Yesterday NBC shocked and dismayed fans of their show Community when they released their midseason schedule and the sitcom was nowhere to be found. NBC swears it will return at some point in the spring, but even if it does, this does not bode well for a season four. So what happened? Why does this critically beloved show continue to struggle? We have three explanations.
1. No Welcome Mat
Community is an endlessly clever show. Clever not necessarily always in a funny ha-ha way, but in a tricky, canny way. It's full of asides and narrative callbacks and subtle yet intricate references in a way that really no other show is. And that's all well and good, it's what makes the show the show, but good grief did it become awfully impenetrable awfully fast. It didn't take long for all of the quirk and cutesiness and sly winking to pile up into a wall that was likely too high to climb for many a new viewer. And it certainly doesn't help that that wall is slathered in a coat of daunting smugness. Again, the show is fun and witty once you figure your way into it, but it takes a while, and many a fickle TV viewer just isn't willing to put in that time. The show needs (needed?) to be a little less into itself, a little bit less of an inward-facing nerd knot, if they hope (hoped?) to bring in new viewers. We're not saying the show has to dumb itself down, it just has to be more welcoming, it needs a least a few occasional access points. A deliberately obscure Star Wars reference followed by a self-satisfied smirk just isn't going to cut it.
2. Poor Packaging
That said, once you're into the show and it really gets humming with the meta referencing and whatnot, it can be really good. But it's also really not the show that NBC has been advertising since 2009. Sure they've highlighted the show's wacky theme episodes and everything, but mostly it comes across as a show about a jerky lawyer who hangs out with a bunch of weirdos at a community college and is maybe banging a blonde chick. And, all right, that technically is what the show is about, but it's also really not entirely some "community college is lame" joke or a show about the sarcastic guy from The Soup getting zingers in on everyone. In reality it's a complex (see above) screwball show about TV shows. The marketing (and, OK, this is definitely more NBC's fault than the show's) in no way reflects that heady, satirical aspect. No, instead the ads are clips of the wildly unfunny Ken Jeong doing some kind of mugging and Joel McHale rolling his eyes. Those elements are certainly part of the show, but they don't fairly represent its entirety. Granted it's probably a tricky and unique task to figure out how exactly to sell this off-beat series fully, but there has to be a way other than having the bald dean say something dumb and then cutting to an Office promo.
3. Damned With Praise
You could likely say this about a lot of shows -- Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, Glenn Beck -- but man if diehard Community fans aren't/weren't aggressively evangelical about this show, constantly harping on people who dared to like another comedy more than this one and demanding that their friends watch the latest Troy & Abed video over and over again. (We get it, they're friends and are weird. OK.) It speaks to the inside joke-heavy nature of the show, as mentioned above, that it bred such rabid and cliquish fans -- they began to act as if they themselves were part of the texture of the series, and tended to read wayyy too much into various small, inconsequential details. It's just too much! Rabid fans of anything are annoying (just go find a musical theater person and you'll see), but there's something very particular about the Community fan, one who really takes pleasure in the "getting of" the jokes and both wants other people to experience it with them but also kinda doesn't. It's more special when it's a secret, only it's the kind of secret that they talk about whenever they get the chance. And then if one of their friends does break down and say "OK, OK, I'll watch it," they run into the problem listed up top and the circle of life (or death, as the case may be) continues.