Television dramas in recent years have taken significant creative measures to tell their stories. From the near-absurdist motifs of “Lost” to the jaw-dropping deaths on “Breaking Bad,” these shows are handily rewarded by viewers and critics alike, often being considered part of the 21st century’s “golden age” of television.
But when comedies try this same technique, they are shunned. A prime example of this is “Arrested Development” which first aired on Fox from 2003 to 2006. The program was a genius ensemble comedy that was firm in its decision to reward long-term viewing by stuffing episodes with numerous subplots and meta-jokes. Casual watchers who happened to flip to Fox while channel surfing would come across “Arrested Development” and not connect right away with its intricate, layered humor. Although the show was a critical darling, its ratings suffered, and the network ended up pulling the plug after three short seasons.
Now, the Big Three networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – like to play it safe with their sitcoms. Shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory” are eyebrow-raising in terms of concept, but they are fairly conservative multi-camera shows that are just too comfortable. They provide cute chuckles (laugh tracks, actually) and warm fuzziness, but they don’t push us to internalize what is being presented. And it seems like viewers are not in the mood to be stimulated, as “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory” are the two highest-rated sitcoms on TV right now.
Although shows that challenge us require more effort on our end, they provide more true satisfaction in the long run. And that is where “Community” comes in.
“Community,” NBC’s 8 p.m. offering on Thursday night, is as cerebral as it gets. Although the show’s premise might seem simple – the misadventures of a dysfunctional study group at a community college – its execution is brilliant. Each of the characters is incredibly unique, and their back-and-forths are whip-snap witty. You can’t help but be on the edge of your seat as you attempt to keep up with the always-fresh, never-formulaic dialogue. Lines can be considered a relatively micro aspect of a show, but “Community” takes them big, theming every episode by parodying other shows or movies. This program is the chameleon of TV, always innovating and never complying.
While this has delighted loyal viewers and smitten critics, Average Joes are driving down the ratings. “Community” has never held onto a large-enough audience that advertisers can really get behind, which is what most likely inspired the plot of “Basic Sandwich,” the season five finale that aired two weeks ago.
Greendale Community College is on the verge of collapse, and the Subway restaurant company is looking to take it off the hands of Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, “The Descendants”) for a pretty penny. Through some treasure hunting and contract reading, Jeff (Joel McHale, “The Soup”) and the study group are able to save Greendale.
This ending might sound too good to be true, because it pretty much is. “Community” has been on the chopping block for a while now, and fans have been very vocal in their defense of it, even starting the slogan “Six Seasons and a Movie” in attempt to keep it alive. The Subway plotline is, of course, representative of the possibility that “Community” could sell out and convert to Mainstream Sitcom-ism. But like the misfits in the study group, viewers want to save their show, and keep it intact at the same time. Although Greendale was saved in the end, we still don’t know what’s going to happen next season – or if there will even be one.