Can Comedies with Long-Term Arcs and Jokes Survive on Network TV?

While perusing the various reactions to the indefinite hiatus of Community, I found a piece by Richard Lawson, who gave three explanations as to what Community did wrong that resulted in getting pulled. I took issue with Lawson’s first reason:

Again, the show is fun and witty once you figure your way into it, but it takes a while, and many a fickle TV viewer just isn’t willing to put in that time. The show needs (needed?) to be a little less into itself, a little bit less of an inward-facing nerd knot, if they hope (hoped?) to bring in new viewers. We’re not saying the show has to dumb itself down, it just has to be more welcoming, it needs a least a few occasional access points. A deliberately obscureStar Wars reference followed by a self-satisfied smirk just isn’t going to cut it.

The first sentence sticks out, because you have to wonder what the “fickle TV viewer” would watch. Would that viewer start watching any episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men just because it was on? Not unless that viewer enjoyed pissing off their friends by asking questions about every scene. Those shows require viewing from the beginning and still get great ratings. Community’s genre, however, is not afforded the same luxuries with its audience.

TV comedies are held to a very different standard than TV dramas. Sitcoms are expected to exist in a frozen state of time, with every episode starting and ending in about the same place. That’s why comedies like The Simpsons or The Big Bang Theory are so successful: the continuity is minimal, so viewers can pick up at any episode and find it funny. There will obviously be a few winks to reward longtime viewers, but for the most part, anyone can arbitrarily watch an episode of these programs and understand the majority of the jokes.

A lot of comedies will smooth over developing a character with a mixture of archetypes and stereotypes. Then, whenever the situation is right for the character to show some depth, they’ll plug in whatever emotions that are required to maintain the thin strand of continuity. Some of these comedies are successful (Two And A Half Men) while others are not (Outsourced).

Dramas are given the benefit of taking their time. Some of them are able to start out with some huge event (a plane crash on Lost, zombies on The Walking Dead) and tell a story from there. It becomes the important draw for an audience: why is this happening and who is it affecting? The viewers expect to learn more about the people involved because these dramas are throwing the viewer into the middle of a big moment where no characters have been established and using it as a jumping off point.

Comedies don’t get those chances. The Hard Times Of RJ Berger, a secret favorite of mine, was marketed by MTV as having one of those “big events” in the pilot: the whole high school found out that RJ Berger had a big penis, and his life changed. That was supposed to be the draw. Either the commercials were dishonest or the writers got desperate, because the show quickly developed into a stale 22 minutes of tired high school jokes. The whole premise was shoved in the background, and whenever it was necessary for the plot to go on, the fact that the main character was well-endowed was mentioned quickly for a weak joke.

Arrested Development revolved around a big event too: a dysfunctional family’s patriarch goes to prison, leaving them with little money. The show featured various plotlines from the different family members that weaved around this event and inside jokes that carried over from episode to episode, which made it very difficult to start watching in the middle. Despite the excellent writing and cast, Arrested Development could never find a solid audience.

Community didn’t follow the well-worn path, either. Creator Dan Harmon decided to develop the characters thoroughly from the first season, taking basic characters and adding to them until they were unique. The jock was emotional and bromantic with the socially awkward yet aware culture nerd. The uptight A student wanted everything to be perfect but wasn’t emotionally dead. The old guy was not wise, and secretly wanted to fit into the group. The single mother was a strict Christian and was also capable of tolerating others. The past-her-era feminist attempted to utilize her prior experiences (and classes) to try some armchair analysis. The seemingly “normal” lawyer in relation to the rest of the characters was trying to save a life ridden with failure.

The complex and ever-changing characters on Community require an audience who sticks around and has been there from the start to fully be on board with them. Like the intricate plot and callbacks of Arrested Development, constructing a comedy like this goes against what many people expect from the genre: a show you can drop into any time, with no background needed. But with TV dramas reaching new heights of quality and viewer engagement thanks to season and series-long arcs, why aren’t we affording comedies the same luxury?

Samer Kalaf is a writer from New Hampshire trying to do things in New York.

Can Comedies with Long-Term Arcs and Jokes Survive on […]