I’ve had my heart broken my television more times than not; it seems what I find delightful doesn’t necessarily line up with what the majority of Americans want to watch. My tastes toward the critical darlings – shows that are beloved by the people who review television but that suffer from perpetually underachieving ratings. These are shows that operate under the constant specter of cancellation; you never know when a network is going to shuffle them around in the schedule or worse – cut bait altogether and put the series from the air. Loyal viewers wind up cherishing episodes because they have no idea how many of them they are actually going to get and every series finale is forced to double as a season finale. Some shows are able to cling to survival for a decent run – Friday Night Lights was on the brink of death multiple times yet managed to hang on and The Wire managed to eke out a respectable five seasons – but many of these shows only make it a season or two before they are gone, mostly forgotten by all except their loyal fan base. I loved Better Off Ted, but mentioning that show to other people just gets me blank looks. Of course, the greatest indignity of all to fans of these shows is when these shows become popular after cancellation. Thanks to Netflix and DVD sales, these shows occasionally find a second life and while I’m glad you all suddenly realized that Arrested Development was awesome, where were you people when it was still on?
NBC’s Community was practically born in this vortex of critical acclaim but low ratings; a show deemed “too weird” by a lot of people (thanks to their frequent genre-spoofing episodes), it has somehow managed to survive thanks in a large part because of the disaster that is the network it is on. If NBC had literally any other viable options, this show would have died long ago. But because NBC can’t buy a hit, Community has quietly stayed on the schedule, bringing its small but rabid fan base with it.
After the third season of the show, creator Dan Harmon was forced out. Whether this was a direct result of his prickly personality and his constant feuding with then-cast member Chevy Chase (always the weakest link of the ensemble) or an attempt to take the show in a different direction, the results were disastrous. It became clear very quickly that Harmon was Community and that the show could not flourish without his creative mind behind it. The new showrunners may have meant well, but they created a truly dreadful product; a show that was once so fun and unexpected became a real chore to watch. The genre episodes were completely uninspired and the characters that fans had come to love were shells of their former selves, forced into storylines and dialogue that were a complete derivation from what had been previously established. The wit and subtlety of the show was gone and when the fourth season ended, I did something that I never thought I would do – I prayed that NBC would finally pull the plug on it. It was a shadow of its former self and it really seemed like a mercy killing. Let this talented cast move on to do other projects rather then hold them hostage with the dreck that they were asked to sell week after week. As far as I was concerned, the show I loved was already gone. If NBC was going to bring Community back in its current form, I was probably going to have to stop watching.
But then a miracle happened – NBC decided to bring back Harmon to run the show. Behind the scenes, it appears that star Joel McHale and others were fighting for his return. With the show’s creative voice back in charge, I have some renewed faith for the new season of Community. This decision has brought me back from the brink; a show I was ready to write off I am now cautiously optimistic about. I’m curious to see if these new episodes can undo some of the damage from the last season; Harmon seems to have found a relatively believable way to keep Jeff Winger (McHale) at Greendale Community College after his graduation last season. Harmon no longer has to deal with his nemesis Chevy Chase, who opted to leave the show during the fourth season. Perhaps the year away from the show actually rejuvenated Harmon so he’ll return even more energized and full of ideas. I’ll have to wait and see if the proof is in the pudding when the new episodes of Harmon’s regime air tonight, but the feedback that I’ve seen from the critics that were lucky enough to see screeners has been almost uniformly positive. I’ll take that as a good sign.
Of course, nothing on Community runs totally smoothly and Harmon will have to address the departure of cast member Donald Glover (Troy), who has decided to leave the show and will only appear in a handful of episodes. Troy has been a pretty integral part of the show due to his friendship with Abed (Danny Pudi), so it will be interesting to see how Harmon handles this challenge. It is very possible that nothing will be able to live up to the glory days of the second and third season; TV shows tend to suffer some sort of drop-off the longer that they are on the air. The show also seems to refuse to be willing to get rid of the character Chang (Ken Jeong) who has long overstayed his welcome.
Still, the return of Dan Harmon to Community has me optimistic on this snowy, dreadful day. Knowing that there are new episodes of Community which may be a return to form is enough to keep my heart warm as I watch the show fall and worry about the drive home from work this afternoon. It is my fondest wish that Harmon will prove that you indeed can go home again. Fingers crossed that the magic has returned to one of my favorite shows that just refuses to die.
Community returns tonight (January 2) to NBC with two back to back episodes starting at 8 pm ET.