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.|