In a recent interview with Digital Spy, Community creator Dan Harmon attempted to explain why his NBC show continues to get low ratings despite outstanding marks from critics. "Well, the average person comes home from work really tired, and just wants to flip through channels until they land on the thing that's the least objectionable to them,” Harmon said. “So they don't regard the television as an appliance that's supposed to spiritually satisfy them, they regard it as a thing that's supposed to comfort them and be a little stupid. It's not because they're stupid, it's because that's what TV has given them all their lives and it's hard to go out and do the work of finding a show.”
The sad thing is that he’s right. The worse thing is that this approach to television watching has resulted in Community being put on midseason hiatus.
Earlier today NBC sent out a press release announcing their midseason lineup and Harmon’s brilliant comedy was nowhere to be seen. Following the news, our own Kelly West did her best to try and calm the masses by explaining why the break “isn’t the worst thing ever.” As upset as I am, I do understand that she’s right: the truth is that the show being cancelled would be much, much worse. What I do find interesting, however, is what the move shows us about television watching habits.
As much as it pains me to say it, the truth is that Community’s ratings really aren’t that impressive. Last week the show had only 3.49 million viewers, the lowest rated show of the night that wasn’t on ABC or the CW. But the show’s numbers aren’t nearly as interesting as the types of shows that received more eyeballs. Though not all of the programs were competing in the same timeslot, The Big Bang Theory, Rules of Engagement and Whitney all had more viewers and share a couple things in common: all three are made using multi-camera setups, laugh tracks and stick to the boiler plate formats and situations that sitcoms have been dealing in for years. So how does a smart comedy like Community, which features none of those things, get constantly overlooked so often?
What’s strange about this whole situation is that it’s not like the show is educational television. You don’t need to do homework before each episode in order understand it and you can’t watch it in place of studying for your math test at school. “Smart comedy” doesn’t mean that it will make you smarter, but rather that it actually took some intelligence to create. What makes the NBC comedy so great is that week after week it features lines, jokes and situations that not only make the audience howl with laughter, but make your jaw drop in awe at the creativity and wit of the writers (not to mention every episode is densely layered, which makes each one infinitely rewatchable). The only explanation for the lack of viewership is that people aren’t watching television to be entertained anymore; they’re simply watching it as a diversion.
While canned laughter actually illustrates the argument quite elegantly – it’s literally a device used to tell the audience when they are supposed to laugh, as though they can’t figure it out for themselves – reality shows also drive the point home clearly. Why do we need The X-Factor (another show that defeated Community last Thursday) when there’s also American Idol, The Sing Off and The Voice? What about So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars? There’s nothing creative or special about any of these shows; they’re just the same series played on different nights and on different networks. And yet all of them get big numbers and, more than likely, plenty of crossover. Television has essentially turned into FM radio: it’s on in the background, ridiculously repetitive, and really only serves to distract the audience.
Dan Harmon’s show boasts one of the best ensemble casts on television and one of the best writing staffs, yet people intellectually starve themselves with lowest common denominator multicam sitcoms and laugh tracks that the industry has been shoving down peoples’ throats for decades. Community is, without question, my favorite show on television. I have watched it every week since the pilot, own the first two seasons on DVD, been invited to the set twice, talked with the stars on numerous occasions, and even reviewed a couple of episodes. I’ve spent so much time thinking about and watching this show that with today’s news I should be devastated or even angry, but really the only emotion I feel is disappointment.