The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘Community’ made TV more like politics, and why we should let it die

Joel McHale, star of the NBC series “Community,” speaks during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington on May 3. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

When the news came yesterday that “Community,” the once-beloved sitcom about community college students, had been rescued from cancellation at NBC by Yahoo, plenty of people were excited that the show was getting a shot at running for “six seasons and a movie.” There have been years when “Community,” which like the best cocktails, balanced the sweet, the sour and the truly weird, was one of my favorite things on television. But rather than regarding the news that “Community” had risen again with joy, I felt more queasy than anything else.

Part of it is that “Community” is no longer the creature it once was: It has changed showrunners and lost actors, throwing off what was once a very strong comedic rhythm and burning through strong, high-concept ideas at what seems like a high rate. But even more than the fact that “Community” has run out of creative steam, it is a show that exemplifies the ways in which television production and fandom have started to feel a lot like politics — and not in a good way.

Television is a strange beast, in that for a long time, many viewers have not had much power to communicate their preferences to the studios that produce shows and the networks who air them. The Nielsen families, whose viewership was actually monitored in detail, were supposed to stand in for the rest of us. Unlike with books or movies, where our individual purchases showed up on bestseller lists and box office totals, we could only purchase cable packages, which suggest nothing about our actual television-watching habits.

In recent years, this has begun to change. Networks have started compiling 30-day ratings made up of both Nielsen numbers and their own data to determine the long tail of their shows. The rise of legal streaming sites such as Hulu provided new opportunities for viewers without televisions to watch ad-supported programming, and to get their viewership measured, even if it does not count quite the same way that Nielsen households do.

And the rise of social media gave audiences opportunities to show networks that they were out there and watching real time by using hashtags to discuss shows in progress, while also giving them access to the creative talents behind those shows.

It is hard to think of a show that sits more directly at the center of a lot of these trends than “Community,” a show that was kept alive in early seasons by the passion of its fan base and evidence that it had a following that did not necessarily tune in on broadcast.

When Dan Harmon, the show’s famously mercurial showrunner and creator, was fired from “Community,” he harnessed his Twitter addiction and popularity into a live, cross-country road show (he was eventually rehired). Harmon’s openness to his fans was proof of how deeply his show was connected. But it also made him intensely attuned to what they wanted from the show, always a dangerous place for an artist to be, even more so because Harmon needed the fans’ enthusiasm to keep “Community” alive.

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?

“Community” is one answer. Even before Harmon was fired, he was already repeating the show’s greatest moments, including its audacious first-season paintball episode, as audience-pleasers, but to diminishing creative returns. In his absence, the new showrunners tried to reproduce the strange vibe that made”Community” so successful in the first place, but only succeeded in giving audiences a zombie, unsettling in both its similarity to the original and the ways it had gone badly awry.

Yahoo’s decision to keep the show running now is the television business equivalent of trying to start a new political party by focusing on an issue with a tiny, but passionate constituency. Maybe the Yahoo “Community” will be great. But however wonderful it is, that success does not mean that Yahoo can produce good original television of its own, or that network television will take that success as a sign that it ought to find better ways of nurturing either high-concept television or kind comedy.

Treating the television industry like politics is an appealing idea, but a limited one. Networks can afford to have narrower brands, and in the present television environment, they actually have to — the days of big-tent broadcast are dead. You cannot turn Yahoo, Hulu, or Netflix into the tea party and hope the Big Four get the message.

Unlike in politics, the best art is not necessarily based on giving audiences what they think they want or need, but in surprising them. Showrunners should be independent of their audiences.

And most importantly, television shows, unlike political parties or career politicians, can bow out when they still have some dignity left. I wish “Community” was taking that opportunity.