Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thursdays at 8:00

During the last two Thursdays, something interesting has happened to my television viewing: one of my favorite shows left the air and another one of my favorite shows tardily began its fourth (abbreviated) season. These two shows yin-yanged themselves onto Thursday nights at 8:00 pm on NBC.

I’m talking about “30 Rock”, which is the show that’s leaving the network and “Community” which is returning to the network – albeit on borrowed time.

To say that “Community” had an interesting nine months since a new episode last aired would be disingenuous to the word “interesting”. It’s been chaotic, as the show’s creator and producer Dan Harmon was kicked off his show for being “too difficult” to work with. Two new show runners were brought in and were set up with a writing staff that was once under Harmon.

In addition to the upheaval at the top, there were constant rumors of cancellation, but the prevailing wisdom is that “Community” wasn’t canceled because it was so close to its syndication threshold that it was actually better to have an abbreviated season so that Sony (which owns the show) could sell it off and recoup the first-run losses with second-run money. Also, Chevy Chase (the cast member who may be the most widely-known to the culture at large) has feuded with pretty much everyone on the show and in a fit walked off the show with two episodes left to film. He is not expected back.

During this uneven off-season, the group of people who love “Community” became more vocal and tried to hype the show as much as it could, using social media as a tool. The Twitter hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie trended during various times in the summer. With all of this news, “Community” was technically gone, but never left.  

* A note on the next few paragraphs, a lot of the next few paragraphs came from a few posts that I made on a Red Sox message board. You may think that it’s strange that a board devoted to sports would also have topics about television shows—and you’d be correct—but the Sox didn’t give us much to cheer about last year, so we had to expand our interests. It may be disjointed, but I haven't written long-form in about two years, so give me a break. 

With nine months of inside baseball, I was ready for the new episodes to start off and it did last Thursday. As I said earlier, “Community” holds down the lead-off spot in NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup.

Two things:

1. I think that “Community” is not an 8:00 show. An 8:00 show should be all-encompassing and welcoming. If you miss an episode of an 8:00 show, it shouldn’t be a big deal. “The Cosby Show” and “Friends” were 8:00 shows that worked well for NBC in the past. In spite the ironic title “Community” is exclusionary and much like “Arrested Development” if you miss an episode of “Community” you’re going to miss a bunch of jokes.

2. NBC Thursday night is not really “Must See TV” anymore. In fact, it’s a bit of a comedic graveyard in terms of ratings. It seems that no one wants to sit down and watch great sitcoms any more as “30 Rock”, “Community”, “Parks and Rec” and even “The Office” have seen Nielsen Families ignore them as if they were the new kid’s first day of his senior year a new in high school.

After the episode, this was my initial reaction: I liked the episode, though I didn’t love it. If I were to give it a grade it would be a B. But there did seem to be something off. I don't know how to explain it, so I'll use an analogy. I have kids and when they break something I will glue it back together. They will play with it and will use it like any other toy, but at the same it doesn't quite feel like the same thing. Something has been changed, even though it's been fixed.

Perhaps I'm making too much of this and seeing stuff that isn't there. Maybe if I didn't know the behind-the-scenes crap and wasn’t besieged by “Community” propaganda on an every-day basis, maybe I wouldn't have felt that way, but I do. So even though I went into the episode determined that nothing was broke, something felt a bit off.

The one negative is that there seems to be too much Dean Pelton . I like the character a lot, much the way that I liked Ed Helms' character Andy Bernard from his first couple of seasons on "The Office". But once Helms started getting a ton of camera time, it became too much. I think that there are two things wrong with the character:

1. He's a bit of a one-note character. Like Bernard, Pelton is a broadly stroked character.

2. There are already six main characters, seven if you count Sr. Chang, and a bunch of really good background characters that sometimes move to the foreground. The show is only 22 minutes long, so there is only so much that each character can do. If you add another one then you take away from the core six.

Other than that, I thought it was a good beginning.

The premiere of “Community” has me a bit worried (I guess as worried as I could be about a TV show – first world problems!) about the return of "Arrested Development" to the land of the living. And it's not that I'm worried about the quality of the show, I'm worried about my crazy, high expectations. I still DVR AD and watch as many episodes as much as I can, it's like the early seasons of the Simpsons and Seinfeld, I know every episode front to back. And much like how later seasons of "The Simpsons" (and "Seinfeld" for that matter) fared in comparison to the syndicated version of the show being shown right before the newer episodes, the perceived quality of the show always seemed worse. Whether that is true or not is left to be debated at another time.

The point is this, will "Arrested Development" Season 4 be considered as "good" as seasons 1-3, at least initially? No. People are going to say that it's missing something, much like some of us are doing now. But in reality what the show will miss is the mythology of the first three seasons and the constant syndication of those seasons. In this case familiarity doesn't breed contempt, but love. I think that fourth season of "Community" may go down the same path, albeit without the constant replaying of the shows.

Also what's working against "Community" (and AD for that matter) is months and months of hype of how this is "the best show ever" and how "NBC is stupid to cancel it because it's so awesome". From my own experience there have been a grand total of one time where I have waited for something for a long time and the result lived up to the hype (both in my head and from the pop culture world around me) and that was this past summer with "The Avengers". I'm not saying that "The Avengers" was the greatest movie ever (far from it), but since I bought my first Avengers comic back in 1981, I dreamed of how it would look like on the screen. And it looked almost exactly how imagined it.

Anyway, the point is this, things that are overhyped tend to disappoint and rarely live up to expectations. That doesn't mean that they're bad, it just means that they aren't quite as good as what we thought they would be. Again "Community" is perceived as such in an us-(meaning "intelligent" TV watchers)-vs-them-(slack-jawed CBS watchers)-pop-culture mentality that there is a chance Season 4 will never live up to those incredibly high standards. Plus the unanswered question of "What would Dan Harmon have done differently"?

Which leads to my next point, as far as Harmon leaving, he probably didn’t have a bottomless pit of ideas, but he was fastidious in his attention to detail that it made watching and reading about the show incredibly fun. We've all seen the Beetlejuice thing right? That's some epic-level, OCD, editing right there. It's almost sick (as in mental illness wise) the way that Harmon orchestrated every, single piece of this universe. That's what I'll end up missing (even if I don't know at the time that I'm missing it).

That last question (what would happen to a show if the main voice left) was something that “30 Rock” never had to deal with. Despite being saddled with terrible numbers (but tons of love from the industry and TV critics), NBC stubbornly kept it on its schedule. With the show experiencing a resurgent in writing during its last season, some people felt that it was unceremoniously shown the door.

I think that their anger is misguided because what other network would have the patience to keep this show on the air despite it never being a true hit? This was the best era and NBC was the best network for this show to be on. The Peacock Network has been so bad during the last decade that they kept one of it's only critically acclaimed shows going even though the numbers were god-awful.

What if this show debuted during NBC’s salad days or on another network?

If this was the 80s or 90s, the show would have lasted a month, tops.
If this show was on CBS, the show would have lasted a half-season.
If this show was on HBO, it wouldn't have been half as clever as it is.

NBC did a really good job nurturing this show and giving it a chance (IE not moving it around, I'm pretty sure it was always on Thursday) and gave Tina Fey a lot of latitude in the scripts. If you wanted to watch “30 Rock” you knew where to find it.

As has been said time and again, networks aren’t charities and they don’t keep shows on the air that don’t make money. “30 Rock” brought prestige and was allowed to leave on its own terms and with something left in its tank, which is rare. A show like “The Office” is limping to the finish line, “Friends” was down-right unwatchable in it’s last few years. I enjoyed the Larry David-less seasons of “Seinfeld” but even I admit that it lost some of it’s cynical bite that made it so awesome.

Maybe when networks cancel a show too early, it’s a good thing. It allows us to rage against the machine while also allowing us the ability to use our brains to imagine what the next seasons would be like. TV shows have a shelf life, our imaginations do not.

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