Saturday, August 30, 2014

Community: How the Internet, Arrested Development Fans, & Geek Culture Saved Greendale

After NBC Britta’d on renewing Community for a sixth season, it’s safe to say the internet reacted something like…

After season 5, everything seemed to be going so well… why the sudden Chang of heart, NBC?

But then, just when it looked as if we had entered the Darkest Timeline, Greendale was saved!

I know. What else could possibly be said about the close call cancellation of Community that hasn't already been said? 

Really, I just wanted to have a place to collect all my favorite Community GIFs and fan art. Man, Community fans are the best. We’ll get into that soon.

Ok sure, it's not like it had gone off the air years ago and we’ll now see an Arrested Development style revival. It will return just as it would have had NBC decided to pick it up for its fated sixth season. Fans of the show know what I'm talking about as the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie has become something of a rallying cry since season 2. If Community’s longevity doesn’t demonstrate the power of a hashtag, nothing else will.

There’s even a Community-inspired twitter profile with over 20K followers with the handle @envirodale that if you were to tweet using the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie they will tweet a Community quote back at you within minutes every time without fail. That’s dedication right there, which, as a fellow fan prone to obsessiveness, I can respect. They have no doubt already tweeted a quote that’s streets ahead at me by the time you’re reading this.

These kind of fan driven tactics to get Community trending were, for better or worse, a necessary measure to keep the show going. You see, Community has always been a show on the bubble of cancellation, which is what made it such a turbulent ride, never knowing from year to year if this would be its last. In a way it added to the experience, feeling like you’re part of a larger, uh, community, who also knew the significance of “Pop, Pop!” and what it meant to be a Human Being. 

It definitely made you feel like you were part of a more-or-less secret club, knowing there were others across the internet rooting for its return and making their voices heard.

Meanwhile Big Bang Theory gets renewed for 3 years

Talk about being safe. And that’s a key factor. Big Bang is a safe show with safe humor. Community didn’t always fit into people’s idea of what a network sitcom should be with the formulaic model of set up, punch line, laugh track, repeat. Sometimes there would even be jokes happening in the background as there were plot points happening in the foreground, and with no canned laughter, your casual viewer wasn’t sure what they should be laughing at. But that’s why Community succeeds with repeat viewings and those willing to pay closer attention than what is required of you from your average sitcom. Maybe that’s why comic book readers, a community who is obsessed with the details and pouring over minutiae, so readily accepted Community into their culture (we’ll get into that later as well).

When it was revealed that NBC wouldn’t be picking up Community for another go-round, Communies took to social media, tweeting at Netflix as a hail Mary to pull out another miracle and let the Greendale 7 (who’s keeping count anymore) live to see another season (and a movie), similar to how the online streaming service revived Arrested Development, but this seemed unlikely as the NBC series had an exclusive deal with Hulu. So perhaps Hulu could scoop up the show and add it to its slate of growing original content. But alas, that was not meant to be either. It looked like the Darkest Timeline was upon us, or at least that’s what everyone was tweeting in reaction to the news. And then, at the 11th hour, seemingly out of nowhere, a beacon of hope, as on the final day of the actor’s contracts with Sony were to end, Dan Harmon tweeted a cryptic update with lyrics from a song featured in the finale of Breaking Bad and the hashtag that refuses to die, #sixseasonsandamovie. What could this mean?

An hour or so later, the news traveled faster than one of Dean Pelton’s costume changes that Yahoo! Screen picked up Community for its sixth season. This announcement was unexpected as fans had all but given up hope but it made so much sense. I had quickly become a fan of Yahoo’s original content after they began streaming episodes of Burning Love a couple summers ago, a Bachelor spoof featuring the who’s who of comedy stars dropping by with credits ranging from Party Down, The League, The State and Arrested Development. Despite Burning Love episodes getting aired by E! later on, the show was still under the radar so Community’s move to Yahoo was pretty perplexing to most fans. But I’m confident it’s in safe hands.

The move to Yahoo may be seen as a risk but Community was never a show afraid to take risks. Unlike other NBC comedies like The Office, which had the security of knowing that it was assured its timeslot, every season was a struggle for Community and the show and fans are both the better for it. The Office appeared to be willing to take risks in the beginning and at the time was very different from everything else on television, initially struggling in the ratings, but then steadily devolved into your average sitcom as it rose in popularity. As its audience grew, they improved the actor’s wardrobe and hair in a bid to pull in more viewers who were used to a more polished looking show (completely going against the intention of the original UK series). Signs that a show has jumped the shark are once you introduce marriage and babies and although the original Office never made it that far, with a nine season run it was inevitable that the stateside Office would introduce these ratings grabbing stunts. The “will-they-or-won’t-they” of Jim and Pam lasted a brief three seasons before they made it official and eventually tied the knot and had babies. Whereas what was initially set up as a similar relationship with Jeff and Britta was soon replaced by fuck buddies, further proof that Community was your non-typical network comedy that went against the grain.

Early on Community proved to be a master of parody. Never has a weekly sitcom perfected the art of spoofs better than Community since The Simpsons before it. Community however did not have the added benefit of Matt Groening’s brilliant idea to feature yellow skinned characters for newcomers to pause when channel surfing (do people even channel surf anymore?) and catch their attention although the cast of Community were no less colorful. That is unless you happen to catch an episode where the characters were animated in the style of an old Christmas themed TV special or literally animated into a G.I. Joe cartoon. That’s just the tip of the iceberg as Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, Star Wars, Logan’s Run, The Hunger Games, Dungeons and Dragons, Zodiac, Law & Order, and even Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction within a single episode, were all paid tribute to.

Community is always willing to experiment, a reason why it was sometimes a hard show to crack for newcomers. In recent years it’s become a growing trend to wait for a popular series to wrap up and then binge watch it over a short span, fulfilling one’s desire for instant gratification and not having to invest years into a show. But those who may discover Community years from now will never know the emotional rollercoaster that it was to be a fan of the show as it was airing. Having Community be a part of our lives during the time it was alive has been half the enjoyment. And keeping the passion burning among the fans was an integral part of keeping it around as long as it has. A show like Community wouldn’t have stood a chance pre-internet, which is why the #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag was so essential to the show’s longevity.

It is kind of amazing it lasted 5 seasons on NBC to begin with, but as I once read somewhere on the internet (sorry for lack of credit, TV pundit) nobody wants to be the network exec that cancels the next Arrested Development.

And I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been championing Community as the spiritual successor to Arrested since I discovered it. At first I was met with some resistance, as there were some who claimed that Modern Family took up that mantle (I guess because it centers around a dysfunctional family?), but the similarities between the two shows are both undeniable and also fun to explore!

Let’s break it down -

Ensemble Cast – Ok, this is a bit of a stretch, but while the run-of-the-mill sitcom features 5-6 main players, Arrested and Community often juggle 10+ with a few more side characters to boot. Need more evidence? How about…

Callbacks – Your average sitcom produces episodes that are self-contained where you can tune in on any given night, get a few chuckles, and then perhaps catch it again someday on a flight or in your hotel room and hopefully elicit a few more laughs. Like pop music, they’re designed to be generic and easy to digest. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But both Arrested and Community excel at the callback where viewers are rewarded for tuning in regularly and the re-watch value is high. There are so many running jokes in both series that there are even lists online created by eagle-eyed journalists for both Arrested and Community.

Directors - Another key ingredient to the success of Community are the Emmy winning Russo brothers. Joe and Anthony Russo refined their comedic directing style on Arrested Development beginning with the pilot and then were brought on to Community to not only direct its pilot but to act as exec producers as well, having proven themselves as integral to the success of Arrested Development. It was during their stay on Community that they got a chance to experiment with multiple genres as the series often spoofed various types of movies. This was their proving grounds which then led to them graduating to Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (featuring a cameo from Abed!). Even with their enormous success they’re still not too big to drop by their old stomping grounds and direct the premiere of season 6. Throw in Jay Chandrasekhar of Broken Lizard fame as a bonus director that carried over and you've got a solid stable of comedic directors with ties to Arrested.

Shared cast members - Having enlisted veteran Arrested Development directors, it was only a matter of time before some of the Bluth clan found their way to Greendale. Tony Hale, David Cross, Jerry Minor, John Michael Higgins, Rob Corddry, Jeff Garlin, Matt Walsh, Andy Dick, Ian Roberts, and Iqbal Theba all mixed it up with the Community ensemble in memorable supporting roles and it's a safe bet we haven't seen the last case of this. Most notably, Jay Johnston portrays a cop in both series. Either this guy is simply typecast or… could he be the one character that ties both universes together? BRAIN WRINKLED.

That, or it could just be a playful nod. I wouldn't put it past them either way.

Meta-ness - Community would often get meta using the school getting shut down as a metaphor to draw attention to the fact that they may end up getting cancelled. Arrested did the same thing, with narrator Ron Howard literally begging viewers to tell their friends to watch the show. I can’t recall any other shows that put out a not-so-subtle call to action within the show to fans to help save it whereupon the Save Our Bluths and Save Greendale campaigns were formed. Annie even suggests to her fellow study group members that they could all tweet the hashtag #SaveGreendale to help spread the word. Perhaps if twitter was more prevalent at the time, Arrested would have employed these tactics as well.

Burn Episodes - Both series experienced a disconcerting tactic where their respective networks “burned off” episodes at the end of a season, to clear the schedule for more American Idol or what have you. In the case of Arrested Development, this was its swan song, after FOX cut its third season short and burned off the final four episodes. One final marathon before we bid adieu to the Bluths. How fitting that fans would go on to marathon the show on Netflix years later. The same thing happened at the end of the third season of Community, and this, coupled with the fact that Harmon had been fired as showrunner from his own show, did not bode well. I was just as surprised as anyone when the show returned minus Harmon (as he IS Community) in a season best left forgotten.

The Showrunners Speaking of showrunners, the brains behind both respective shows obviously share a mutual respect. Both have taken turns guesting on each other’s shows, with Harmon popping up in a small cameo in Arrested’s 4th season and Mitch Hurwitz more notably as party animal Koogler in Community’s 5th. This pretty much sealed the deal for me as the passing of the torch.

However, maybe no torch has to pass…

Cancelled? – Cancellation has increasingly become a minor speed bump along the road for a TV series with cult status (Even The Tick is getting a second shot at life). The show must go on and like its spiritual successor Arrested Development, Community also refuses to die. Not only did Netflix come to Arrested Development’s rescue and deliver to us the highly publicized 4th season of the beloved series, but recently the Chief Content Officer of Netflix said that a 5th season was imminent which Gob Bluth himself confirmed

So while some Arrested Development fans may have adopted other shows to fill that void, for me it was Community.

Also, a little off topic, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the…

Breaking Bad connection – Not only was the subtle way in which Harmon hinted at the return of the show a sly reference to Breaking Bad, but popular cast members popped up throughout including Giancarlo Esposito (Gus), Matt Jones (Badger), and most notably Jonathan Banks (Mike) who joined the cast last season as the resident curmudgeon to take the place of Chevy Chase’s departed Pierce. Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, even got in on the action with a western themed, video game inspired, guest spot that rivals Mitch Hurwitz for best showrunner-turned-comedic-actor on TV.

All they need now is for Bob Odenkirk to drop by for the hat trick who also guested on Arrested Development.

If it weren’t for the internet, Community would have lucky to have survived past 3 seasons, so in a way it only makes sense for it to resume on the platform that kept it alive. In a way it’s like its coming home.

As Entertainment Weekly stated in a recent piece on Community, this year marks the end of the television age of television. EW makes the case that the 4th season of Arrested Development on Netflix was in essence the television equivalent of a concept album, like getting the band back together. While that’s a pretty good correlation to make, I also think comparing TV series to comics isn’t too hard of a stretch to make. Comics have a history of routinely being cancelled when sales are down only to be revived a few years later.

I have a theory that a lot of Community fans, like myself, are comic geeks helping to keep the show alive. I’m partly basing this on the ridiculous amount of fan art that’s out there which drops the cast into the roles of popular superheroes, plus it doesn’t hurt that Community shares a lot in common with comics in that they rely heavily on continuity and explore similar tropes like multi-verses and good vs. evil, etc. Geek culture in general seems to seep into the halls of Greendale on a regular basis with homages to Star Wars and Doctor Who. Sure, the cast of The Big Bang Theory may sport their Flash and Green Lantern t-shirts and visit a comic shop but if you compare the amount of comic book inspired fan art of Community with that of BBT using a quick Google search, it’s not even comparable. Big Bang may be the quintessential “geek” show of today as far as mainstream media is concerned, but it’s clear the fans have spoken.

Just like cancellation, death is a ubiquitous part of comics, and just as a series can reemerge within a year or two, so too can the fallen hero. Here we have a show where one of the core players, Chevy Chase’s Pierce, can be killed off, but if he were to somehow show up in the study room one day with an explanation about how his brain was transferred to a clone of himself he kept on standby, Community fans would not blink at this development. We’ve already seen evil doppelgangers from another dimension invade the school once, and so the idea of a Pierce from an alternate reality filling in for his deceased counterpart isn’t so far fetched. Perhaps a cameo in the movie is in order?

Sure, TV shows may not have the shelf life that long running comics do featuring characters with the uncanny ability to never age, but that’s probably for the best going by my 10 year rule for pop culture (don’t worry, that blog is much shorter). With that in mind, the question is, should it run past six seasons? As much as I didn’t want to see Community go and it’s a good feeling knowing it’s still out there, I also don’t want another Season 4 or worse, ending things on a sour note. It’s a fine line between a celebrated return and wearing out your welcome. While superhero comics go on and on and on, some of the best series, comic or TV, end on their own terms when the creators are ready to move on to a new project. Let’s hope that will be the case here.

After it was announced that Community had not been picked up by NBC for another season, I tweeted half-jokingly that the show could live on as a comic with art by Chip Zdarsky, of Sex Criminals and Applebee’s fame (who then favorited my tweet!). And if you haven’t picked up Sex Criminals, do yourself a favor. I can’t think of anything that has blended comedy and sci-fi this perfectly since, well, Community.

Art by Chip Zdarsky
While that would be fun and I would absolutely pick up a Community comic, I couldn’t be more pleased that the next stage of evolution for the show is to go where it truly belongs – on the internet. Production is set to start again on Nov. 17, and Harmon says the show will make its online debut sometime in the new year.

Yahoo released a trailer which is part tribute, part patting themselves on the back for saving the show but they can pat as hard as they want. Six seasons a movie!