TV NotesCollege's Winter Break Finally Ends
By Bill Carter, The New York Times
- Mar. 13, 2012
The NBC comedy Community has finally come to the end of its gap semester.
The show, a collage of pop-culture references and elaborate, inventive parodies involving a group of likable misfit students at a theater-of-the-absurd community college, returns Thursday night, much to the relief of one of the most passionate fan bases in television.
The sitcom's acolytes mostly young, many in college and many among those now outside the reach of conventional audience measurement because they watch online reacted with disbelief when NBC shelved Community in December, midway through its third season. The network replaced it at 8 on Thursday nights with the multiple-Emmy-Award-winner 30 Rock.
But surely no one was as tormented as the show's creator, Dan Harmon, who admitted to being terrified because the episodes on which the show's future now rides the 12 remaining this season are the ones he wrote, he said, while I was so bummed out that we were off the air.
Now that people are throwing ticker-tape parades, giving us a hero's welcome, what if they lay a bomb? he added in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. My stomach is in knots.
Bummed as Mr. Harmon was, he said he welcomed the temporary displacement of Community. He described a purgatory in which no matter what the show tried, it continued to average only four million viewers, about a quarter as many as its CBS competitor, The Big Bang Theory.
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.
Of course, even if Mr. Harmon is right, and a huge part of the Community audience is going unmeasured, it doesn't help either NBC or the show where it counts: advertising revenue. The sense that perhaps the network could do better was behind the decision to pull the comedy off the air.
The move did not provide evidence of improvement: 30 Rock has fared even worse at that time.
We all watched the ratings for 30 Rock' very carefully, said Joel McHale, a star of Community. He pointed to the competition at that hour, which also includes American Idol on Fox.
Those 30 Rock ratings, Mr. Harmon said, became an objective measure of what those waters are like.
With his cast and with executives at NBC Mr. Harmon enjoys a reputation as a comedy visionary. Dan has created characters who have never existed anywhere else on television, Mr. McHale said, citing both the television-and-film obsessive Abed (Danny Pudi) and the onetime Spanish professor Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), who is now in such deep psychosis he's in love with a charred mannequin leg.
Vernon Sanders, NBC's executive vice president for current programs, said of Mr. Harmon, When someone has that kind of vision, the best thing we can do is support it and try to enhance it.
Mr. Harmon appreciates the praise and said he had no quarrel with NBC's executives, adding that they were supportive beyond the call of duty, especially when they are under such pressure they're in a knife fight with Univision for ratings, for gosh sakes.
But he acknowledged that he had wrestled with himself over his impulse to steer the show into areas not exactly created for mass appeal, like the episode this season that featured seven different timelines, or the one last season based on an elaborate parody of My Dinner With André.
Given the ratings, does he ever think he should cool it a bit with the arcane reference points?
Yup, every day, Mr. Harmon said. I try. I could have a tailspin talking about this. I'm already driving my girlfriend nuts talking about this, talking about this, talking about this: the idea of what my job is supposed to be. Am I supposed to make a show that I would watch? And what does that mean?
TV is a populist medium. The whole point of it that I like is that you're pleasing other people. The customer comes first.
In his mind, Mr. Harmon said, he remains the guy who grew up watching Knight Rider' and Cheers.'* So he is not averse to seeking big ratings.
All I'm saying, he explained, is sometimes your creative instinct is just to make people happy. I'm not Jackson Pollock. I'm not Michelangelo.
He added, Yeah, I have a lot of weird, dark moments when I wonder what the hell I'm doing.
Still, Mr. Harmon and the show's cast sounded confident that the comedy would do enough to earn a senior year at their fictional Greendale Community College.
Because of Dan's vision for this four-year college, if there is a possibility to see it through to at least a fourth season, it would be really cool, said Jim Rash, who plays the bent Dean Pelton on the show.
(Mr. Rash made a minor splash on the Oscar telecast last month when in accepting his award for helping to write the script for The Descendants, he mocked Angelina Jolie's leg display by waving his own tuxedoed leg around. In its usual whimsical way, Community is playing up Mr. Rash's Oscar connection in its current promotions.)
Mr. Harmon said there were also pragmatic factors in favor of Community, led by NBC's desire to see a show it has a financial interest in finish enough episodes to be sold in syndication.
Mr. Sanders said, I wouldn't use the word bubble'* to describe the show's prospects of getting renewed for next season, referring to the industry term for shows with a 50-50 chance for survival.
It remains unlikely, though, that Community will suddenly wade into the mainstream in search of more traditional viewers. Coming episodes revolve around a collegewide pillow fight (substituting for the regular paintball-shootout episode) and a full-scale Law & Order parody.
The thing I'm comfortable with being said about the show as self-loathing as I am is about its ambition, Mr. Harmon said. It swings for the fences. You can always count on it to do that. So there are big whiffs for some people, and there are big, loud cracks sometimes.
And it's because we make the unmarketable decision to kind of approach each episode as though it's an opportunity to make TV history. There's something charming about that, I think.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/ar...ref=television