NBC continued to catch flack this morning when a memo from the network to Community cast members leaked online. Now, admittedly, NBC has not handled the firing of Dan Harmon well from a public relations perspective, and this memo doesn’t help. It reeks of an “emergency communications plan” concocted by some soulless PR hack in an empty suit, fired off in response to not only the negative reaction surrounding Harmon’s ouster but the pro-Harmon Tweets that virtually the entire cast sent out in the wake of the kerfuffle.
Now, mind you, the Tweets from Joel Mchale, Alison Brie, et al. did not criticize NBC or Sony in any way; they merely expressed gratitude to Harmon. An example:
But, as giant, flailing corporations are wont to do, NBC overreacted and realized they needed to get their spin out, pronto. No cattle wandering off the ranch under Bob Greenblatt’s watch! So, yes, the portion of the memo we’ve seen is filled with the worst kind of doublespeak, cynicism and insincerity.
But I think the media and Community fans are being a little unfair to NBC, because only part of the memo leaked. We’ve got the rest of it, including a portion of the script for the fourth-season premiere of Community, right here, right now.
So while we were all off having a nice weekend (longer for some of us than others here in Chicago; thanks, NATO!), NBC and Sony essentially used Michael Scott from The Office’s filing system to let us know that Dan Harmon would not return as Community showrunner.
But alas for them, it’s 2012, and even a press release tossed into a dumpster at 6:30 p.m. on a summer Friday is going to see the light of day.
Predictably, given Community’s rabid and irritable fan base, the news of Harmon’s ouster did not go well, particularly once Harmon revealed Sony had never even contacted him to discuss contract renewal. From a public relations perspective, NBC and Sony couldn’t have handled this worse. They raised the Community community’s hopes by renewing the show, then crushed them by firing the guy responsible for the show’s voice.
The situation’s been well covered, from Alan Sepinwall analyzing how other shows have fared after the departure of a powerful showrunner to Tim Goodman spotlighting the stupidity of NBC. I certainly agree with the consensus (or at least the consensus among Community fans and critics I respect): booting Harmon is an imbecilic move that will alienate a sizable chunk of the show’s devoted viewers and rob the series of its uniqueness and soul.
But I’m also interested in what this means for network television as an ongoing concern.
It’s always been difficult to put together a great sitcom. As much as we like to romanticize the shows of our youth, I’m guessing it would take about half-an-episode of Night Court or Three’s Company before we’d be heading for the gin.
The past decade has seen its share of classics, from the hipster catnip of Arrested Development to the comedy of manners of Curb Your Enthusiasm… it would be hard to argue that the form has either waned or waxed, from a general quality standpoint. But there’s a specter that’s hanging over too many sitcoms on the air right now, a goofy, floppity ghost that haunts the back of even the best showrunners’ brains.
…or Why NBC is Run By a Batch of Baboons
Television networks work very hard and spend millions of dollars trying to build a brand, so that when viewers think of ABC or Fox, they associate that network with specific traits and ideas. Of course, the networks want to control how we think about them and what we associate with them. The reality however, is that viewer conception of networks comes from a mix of the networks trying to brainwash us, the shows they actually put on the air, and a nostalgic, hazy feeling of what those networks used to be when we were younger and more impressionable.
Network identities have shifted over time as they evolve (or devolve) along with the shows they currently air, and reflecting the demographics of their audience. Moreover, a network’s image or self-image often has a direct impact on the fate of its shows. Quality shows get cancelled and intriguing pilots get rejected because they don’t fit the brand, while mediocre shows live on for years past their shelf life because they reinforce networks’ self-belief. Let’s examine how these brand identities have changed over the past 30 years.
At least 99 percent of Americans don’t watch Community regularly. Their reaction, upon learning that NBC left the show off its mid-season schedule:
On the other hand, everybody I know and follow on Twitter watches Community. Their reaction was more like this:
So, thanks to Dan Harmon’s Twitter feed, we know this is happening:
Seeing this photo made me instantly miss Lost. And then I got excited wondering what nicknames Sawyer will come up with for the gang on Community. A few predictions:
Abed: Temple Grandin
Troy: Jockstrap Jones
Annie: Ricotta dumpling
My generation is conditioned to love and appreciate pop culture references. Telvision, film and music are the great uniters for men and ladies of a certain age — those of us who are young enough to have had enough choices to allow which bands we liked to identify us as people (“what you like is more important than what you are like”), yet old enough to have matured before American culture splintered past the point of no return.
We relate to each other through movie quotes, shared memories of concerts, and the joy of a song from our youth being played on a jukebox at the perfect time. In the late 20th century, popular culture became our shared experience. Alex P. Keaton is our collective brother. Ric Ocasek is our collective weird uncle. Belinda Carlisle is the older girl we all fell for.
In lieu of conversations about actual feelings, or anything equally dreadful, we talk about our favorite David Lynch movies and toss Seinfeld references around like confetti. It’s why we love Quentin Tarantino, Beck, Girl Talk, and any other artists that deal in pastiche. It’s why we love High Fidelity (book and film), and making lists. We love the movie Beautiful Girls as much for its revival of “Sweet Caroline” as for the confused feelings it gave us about Natalie Portman.
Pop culture. It’s what we are. And pop culture references are what we use to get by in daily life.
Because of that, those references have became a cheap signifier. In place of actual content, it’s easy for artists to throw in a line from an ’80s movie we all love to form an emotional connection. To make us like them. Recognizability has replaced quality. And it’s right to be suspicious of pop culture references when they’re used to trigger a certain response. Just like it’s right to be suspicious of nostalgia.
But when used correctly, in conjunction with legitimate story and characters, those references can elevate art/entertainment to a higher plain. At least for those of us in a certain demographic group.
Modern Family and Community both return to the air with new episodes this week, marking the start of the new fall TV season. Last year, those two shows turned in undeniably strong opening seasons, helping to temporarily quell talk about sitcoms dying. (Until this year, when new shows like Mike & Molly kill off networks for good.)
But where do they rank among the all-team best premiere seasons ever for American sitcoms? Which finished ahead of the other? Was either season the greatest of all time? To celebrate the return of two great young upstarts, we’re counting down the ten best opening seasons in American sitcom history.