'Community’: Why Yahoo Was Smart to Join the Study Group
Business + Economy

'Community’: Why Yahoo Was Smart to Join the Study Group

Universal Television

On St. Patrick’s Day, Yahoo will be rolling out the sixth season of the beloved cult sitcom Community, starting the show’s new life on the digital empire’s fledgling streaming service. Expectations for both ratings and quality have been kept reasonable by fans and critics alike, but the idea that the scruffy show could be Yahoo’s white knight rumble underneath. In the rankings of unlikely saviors, Community must surely rank high.

To fully understand why, here’s a quick recap of Community’s rocky road to this point. (Fans of the show can skip down to the Yahoo section below.)

A QUICK COURSE ON COMMUNITY or "Other Subhead Goes Here"
Launched by NBC in 2009, when the network was flailing desperately to replace its comedy lineup, Community was given the full media push. Shepherded by Dan Harmon, a former writer on The Sarah Silverman Program, the story initially followed a slick and cocky lawyer forced to attend a local community college. The Soup host Joel McHale was brought in for the lead role with comedy legend Chevy Chase in a major supporting part. Early promotions featured Chase heavily.

Slideshow: Community:The 18 Episodes You Should Watch Before the Premiere

Things quickly got interesting both in front of and behind the camera. Early episodes, despite having moments of genuinely inspired comedy, were largely within a familiar template, with McHale’s Jeff Winger consistently trying to sleep with pretty but aimless hipster Britta Perry (the incomparable Gillian Jacobs). It was Sam and Diane all over again, a point that the ruthlessly “meta” show made pains to mock. The ever-contrary Harmon wanted to do something different.

Cleverly defusing the Jeff and Britta relationship, the show expanded and became actively bigger and weirder. Jacobs in particular, freed from the constraints of being “the love interest,” was able to make Britta more of a unique little snowflake. Increasingly, the show became one about the way that television and its tropes permeate our lives, but its tone was tempered by a legitimately big heart, in a way that, say, Arrested Development was never allowed to have. The theme of the show could be boiled down to this: All humans are inherently broken, and only by forming a community with other broken souls who are different enough from us to push us can we hope to maintain our sanity. From the latter part of its first season to almost the end of its third, Community was on an unbelievable creative streak. The nerdy and cerebral show gained a rabidly devoted following, but never attracted great ratings.

Meanwhile, the fights between Harmon, NBC and Chase were becoming more and more perilous. NBC wanted the show to pull back on its weirdness, to be more user-friendly, to be more like CBS’s nerd-baiting juggernaut The Big Bang Theory. Harmon, with little interest in appearances and a whole lot of interest in whiskey, was having none of it. Additionally, Chase was becoming more and more disgruntled. Having been sold on a show in which he was a major player, he found his character pushed to the margins, and for a large part of Season 2, made out and out villainous. He felt, probably not unreasonably, that his character had become a punching bag for Harmon’s generational frustrations. It would be easier to have some sympathy for Chase if he wasn’t also doing some of his best work in decades.

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At the end of season 3, Harmon was fired and most fans thought that would be that, but a string of incredible events kept the show alive. The show was renewed for an abbreviated fourth season, under new management. The producers tried to maintain continuity in the writer’s room, and the new showrunners did their best to recreate Harmon’s touch, but most of the season simply seems like desperate flailing.

Again, fans assumed this would be the end of the line, and after the disappointment of previous season, many wondered if maybe it was time to let go. But NBC, at least partially guided by the total failure of all of its new sitcoms, figured that low ratings were better than none. They did something unprecedented. They rehired Harmon.

The fifth season, while never reaching the shows high points, proved at least that Harmon’s voice was irreplaceable. The show lost two key cast members in Chase and Donald Glover. Chase’s loss was a long time coming and he was adequately replaced in Season 5 by Jonathan Banks (as a new character), who in turn will be replaced by Keith David in Season 6. No attempt was made to replace Glover (also known as rapper Childish Gambino), whose shoes were impossible to fill.

Season 5 came and went, and most assumed that this time, that was really it. And then Yahoo stepped in.

On paper, it may seem a strange decision for Yahoo. While Netflix is riding high on the success of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and Amazon rakes in rewards for Transparent, Yahoo is taking a gamble on a show now in its sixth season that has been cancelled by NBC on three separate occasions. Even the most ardent Community fans will admit its best days are behind it. But it’s important to consider scale here.

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Even at the end of its run, Community could still reliably pull in between 2.5 and 4 million viewers an airing. Even if you consider that the passing of time and the difficulty of adapting to a new medium will cause a decent amount of attrition, it’s not unreasonable to think that an episode on Yahoo could still pull in 1.5 to 2 million, which for a streaming show, particularly a streaming show on a fledgling network, is a solid success. As “viewership” for streaming content is still exceptionally difficult to quantify, this could be an even bigger victory for Yahoo.

Despite their place in the pop cultural conversation, no one is sure how many viewers the buzzed-about streaming shows actually get. Amazon trumpeted Transparent as its biggest success, but it could have topped the Prime streaming chart with as little 100,000 views. House of Cards may be on the lips of every political writer and TV critic in the nation, but it’s likely that no more than 3 million people have watched an individual episode. Even with the world going streaming, a hit for Netflix is a flop for NBC.

And while Yahoo is developing its own original shows, keep in mind that Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for that matter have all created programming that didn’t succeed, before some of them hit it big. With Community, Yahoo gets a built-in audience, a large percentage of which comes from critical circles. They basically can’t lose.

So will we get “six seasons and a movie”? For his part, Dan Harmon doesn’t think it’s out of the question. So, Community fans, stay tuned…

Slideshow: Community:The 18 Episodes You Should Watch Before the Premiere

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