Tuesday, May 22, 2012

NBC's Comedy Dilemma (or the untold dangers of six seasons and a movie)

For most television networks, having a robust slate of high quality comedy programming would be a blessing. Not NBC. No, for them, having The Office and 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation and Community all on at the same time is scary and confusing. "Too much of a good thing" definitely holds true if idiots are running your network and don't understand how promotion, the Internet's effect on television viewership, or the changing ratings landscape function.

I'm not equipped to speak on the two former, more venerable shows. I've seen about six episodes of each, which I generally enjoyed, and looking at their ratings they seem to have been the beneficiaries of good, long (if not dwindling) runs. Parks and Rec and Community, however, have always struggled. Fans love them dearly, but they don't turn the numbers a major network needs, with Community's third season finale pulling a dismal 2.5 million viewers and P&R generally sitting at 3.5 million. Strategies like repeated time-slot shifting and putting both on hiatus didn't work. Faced with these two critically successful but publicly ignored programs, the network made a call that angered many: Parks and Rec got a full fifth season, while Community got a 13-episode order, conceivably its last, and simultaneously lost showrunner Dan Harmon. 

Reduced to sheer programming tactics, the decision makes sense. P&R has been on for a season longer and is still posting stronger numbers, and I can only imagine that Amy Poehler is much easier to work with than the notoriously embattled Harmon. As a huge fan of Community, all this didn't make the news any easier for me, nor would it have for any of the show's other ardent supporters. Having just finished each show's most recent season, however, I find myself aligning unexpectedly with the message this decision sends out. Creatively, it just feels right - well, maybe not NBC's unceremonious ejection of Harmon, but letting the show come to a close after an abbreviated last gasp. As recently as two months ago, I would never have expected to champion P&R as a series with continued momentum while decrying Community as long in the tooth; consider this my critical attempt at coming to grips with some unforeseen changes in my television life. (Possibly one of the most pathetic sentences I've ever typed, for the record.)

Community is a show that lives and dies by the shock of the unexpected. At first this shock presented itself structurally, as its transformation from rote sitcom to postmodern sitcom dissection occurs fairly early in the first season. After securely establishing this development and informing its slowly shrinking audience what kind of show it really is, it proceeds to use the sitcom structure to parody just about every genre and style and concept imaginable. Horror, science fiction, action, gangster flick; the claymation episode, the anime episode, the video game episode; the evil twin episode, the bottle episode, the clip show, the Very Special Musical. While the show is nearly always astute and hilarious in its appropriation of its cinematic surroundings, one can't help but wonder if Harmon and company unfurled all of these concepts a little too soon. The joy of a parody is diminished somewhat when you know that it already exists in the show's arsenal, a fatigue that is most noticeable in Community's third season. Take the Law and Order parody: it's an easy mark for the show to begin with, and the tropes it goes after like the opening titles and the way the characters aggressively walk and talk through city streets are entirely expected, resulting in the unpleasant uncanny point where unpredictability becomes in itself predictable. For a series with a precipitous relationship to its network, it makes sense that the creative talent would want to get all their fun ideas made before getting cancelled unexpectedly, but then you get uneven lurches where it seems as if the writers are grabbing handfuls of concepts out of a hat and grafting the show's reappropriated sitcom structure to them. The show is occasionally able to subvert this, such as in Virtual Systems of Reality or Remedial Chaos Theory, or rise above it with especially strong conceptual recycles like Regional Holiday Music and Pillows and Blankets. Unfortunately, episodes like these seem like the exception rather than the rule in the third season, where the show's bag of narrative tricks is emptying at a rapid rate.

Best picture ever? Clearly.

This makes it sound like I'm faulting the show for being ambitious, which I'm absolutely not. Community at its worst still runs laps around nearly everything else on the air, but all this makes me wonder if a slow burning development would have suited the show better. That may be idealistic - again, returning to the question of low ratings and an unpredictable lifespan - but frontloading all these sophisticated concepts has resulted in a series that began as something innovative but has since grown overly familiar. Parks and Recreation inverts this. Although it adheres to the same structures that Community deconstructs and parodies, and as a result will probably never be as original or bold, its gently cartoonish territory remains nonetheless relatable. The characters we see in both shows are caricatures, but Community examines their status as such, demonstrating a prioritization of their roles in this "theoretical" sitcom rather than their roles as people; fascinating, to be sure, but where is there to go with this line of vocal examination after three seasons? The nature of any series with a static cast of characters prevents their dynamics from changing too radically, which gives a show that wraps its humor around addressing these dynamics an added limitation. P&R simply has a broader sense of scope, not bound by the need to incessantly reposition itself as a show within a reality that is in fact televised. Community studies seven people amidst the backdrop of an insane community college, but Parks and Rec takes a similarly sized cast and expands their playground into an entire town. Couched entirely as a matter of storytelling potential, a microcosm of American democracy is probably going to win out over an insular group attending a decreasingly relevant community college almost every time.

The quality of Community's writing itself is not necessarily threatened by this limitation, but merely its development as a show. The study group is nearing the end of its time at Greendale, despite Jeff's (probably intentionally) heavy-handed line in Curriculum Unavailable about how "the average community college student attends for five to seven years." Their friendship is strong enough to weather a graduation, but without a unifying sense of place or any sort of greater thematic questions to furnish them with, avenues for further exploration seem minimal. Leslie Knope, meanwhile, is coming off of a major political victory, and each character beside her has undergone substantial personal growth (April is almost a person now, Ron is slowly assimilating into the real world, Chris is less insane). Parks and Recreation, even after a season more than Community, feels like it has plenty of gas left in the tank. I doubt that NBC took any sort of questions of future quality into consideration when making its renewal decisions, but in an attempt to make this news a bit more comforting for myself, I choose to hesitantly view this as a positive for Community. Better to give it a relatively early sendoff instead of allowing it to drag out and become a shadow of its once magnificent self.

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