I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but NBC is in trouble. Nothing the network does seems to work, and the two shows it had that it could have conceivably called “hits,” The Biggest Loser and The Office, are both long in the tooth. And they were never top ten shows to begin with, outside of that one time The Office was after the Super Bowl. The network’s Thursday comedies gather lots of Internet buzz and critical praise, but that doesn’t mean much of anything when it comes to the Nielsens, leading to the network entering a period where it might have to cancel either Community or Parks And Recreation, arguably the two strongest comedies on television. And it’s not as though any of the other nights boast high critical support either. Outside of Chuck and Parenthood, is there another drama on the network that has attracted a high level of support? (You’d have to count Friday Night Lights as an NBC show, and it’s not, not really.)
And yet the rest of the NBC universe is humming along just fine. USA, Bravo, SyFy, and Oxygen have all identified their target audiences and have been wildly successful in drawing those audiences in, particularly the giant-sized audience USA regularly draws for its broad slate of lightly wacky action dramas. All four of those networks know exactly what they want to be, which is not something that can be said for NBC itself. Where USA relentlessly programs variations (some more extensive than others) on the template that Monk made popular for the network, NBC kind of wants to be the network of sophisticated comedies but also wants to be the network of long-in-the-tooth Law & Order spinoffs and assorted gimmicky, cheap-ass reality shows. Part of this is the fact that the network is likely trying to stretch every dollar, but for a network with such a rich history, it’s still disappointing.
On the other hand, something like Community is probably never going to be a mainstream hit. Even in a friendly room, filled with critics who love the show and can’t wait for its return next week, there were grumbles from a few about how the show receives buzz that’s not commensurate with its ratings. The cast, as always, was loose and goofy and riffing off of each other, and that was a lot of fun, but probably only if you’re predisposed to like the show (as I am). When creator Dan Harmon started rattling off influences on the show, placing Abed in the same line of characters as Reverend Jim from Taxi, Gonzo from The Muppet Show, and Snoopy from Peanuts, it thrilled me because those are all things I love beyond all reason. (He later listed Cheers as another important influence and talked about how he finds Christmas to be “a depressing holiday to me in a good way,” so if you don’t know why I like this show by now …)
The Community session also gained a lot from coming at the end of a boring slog of a day, in which NBC presented to us the shows The Cape, Perfect Couples, America’s Next Great Restaurant, and Harry’s Law. When the highlight of the day before Community was the guy who founded Chipotle talking about the benefits of fast-casual dining when compared to fast food, you knew Community wasn’t going to have to do much to top that. Really, all they had to do was show up and be their bubbly selves, and we were going to be won over (or at least most of us). In the midst of all of that, though, there was plenty of discussion of what makes the show work and just how far the show can be pushed before it stops being what it is.
When will the genre parodies become too much? No one on the show knows, but Harmon insisted that so long as the characters remained realistic, the show could get away with even more than it maybe already has. “You have to believe these people are down the street somewhere. That's the simplest rule,” he said, to the general agreement of the cast, who pointed out that all of the genre parody episodes have been littered with big character moments, like Jeff and Britta sleeping together in “Modern Warfare” or Troy and Abed’s moment of genuine affection in “Epidemiology.” Harmon also admitted he has a few ideas for episodes like this later in the season but wasn’t willing to tell us what they would be, and he did wonder if the Apollo 13 homage episode and the zombie episode were too close to each other. The one concrete episode nugget the panel could give us involved an episode that will likely air in mid-February (according to an NBC publicist), where the gang gets together to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
The subject of what happens when the characters graduate from Greendale came up yet again (Harmon described the question as his “Moriarty”), and while the cast was quick to point out that they don’t believe their characters are doing terribly well in school (“I have a pillow in my backpack; that should tell you how well we’re doing,” Donald Glover said), Harmon also admitted he has some “weird theories” about where the series could go after everyone earns their four-year degree from the community college. Glover and Danny Pudi also talked about working with Betty White on the rap to Toto’s “Africa,” impressed by how she learned the song, despite the fact that it “was out when she was already old,” in the words of Glover. And Harmon and the cast also addressed just how dark the show could get and still be a sitcom, in light of the final two episodes of 2010, both of which featured some fairly depressing moments. Harmon admitted the show had the “highest percentage of sap” compared to the other NBC comedies, while Glover pointed out that if you watch the Christmas episode in one frame of mind, you’ll laugh the whole way through, but in another, it will be incredibly depressing. Still, Harmon seemed confident in the show’s ability to walk the line between honest emotion and sentiment and keeping things funny.
And yet the grumbles from some in the audience (all of whom seemed to be seated directly behind me) continued. Community, unlike, say, Parks And Recreation, is in a format that seems to be deliberately polarizing. If you can’t get on its particular wavelength, it’s going to seem a little cold and clinical to you, and the fact that its fanbase can be a little … relentless certainly doesn’t help matters. But if you ARE on its wavelength, it can almost seem like it’s speaking directly TO you, which is a talent only the best TV sitcoms have. I don’t have a real explanation for why Community seems to be so polarizing (though I would ask its fans to stop berating people who don’t like it, as it’s certainly not helping), but that we’ve gotten two seasons of such a weird and wonderful show and that we’ll likely get a third (seriously, what else is NBC going to put on?) at least makes me happy, even if it doesn’t everybody else.
Some quick hits:
—Wednesday was entirely taken over by set visits, including a visit to the sets of The George Lopez Show and Conan, complete with discussions with Lopez and Conan O’Brien. O’Brien, in particular, was fairly forthcoming about how strange he found the rabid cult that’s built up around him since the unfortunate situation with NBC last year and the process that led to his resurrection and rebirth on TBS (where he attracts the youngest audience in late night, tied with Lopez for that mark, their average viewer a mere 33). A visit to the Fox lot to talk about comedy with actors and actresses from the studio’s comedies also had its moments, though the women’s panel devolved into a bunch of discussion about thoughts about women being funny that are now mostly outdated, I would hope. And while I love Cougar Town like nobody’s business and enjoyed getting to hear that the Cul-De-Sac Crew will find themselves facing off against a cantankerous wine bar owner, I’d have to say Parks And Recreation won the day, with its tour of its ridiculously detailed Pawnee office building set, which seems specifically designed as some sort of sitcom Disneyland attraction, not a place to work and film. Also, I got my picture taken with a miniature horse, something that will make more sense as the third season plays out. Good show, Parks And Recreation!
—If you’ll notice, I’ve said basically nothing about the rest of the network’s day. That’s because it was kind of awful (and we know how much you guys like your Community). America’s Next Great Restaurant looks fun, but that might just be because I haven’t seen it (unlike the network’s other output). It also looks like it’s taken elements from about five or six different failed reality shows, most notably Shark Tank. And while creator David E. Kelley said some interesting things about how Harry’s Law is meant to be about the income disparity in the United States, it’s also a show about a lawyer who operates out of a shoe store that seems to have been kept in a drawer since 1985 and barely updated. So. (That said, Kelley sees some intense symbolism in the shoes, which is just odd.)
—I’m pretty sure the panel for Perfect Couples lasted at least four hours. The producers tried to defend just why they’d do a show that’s so much like a million other shows on the air this season, but they were unable to convince us they had anything new whatsoever to say about relationships or the people in them.
—At one point, a critic called Summer Glau the Betty Grable of the fanboy set. OK, then.
—I try not to write about the parties here because you guys don’t care about them. But the NBC party was ridiculous. It was so crammed with famous people from the network’s shows that it was easy to get interviews with just about anyone you wanted, but it was also so full that those interviews are largely unintelligible because of crowd noise. On the other hand, I bumped into Monica Potter hanging out in a corner, trying to get away from everything. We chatted briefly about Parenthood, but she was on the way out the door to her real kids. The sight of the night, then, other than that, stemmed from seeing Mark Pellegrino (of SyFy’s upcoming pretty good Being Human remake) entertaining Savannah Paige Rae (the youngest girl on Parenthood). This baffled me until I realized Rae’s older sister played Young Kate in the season five finale of Lost, thus having shared screen time with Pellegrino before.