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What's next for "Community?"

If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, Community is the show about sitcoms. Since its first episode, it has been a meta commentary on the very concept of “meta.” It deconstructs the tropes that decades of television have established, and it does it with a fantastic ensemble cast and some of the funniest writing on TV. Community challenges the audience’s expectations about what a sitcom is and can be.

Unfortunately, audiences don’t want to be challenged, at least not by sitcoms (premium cable dramas are a different story). Community is in rarefied air; the show closest to its intellectual exercise is 30 Rock. Before that, there was Arrested Development, and we all know how that turned out.

With this in mind, the news of Community’s absence from NBC’s midseason schedule should not surprise anyone. Even as the show has gotten better, moving further down the rabbit hole and certifying show creator Dan Harmon as an evil genius, ratings have declined. It averaged 5 million viewers in the first season, down to 4.48 million the next, and finally 3.68 million this season. Those are extremely low numbers, even for NBC, the fourth place network. Ironically, NBC’s across-the-board struggles may be keeping the show alive.

This year, the Thursday night comedy block has consisted of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, and the incongruous throwback Whitney. With 30 Rock’s midseason return and Up All Night’s promotion from Wednesday to Thursday, NBC was left with six shows for four slots. The network continues to stand by its heavily promoted Whitney, shifting it to Wednesday with the similarly-schlocky Are You There, Chelsea? leaving Community as the obvious choice for the bench.

NBC could have avoided this, if they had stuck with an old idea instead of scrambling for something new. At midseason last year, NBC tried a three-hour comedy bloc, featuring Community, Perfect Couples, The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Outsourced. The experiment failed because Perfect Couples and Outsourced were weak offerings, but Up All Night and (the already cancelled) Free Agents would have been perfect fits for a three-hour powerhouse of comedy. Instead, we’re left with this. C’est la TV.

As of now, Community hasn’t been cancelled, and production hasn’t stopped (as it has for fellow benchwarmer Prime Suspect). So is there any hope? Some, thanks to the financial windfall that is syndication. Traditionally, shows needed to cross the 100 episode barrier before being sold to syndicators; these days, 88 episodes will do the trick. Community is about a season and a half away from making Sony Pictures Television a lot of cash, giving the production company an incentive to lower its price for NBC (possibly by cutting production and cast costs).

Could NBC decide to ax Community, only to see it show up on Netflix or Hulu? Community is an established property, but clearly without the audience share that its fervent fan base would suggest. Netflix seems like a better fit, if only because of their willingness to spend and their desire to bring Reno 911 back from the dead. To this point, however, streaming revivals have all been hypothetical, and don’t count on Community to break that trend.

Six seasons and a movie seems unlikely at this point, but fans should find solace in the fact that Community made it this far. Challenging audiences isn’t easy, yet Harmon and company continue to raise the stakes, week after week. And if cancellation is imminent, just imagine how meta things will get. If the final season of Arrested Development is any indication, impending doom is a great motivator for television excellence.

Update: With this weekend’s news that Netflix will bring back Arrested Development, the chances of Community joining the video giant certainly uptick – contingent on how well the experiment does.

Originally posted at The Couch Sessions.

"30 Rock" isn't over – but should it be?

Alec Baldwin’s recent comments about the end of 30 Rock were quickly rebutted and walked back. Initially promising one more season, Baldwin changed his tune to five more, placating fans still shell-shocked by Arrested Development. But as the critical darling nears the 100 episode mark, would ending it be such a bad thing?

After four seasons of rewriting the book on the TV sitcom, the fifth season has been mixed, at best. Story lines have been underdeveloped and quickly discarded. After making Jack’s struggle to balance work and romance a focal point for several seasons, he finally married alpha-female Avery (Elizabeth Banks) and had a child. But with Banks’ limited availability, the “Jack as husband and father” story line has been kiboshed. The same can be said about Tracy’s newest child and Jenna’s romance with the crossdressing Paul (Will Forte). Instead of continuing to mine new material, the writers have fallen back on “Tracy/Jenna as diva” gags that have been run into the ground.

Story lines are driven by character interactions, and while we have seen most combinations multiple times, new characters (and new angles) have been neglected. While writing-out dimwit cast member Josh (Lonny Ross) wasn’t a big loss, abandoning his replacement Danny (Cheyenne Jackson) has been. The show rehashed a gag about forgetting about Danny this season, but scripting around his character would give the show a much needed infusion of new blood.

However, the most significant problem is the amped up writing. Compared to the earliest seasons, the latest episodes are too frenetic, the jokes too contrived. Going for the cheap joke and the throwaway reference makes the show resemble Family Guy. As South Park deftly satirized:

30 Rock is still fantastic TV, but it no longer lingers in the collective consciousness or holds up on repeat viewings. The problem is magnified by a show that manages to out-30 Rock 30 Rock: Community. Community has taken the reins on the Thursday night block, playing to the strengths of a talented ensemble. The show is “meta” at its finest, even topping 30 Rock‘s forays into the examination of the sitcom medium.

Ending 30 Rock now would preserve the show’s reputation as a television classic, while letting Community shine. While NBC probably won’t do it, it should. Making way for new classics keeps the Peacock vibrant… even if this topic will pop up again after about 50 episodes of Community.