The show for which “cult following” seems too mild a term, “Community” has once more escaped the axe. The canceled NBC sitcom was picked up by Yahoo! Screen mere hours before the actors’ contracts expired on June 30, According to Vulture, a sixth season — the first part of the famed #SixSeasonsandaMovie — may air as soon as this fall, with 13 episodes doled out in weekly installments. (Initial reports predicted a Netflix-like release in 2015.) Update: Harmon now says, via Twitter (and counter to Yahoo’s own Twitter account), that the show will not even start writing new episodes until the fall.
Fans, not surprisingly, were delighted. But a few critics were moved to wonder if “Community’s” time had come and gone, and if the increased influence of internet fandom on the people who finance and create TV is not entirely a welcome thing. Even Dan Harmon once seemed not so jazzed about the prospect.
At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg suggests that “Community’s” renewal reflects “the ways in which television production and fandom have started to feel like politics — and not in a good way.”
In broad strokes, I think it is a good thing for pop culture fans to express their preferences strongly, since there is some evidence that the entertainment industry does not always act rationally when it comes to the box-office draw of female-focused films or its ability to build new, non-white stars.
But what happens when audiences effectively want to be programmers — or political constituents — demanding not just more warm-hearted comedies, but this warm-hearted comedy and specific plot twists or shtick within it? And what happens when networks and upstart outlets such as Yahoo start acting like political parties, playing to their bases rather than developing new ideas?
At his blog, Ryan McGee addresses the instant backlash to the renewal, where former and non-fans of “Community” wished that it had been allowed to die a natural death, or resented that “Community,” and not “Enlisted” or “Trophy Wife,” had been saved from oblivion:
People love to love “Community,” which is different than loving “Community.” One can do both, but let’s be clear: It’s the former that drives the internet chatter, that stokes division, and seeks to claim the inherently unclaimable. What trips me up isn’t how protective fans of “Community” are about the show, but rather those who seem distraught that this show gets another chance. One person on Twitter asked me why he shouldn’t be offended that a “better” show like “Enlisted” didn’t get this chance, and I have literally no idea how to respond. I like “Enlisted” better than “Community,” and I’d rather see the former show double its overall episode total than the seemingly exhausted storytelling of the latter rev up its engines again. But that has nothing to do with Yahoo’s decision, nor should it. “Community” is a better known commodity with a larger back catalog of episodes that motivated fans will stream again and again in order to prove the portal made the right decision.
At Time, James Poniewozik hoped that “Community’s” sixth season would be more like its first, that Dan Harmon and co. would take advantage of the freedom offered by their new home to rework the show from the ground up:
“Community” has been the story of Harmon’s attempt to make a sitcom be as many things as he could make it be: a cartoon, an 8-bit videogame, a pop-culture parody, and a bittersweet character story. Theoretically, a “Community” produced online could become even more: if Harmon needs ten minutes more (or less) for a given episode, why couldn’t he have it? If Mitch Hurwitz could create an elaborate, experimental intersecting narrative without network-TV constraints, I can only imagine what Harmon will do with that toolbox — though I also wonder how he’ll deal with not having those constraints to define himself against.
To my mind, Poniewoik’s last point is the most intriguing. Orson Welles famously said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations,” and while “Community” has thrived on reinventing the sitcom form, it’s always been developed in relation to it. Take away the mandatory act breaks, the 22-minute running time, the constraints on subject matter and language, and what does Harmon have to push against? And if he doesn’t, if he plays by the same rules he always has, won’t that be a disappointment? No one knows how much oversight Yahoo! intends to exercise over Harmon, but if they give him carte blanche (outside the realm of his per-episode budget, which will be roughly the same as NBC’s), the only thing left for Harmon to subvert will be his fans’ expectations. Given that he owes his continued livelihood to them, how likely is that?