Like other clever, well constructed series before it, the meta sitcom wasn't built for the long haul
Here's an unpopular opinion: NBC was right to suspend Community.
Let me clarify: Community is a brilliant show. It's brought something arresting and interesting to a primetime reliant on old tropes done new ways. It gave us a couple incredible characters and afforded for some hilarious episodes.
But how long was it going to really go on for? It had a great two and a half seasons, and it could probably manage another one, but two? Would we need a bunch of weird excuses for why the characters never leave school after graduation, parodying other sitcoms that do the same thing, while at the same time... doing the same thing? At what point would we have started to say, "Wow, why didn't they just cancel Community before all those weird cousins moved in?"
Community was never built for the long haul. It may have borrowed its structure from the standard American sitcom, but it's a different kind of show, one that values style and intellectual content over characters and emotional content. It spends a lot of time being everything else, but less time establishing what it is—you can only parody for so long. That doesn't make it a failure. Community succeeded, just at a different goal.
Some shows are built to last: I've recently become obsessed with Cheers, and the kind of familiarity and warmth that the show is built on was enough to keep it together for 11, slowly shifting seasons. It worked for Cheers, but it doesn't for other shows. We call it a tragedy if a show doesn't keep getting renewed until it's not funny anymore, but sometimes a show can shine within a smaller timeframe. Modern shows find themselves being compared to movies, but they're expected to last about 30 times longer.
Arrested Development is the archetypal indie favorite on network television, unfairly ripped from the airwaves by unthinking, uncaring beauracrats who cared naught for true comedy. For only three seasons it told the tale of the bizarre and self-involved Bluth family, their continuing legal struggles and desperate attempts to save their business. It was different than other shows on TV, featuring staggering comedic performances that continue to enthrall hipsters to this day. But what if it were still on the air now? Was that incessant wackiness going to wear thin at some point? The show was built on a constantly changing, continuing plot, and eventually they were going to need to start changing some basic points or else it would've gotten stuck. And then, those faithful who now decry its loss would have started to turn.
Instead, Arrested Development's writers made the third season with full knowledge that the show was going to be cancelled, staring so deeply into their own navels that their eyeballs turned black and they went mad. It was incredible. The third season at once proved why they could never have gone on for much longer, and why they were so right to have gone on for as long as they did. That true madness allowed the series to be itself before closing it out with ridiculous grace and propelling Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, and Will Arnett to A-list status.
Party Down, which ran for two seasons on Starz, is another such show—one of my favorite series of recent years, and another show accused of being cancelled before it's time. It was about a bunch of actors working a catering job while they waited to hit it big. But with the continuing plot they had established, the writers were stuck between sacrificing the basic concept of the show or leaving their characters mired in a perpetual brink. The show ended with one character having written a decent script, and another one going back to acting. We didn't need to see them pursue those ends. It was a good place to leave the story.
These are different kinds of shows that, like Community, can be successful without being built to be 11-season sitcoms. Look at The Office—it was once one of the best shows on TV, but now, having run through all possible plots, it's decayed into a sub-par sitcom. I maintain that The American version is better than the British version, but America could've learned from the original to cut it off when it was done.
In England, they don't expect shows to last forever. Many shows sign up for just one or two seasons, and it allows for some weird and wonderful programming that doesn't feel the pressure of returning for another season. Take Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, a bizarre, ultra-campy imagination of a terrible horror show from the '80s, which ran for one short season in the UK. It was hilarious, but it was the kind of show nobody would have greenlit if they were trying for more than 6 episodes.
American TV could stand to borrow from that system, one that allows for writers to put together a contained experience without having to worry about going on ad infinitum. We're beginning to see glimmers of it already—the creators of Breaking Bad and Mad Men have both expressed artistic satisfaction in the fact that their days are now numbered.
And so we mourn not the death of Community, rather we celebrate its life. May other shows pick up its mantle, may its cast have the wind always at their backs. The show, of course, might come back, but if it doesn't, it will be okay.
P.S. Firefly could've run for a billion seasons.
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