(Numbers are based on those reported TvByTheNumbers.Zap2it.com. Just the numbers are below the essay.)
We’ve reported a lot about Community’s ratings issues, but I thought it was important to actually look at the numbers a little bit more closely. Of all the reasons a show could do poorly in a given week, the one least mentioned is also the hardest for fans to accept: people just don’t like it. Community had the most buzz it maybe ever had heading into its mid-March return and yet they ended back where they started — hell, they’re currently worse than they started. Non-fans watched Community over the past six weeks and they all seemingly decided they didn’t care for it.
There was a perfect storm of sorts surrounding Community’s return. Beyond the ton of press and speculation surrounding its hiatus, The Big Bang Theory was preempted by the NCAA Tournament, and there was a wedding. (People love weddings. Like holiday episodes, weddings are a commonality that an audience can grab onto.) This resulted in a 2.2 18-49 rating (4.75 million estimated total viewers), which is very good in NBC terms as it’s basically what The Office gets every week. This is the most eyeballs they’ve gotten since 2010 and, in general, many of those new eyeballs looked away (in comparison to 30 Rock, which though isn’t doing too great, has been pretty consistent).
The drop-off between the 3/15 episode and the 3/22 is the most obvious cause for concern. There was a 23% drop between the episodes regardless of the fact that situation was nearly identical, as Big Bang Theory was still off the air because of the tournament. There are tons of factors of why this could happen but pure dislike has to top the list.
To further prove that the Big Bang Theory factor is vastly overestimated, consider that Community’s ratings stayed constant on March 29th, despite the return Big Bang Theory. Then on April 5th the number dropped again to a season low 1.3, despite Big Bang Theory’s numbers also dropping. What I find particularly telling about the 5th is what it means when you look at what was happening on the show itself. Ratings are often the reflection of the opinions on the previous week’s episode, and that is particularly the case here as Community’s March 29th episode ended with a “To Be Continued.” The story was literally not finished yet and 24% of the audience didn’t care to see how it ended.
And this touches on the show’s major problem: it never really welcomed new viewers with open arms. As the show has gone on, it’s grown more confident in writing episodes that demand that the audience know the characters and the universe. Last night’s episode, for example (which was my favorite of the last six), was so inside and so exclusionary that even a casual fan would need a commercial break refresher. The show is not unlike Abed, creating this fantastical shell around itself, preventing outsiders from getting to know it. Being too linear and self-referential is a problem that has plagued the critically-lauded albeit ratings-challenged sitcoms since Arrested Development, but no show does it with as much zeal. It is, however, what its fans love about it. It rewards those who get it.
But is that ultimately a failure? Are sitcoms inherently supposed to consist of easy to jump into, interchangeable episodes? I love Community, but when you compare it to the season Happy Endings just wrapped up, it feels a bit stuffy and self-serious — two adjectives you don’t want associated with your sitcom. I’m very confident that Community will get another season if not more (if 30 Rock does in fact end next year and maybe The Office as well, it would be hard for NBC to justify losing another show), but at this point we can’t complain that people aren’t watching it because they haven’t given it a shot. Last night’s Community was watched by a paltry 2.9 million people, and that sounds exactly right. Community is not underrated or under-watched; it’s where it should be — where it wants to be.
Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn.