Via Opus, here’s a nifty piece of advocacy criticism of Community, one of the best sitcoms I’ve ever seen. The upshot is that it’s the greatest show on television that nobody’s currently watching. This may be the case. My wife and I only recently caught up with it on Hulu, and we both adore it — not least because of Troy and Abed’s addiction to the Doctor Who facsimile, Inspector Spacetime. The show is returning this month with the second half of its third season, and, unless viewing numbers improve dramatically or NBC kowtows to critical demand, I’d guess that it won’t be back next fall. That would be a shame, but it might also be a mixed blessing. As Oliver Lyttleton notes in his encomium, the show continues to get more ambitious and surreal as it goes on, plumbing ever-increasing depths of his characters and pushing the envelope of the sitcom format to dangerously absurd levels. So far, this experimentation has been mostly — and hugely — successful. (One of my favorite episodes is “Chaos Theory,” in which a roll of a die showcase several branching storylines/alternate universes, one of which culminates in the funniest/most terrifying close up of a troll you’re likely to see.) But if history has taught us anything, it’s that pushing boundaries with increasingly ambitious projects inevitably leads to spectacular disaster.
When Arrested Development was canceled after its third season, its fans went ballistic. They’d had lots of practice: after all, the show had been on the chopping block almost since its inception, and the show’s insular, self-referential nature couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with its relatively small audience. No, Fox took all the blame, and while some of it was richly deserved, I think the expectation that a show like Arrested Development would garner a big enough audience to translate into six or seven seasons was misplaced from the get-go. My impression of Community fans is that they’re a little bit more level-headed about where the blame lies for our show’s struggle for survival. NBC might take flack for axing a wonderful show, but I think we all understand that it’s a little out there. That’s what makes it so ingenious, but it’s also what creates the image of inaccessibility. (It also doesn’t help that cult fans tend to be off-putting in their praise for obscure artifacts of entertainment. Just ask me how many people have elected to get into Doctor Who thanks to my ravings. Rather than give you a number, I’ll probably just burst into tears.)
The long and short of it is that a show like Community — although I certainly hope we get at least one more great season out of it after this one — is not really designed to live long and prosper. In time, its reputation may grow and enshrine it as quasi-canonical. But a show that takes as many risks as it does, lampooning everything from higher ed’s propensity for taking pop culture ephemera way too seriously (Who’s the boss again, Abed?) to the tropes of postmodern action films, is not one that is likely to be widely understood or embraced in the first place. I get that, and I love that the show does what it does anyway, even knowing that it’s likely to die young by doing so. In the end, that may be for the best. It would be better for the show to have three stellar, groundbreaking seasons than six or seven, out of which the last two sputter and decompose in agonizing slow-motion. Not every great show has to be M*A*S*H in order to be remembered as a monumental achievement. As in the case of Arrested Development, I’d be perfectly satisfied with what I already have. Most shows don’t even last this long, let alone be this awesome. What Community has done already is miraculous. After turning water into wine, are we really going to complain about it not raising the dead?