How the most creative show on network TV whittled its audience down to its narrow, loyal core
NBC's "Community" may be the most creative sitcom on television — but its refusal to resemble anything like a traditional sitcom hasn’t helped its ratings. They've dropped so much in the current, third season — the weirdest yet — that NBC has pulled it from the midseason schedule.
The network says "Community" will return at some point, and the show's creator, Dan Harmon, declined to comment. But the show's increasing bizarreness has caused even some of its biggest fans to wonder if it has become too strange for its own good.
In its first two seasons, the show about a community college study group has aired paintball-themed episodes that played like a spaghetti Western, a Halloween show that mimicked a zombie-apocalypse movie, and an Emmy-winning Christmas episode in which all the characters were rendered in Claymation.
This season featured one episode that split into multiple different realities, and another in which one member of the group tried to out a sociopath in its ranks by getting everyone to tell horror stories.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune TV critic Neal Justin told TheWrap that "Community's" writers "do the most incredible things on a regular basis that I've ever seen from a sitcom." But after weeks of episodes that favor ambitious storytelling over traditional sitcom tropes, he said, "Maybe viewers just need a break."
Many viewers seem to be doing just that. Running in a tough Thursday 8 p.m. timeslot opposite one of most formidable situation comedies on TV, Chuck Lorre's "Big Bang Theory," "Community" has never been a big ratings earner.
The show averaged 5 million viewers its first season, and 4.5 million last year, but is only hovering around 3.5 million for the 2011-12 campaign. For last Thursday's episode, "Community" scored only a 1.5 ratings/4 share in the key adults 18-49 demographic, compared to a 5.3/15 for "Big Bang Theory."
"Community"'s complex meanderings into such topics as astrophysics, however, have helped it become a key brand-distinguisher for NBC, labeling the network's Thursday-night lineup as a home to "smart" comedy.
They have also helped the series develop a loyal cult following similar that of Fox's "Arrested Development," which was canceled after three seasons.
The show's unusual approach reflects the outsider sensibility of Harmon, a former "Sarah Silverman Show" producer with little network sitcom work on his resume.
But Justin notes that the further Harmon and the writers get away from the sitcom norm, the more the show loses what little non-core audience it has.
"The relationships between the characters aren't really building at this point the way they were in the first season," Justin noted. "Does Chevy Chase really have a heart, or is he a bastard through and through. Typical sitcoms give you hints, but 'Community' kind of ditched that."
"Community" will lose its 8 p.m. timeslot in midseason to "30 Rock," another daring comedy that sometimes struggles for viewers. But the show has earned far more affection from Emmy voters.
If the end is near, don't expect the "Community" faithful to go down without a fight.
Wrote one commenter on a Vulture story about the show: "So I just need to know when we are going to start the mail campaign to save the show. Perhaps mailing NBC thousands of paintballs will get our point across?"