid. This is stupid because it's 2012. Forget the black President--we have a black hologram of a rapper now. I can watch Breaking Bad episodes on a rectangle the size of the palm of my hand while I'm on the toilet. And after I'm done, I can hit a few buttons to write this sentence and send it to a magical place where anyone in the world can read it on similar rectangles while they're on the toilet. That magical place is called The Internet. Dan Harmon getting fired from Community doesn't make any sense because it's 2012, and we have The Internet.

Now, this "we have the Internet" statement is not news to you or I. But it just might be news to Sony Picture Studios, because, by golly, if they knew the Internet existed and they knew the kind of crazy stuff that was on it, I'm not sure if we'd be in this situation. Community, you see, is one of those shows that's sort of created a community. Most all shows now with any kind of a fan base have one. But Community's community is different. Community is a show that, through that magical Internet, has brought together an incredibly dedicated group of the very sort of people that the show portrays so well--flawed people. Outsiders. People in transitional, awkward, unsure stages of their lives. People who don't fit into television archetypes, who didn't argue amongst their friends over which one of them was Ross or which one of them was Rachael or Joey or the dumb one because they were smart enough to know that Friends was just Seinfeld with pretty people and a monkey. Community didn't attract people looking to latch onto something bigger than themselves--that's what LOST was for. Community was for people who wanted to latch onto something that understood, accepted, and welcomed exactly who they already were. And now that I think about it, Seinfeld had a monkey, too.

I now realize that I started using the past tense up there. Call it a Freudian Slip. See, Sony does know that Community has a super dedicated fan base, and they assume that this fan base is comprised of a bunch of drooling loyalists who'll follow the show till the ends of the earth as long as we get Abed saying "Cool cool cool" every now and again, but if they used their gosh-darned internets, they would know that the kind of fan base it has isn't the sort of fan base that would just be totally cool with the losing its creator and show-runner. Because fans of Community--the really obsessed fans--know that Dan Harmon is Community. As many writers have pointed out this week, Community is one of the few television shows that can truly be said to be one man's vision, and told with one man's voice. The Simpsons was created by one person, but the writing staff has been switched around so much over the past couple of decades that it can hardly be said to have one man's voice anymore. But one of the reasons that Community fans tune into the show is because of Dan Harmon, not in spite of him. The man has something to say, and every week, we're excited to see what that is, and how he's going to choose to say it. Sure, a new show-runner and new writers might whip up some funny jokes and throw us a stop-motion Christmas episode, but no one will be able to use it as a chance to work in some of the best character development in the entire series, not to mention provide commentary on the very nature of holidays and television itself.

But anyway, I was going to make a point with all that internet stuff. It's coming. The fact is, aside from exactly three shows--The Simpsons, Law & Order: Whatever, and SNL--there aren't shows that can just live on indefinitely any more. These three shows have formulas. They have very successful formulas. They were created with the function of being able to keep the core essence of their being no matter what talented person was writing or directing them. Community does not have a formula. The core essence of this show is not having a formula. Sony's assertions that they want to "broaden" Community so it can appeal to a wider audience suggests that, three seasons in, they want to start to slap a formula on this thing. And that simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense. At some point, no matter how "weird" that hermaphrodite baby of yours is, you're going to have to start raising it as either boy or a girl. And if you make the wrong choice, or if you try and flip-flop things around when it's three years old, you could end up really screwing up its development to a point where that child doesn't even know who it is any more. This whole thing is like Sony just cradle-robbed a hermaphrodite baby being raised as a female, and they decided that even though it's almost four, they're going to start raising that baby as a boy instead. I guess you could do it, but you don't even know who this baby is. Isn't changing things around kind of massively stupid, when on top of this drastic change you're also really hoping your baby tunes into your sitcom on Friday nights instead of primetime Thursday? Wait...what?

I guess what I'm saying is, Sony is starting to take the reigns of a show they clearly don't understand, from a person they never understood, and market it to people they don't know in an era they obviously don't know how to work in. The Internet exists. It would've taken them literally ten minutes of research to understand the sort of fan base this show has and how they should potentially handle this big change to the show (if they should make the change at all), but it might take them slightly longer to realize that very few people are tuning into NBC comedies at all when they air live on television; that changes need to be made about the way television is marketed, because the way its consumed is already changing fast. They need to start seriously monitoring Hulu views. They need to start seriously monitoring DVR views. They need to start making deals with Netflix. They need to start finding ways to market and distribute television in ways other than on a stagnant black box in one's living room. They need to stop being the opposite of Batman and do the bigger thing here: accept the show for what it is, and find a way to make the best possible version of the show it is now. Because we Human Beings love the show for a reason. And that reason doesn't involve David Guarascio and Moses Port.

You can't swim in two rivers at the same time. Sony does not realize this. They cannot have the loyal, loving, obsessed fanbase and dilute the tone of the show to try to accommodate new viewers. But they also can't boost the viewership by a huge margin if they keep the show as it is. And they really can't keep the loyal, loving, obsessed fanbase, dilute the tone of the show to accommodate new viewers and move the show to Friday evening and expect everything to be Peachy Keen, Avril Levine. So now they have a choice to make. Do they dilute the tone and content of the show to attract new viewers, milk it to the point where they can get the show into a syndication package, and go down as That Crappy Company Who Ruined Community Forever, or do they make the best of the mess they've made for themselves, allow the ragtag Bible duo of David and Moses as much creative freedom as possible, push the crazy side of the show without forgetting its heart, and hope to at least keep and maybe slightly expand the viewers they already have? Or do they try to have it all and inevitably fail? I don't know. What I do know is that Leonard definitely does not like this.


  1. Great article. I've only ever seen one full episode of Community (the Law & Order parody), but I'd really like to see more sometime if possible. Do you know if the first three seasons are available anywhere aside from Hulu and DVD? If not then I'll probably, just get another Hulu free trial, but if so I'd be interested to know of other options.

    Thanks, Oddy

    P.S. This is off-topic but you like Radiohead and video games, so:

  2. Hey Oddy. There are always ways of watching shows online illegally (just use Google!) but Community needs all the help it can get right now, so honestly, if you liked the Law & Order parody, I would definitely recommend buying one of the series on Amazon or getting a Hulu Plus subscription.

    Also, I've heard the Radiohead 8-Bit mixes. Awesome stuff.

  3. This is late, but I got another two-week free trial for Hulu Plus, and decided to use it exclusively for watching Community. I managed to get from the pilot to Modern Warfare, and let me say that was one of the funniest almost full seasons of television that I've ever. Romantic Expressionism, Modern Warfare, and Debate 109 were my favorite episodes, in that order. Thanks for the recommendation, and I'll have to see if I can get another free trial to finish up season 1 and beyond. :P