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Why NBC and Sony Continue to Make Community the Rodney Dangerfield of Sitcoms

Essay

Back in its 1990s heyday, NBC latched on to its sitcom hits and ran with them. Friends and Seinfeld were like the golden children who could do no wrong. And yes, those were good shows. You know what’s also a good show? Community. So why does NBC continue to treat it like its red-headed stepchild? That red-headed stepchild is hilarious, sweet, and has tons and tons of friends! Well, as one of those friends (and a fake redhead), I want to discuss how Community became the Rodney Dangerfield of television.

I’ll be truthful about Community — it is not a perfect show, and not everyone likes it. That’s perfectly fair, because that is the nature of entertainment. There is something out there for everyone, and not everyone has to like everything. However, Community is most certainly for me. From its series premiere, I knew it was. I can’t explain why, but the way the characters talk, the way they handle situations, and the stories themselves were just executed in a way that was better than usual and very different than your typical sitcom.

Maybe I just found it easy to relate to a bunch of people who failed at things, but still plugged away, knowing that even slow progress is still progress, and let’s just make the best of it, plus all the awesome new friends. Anyway…

It was clear to me that the creator of this show, Dan Harmon, had made something very special that spoke not just to me, but to millions of people. Millions of people, who saw a show like The Big Bang Theory and said, “This is a show about geeks, but there is something not quite hitting my ears right.” And then they saw Community and said, “This show is hitting every part of me right.” And yet, the former is a ratings hit on CBS and the latter never seems to get ratings anywhere near those numbers. They’re both good shows (yes, I think Big Bang Theory is a decent show, and if you don’t, that’s totally cool), seemingly covering the same ground, but taking vastly different approaches. Because Community is for the geeks, while Big Bang Theory is for the non-geeks. And there are simply more non-geeks than geeks. That’s why mainstream pop culture is called “mainstream” and not every single person knows what Doctor Who is. That’s allowed. But this is an entirely different essay altogether.

Ratings are at the crux of NBC’s and Sony Television‘s bad treatment of Community, which is a beloved show by its fans who watch it in other ways than just on television. Community isn’t alone in its bad ratings, either — 30 Rock’s ratings are low, as are the rest of the Thursday night lineup. “Must-See TV” ain’t what it used to be. And yet while NBC has had a clear opportunity to cultivate a higher viewership by marketing, embracing, and advertising the show better than it has, it doesn’t. Instead, it takes it off the air mid-season, letting everyone believe that it might not come back next season. When it does come back, the ratings are awesome. So, that turbulent season ends, and there are serious questions about its renewal.

Why? Why were there questions about Community being renewed? One visit to the internet will tell you that people love Community! Does it have a lowest-common-denominator fan base like other non-thinking shows like American Idol or Two and a Half Men? No, but does a show that is good and earns repeated acclaim from critics and fans need gigantic ratings? As someone who, admittedly, doesn’t have an insider’s point of view, I wouldn’t think it does. It’s a good show that enough people evidently watch and talk about that it should have never been at risk of premature cancellation. (But like I said, I don’t have an insider’s point of view.)

Community was renewed, but for a shortened season, and on Friday nights. In a time slot following the most reviled show on the same network, Whitney. Whitney, a show that everyone assumed would be canceled because it’s simply not a good show. The format doesn’t work in a lineup of single-camera shows; it already looks like an outdated show (and sounds like one — hi, laugh track). And then the scripts and the jokes are bad, and Whitney Cummings (who really is a good comedian, and that’s why she got a show in the first place) has a bad habit of saying “Okay” after everything. But somehow, this show was renewed, and it feels like there wasn’t a question. At worst, it was “on the bubble.” And Community, a show that people clearly and publicly love, was “on the bubble,” but always leaning towards cancellation.

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, NBC. And I haven’t even gotten to the most egregious thing you’ve done.

These days, Friday nights are where shows go to die. And it looked like NBC had really decided that they’d appease all those kids on Twitter and renew the show, but put it out to pasture on the night of the week that no one is home to watch it, so everyone would just forget about it by the time they reached syndication requirements and then put it out of its misery. Some might argue that moving Community to Fridays would let it stand on its own a bit, plus it would get it away from the Thursday night lineup where the ratings expectations are too high. It would also get it out of the line of fire of Big Bang Theory, so the non-geeks who are sitting on a physical couch watching a physical television set don’t flip to one channel and see a show about geeks that speaks their language and another show about geeks that speaks geek, then choose the one they “get” instead of one that might make them laugh for all new reasons.

But this just goes to show you that NBC is not as interested in nurturing a fun show and cultivating its audience as it is in merely growing an audience for a less risky show.

The biggest sign that NBC was acting like an absent parent to its red-headed stepchild was the firing of Dan Harmon.

Boy howdy, was this heartbreaking.

Look, the replacement of showrunners is not uncommon. We saw it on The Walking Dead, and the show turned out great. But for every Glen Mazzara, there is a John Wells, who took over for Aaron Sorkin when he quit The West Wing, because NBC wanted him to include more action and scandal — in his show about whip-smart White House staffers and the important decisions they need to make with their own human emotions for the good of an entire country. You know — an action show. In other words, they wanted Aaron Sorkin — Aaron Sorkin — to Michael Bay his baby. So, he quit, and took director Tommy Schlamme with him. And then the show sucked. And when I tell you that using the phrase “The West Wing sucked” drives a knife through my heart, well, that’s hyperbole, but it still makes me emotional.

My point is, Sorkin’s departure from The West Wing was significant. That show came from a writer, an artist, with a distinct voice and vision. And they gave it to the guy who made things explode every week on ER.

I’m not saying that the new showrunners of Community are going to turn the show into something unrecognizable and awful. In fact, David Guarascio and Moses Port have both consulted on ABC‘s Happy Endings, another new, quirky sitcom which could be described as being in the same vein as Community. Harmon even said himself that they were “seasoned” and “[has] it on good authority they’re quite nice…so how bad can they be.” So, it’s entirely possible that Community will be in good hands. Look what happened with M.A.S.H., which saw another beloved showrunner quit (Larry Gelbart) and then survived when two other guys (Ken Levine and David Isaacs). One of those “other guys,” Levine, actually is an expert in TV showrunners since he was one, and he has an excellent perspective on the situation behind the scenes. I strongly suggest giving it a read (as does Harmon).

But it won’t be the same. Yes, Guarascio and Port could be just as comedically skilled as Levine and Isaacs. But their voices will not be Harmon’s, and that’s what made Community what it is.

Dan Harmon is a creative risk-taker, and that’s rare on television. I’m not talking about killing off a beloved character or hooking up two characters for sweeps. I’m talking about an entire episode that is a spoof of Dinner With Andre while everyone is dressed in Pulp Fiction costumes. And not for sweeps. For any damn time. And it’s never a stunt, it’s just what Harmon and his unbelievably talented writers want to do with their television show, because they want to. That’s an attitude brought to a show that I, personally, cannot see evidence of anywhere else, except maybe on Adult Swim. And those are cartoons, which, technically, don’t take place in the real world the way Community does. (In fact, Harmon has a show coming to Adult Swim, Rick & Morty. Maybe this will give him more freedom.)

However, it’s not a secret that Harmon is a hard person to work with. He has admitted as much repeatedly, so it’s not as if he’s trying to come off as this innocent sweetheart. That said, when the news of his firing happened, did you see anything from the cast and crew of the show saying “Good riddance” or anything negative at all, for that matter? Nope. You saw dismay at his dismissal, and gratitude and support. And that’s from people who do have direct contact with him. Anyone who thinks that Harmon deserved this because he “wasn’t a nice guy” should really forgo watching television and movies and consider making friends with boring, lobotomized people if they want “nice.” Or fictional characters. Because speaking as someone who is a creative type, has worked with and dated creative types, and is dear friends with creative types, we are crazy, yo. And we are competitive, and we are protective of what we make. And no, if someone makes something that we love, we do not have to like them personally. At least I don’t, unless they did something dickish to me, directly.

Dan Harmon has never done anything dickish to me. Nor has he done anything nice. I have never met him, but his Tumblr makes me laugh, and the show he created has added a brightness to my life and the lives of others for the past three years. The gifs alone make the internet a better place, especially in an election year. I enjoy laughing and being entertained by things, and Community does me one better — it surprises me. And that takes a lot these days. So, unless he’s an axe murderer who molests puppies, I really don’t care what Harmon does in his spare time. If he does do those things, I wonder if there’s an easter egg hidden in an episode of Community that makes a reference to it. And he should also stop doing that, and keep writing awesome things that I like instead. (I am pretty sure that Harmon does not do those things, though.)

Do I think NBC and Sony made a massive, terrible mistake in firing Harmon? You bet I did. And I think the network’s continued disrespect of a great show is shameful. But you know what it really is? It’s cowardly. And it’s a sign that they’d rather stick to the status quo — the boring, boring, boring status quo — than take a risk and promote the hell out Community every chance they get.

But then again, what do I know? I’m just a fan.

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