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May 21st, 2012

In another kidney punch to the collective psyche of Onion A.V. Club commentarians, Community creator Dan Harmon was sacked from his own TV show last Friday night. (Cue the animated .gifs of a weeping Alison Brie.)

I will be blunt. Absolutely no one should have been surprised by this development, least of all Dan Harmon. NBC aired the final three episodes of the season last Thursday and the results were beyond abysmal: fewer than three million viewers enrolled for the first installment, and a half million of those had dropped out by the finale. The 1.3 rating for adults 18-49 (the prime demographic for advertisers) was a series low.

Harmon’s iconoclastic vision, his alleged budget overruns and his very ugly public feud with actor Chevy Chase were all big, flashing arrows pointed toward Shitcan Land. You can get away with one or perhaps even two of those things if the ratings are good, but…

I argued some time ago that Community‘s reliance on high-concept episodes was a major reason that it has had such trouble connecting with a wider audience. And the show knows it: the third season started with a song-and-dance number that promised “We’re gonna have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Which, of course, it didn’t do. Since it returned from hiatus, it’s presented an elaborate Ken Burns-style documentary about a pillow-fort war, a Star Trek holodeck-inspired bout of personality-swapping, a Law and Order parody (ironically, one of the more accessible episodes) and a group therapy session in which an evil shrink attempted to convince the study group that the community college they’d attended the past three years was a shared psychosis.

And that was before the opening act of last Thursday’s triumvirate, which spent nearly all of its running time animated in the style of an 8-bit videogame.

“All true,” I hear you saying, “but isn’t it better to have a TV show so singularly noncomformist than one that emerges hot and steaming from the stamping press of mass-appeal TV?” Well, made-up-person against whom I have biased this argument, that depends.

Here’s an ugly truth. A television show is not itself a commodity. It’s bait. You are what’s being sold. And the suits at Sony and NBC didn’t roll up a truck full of money so that Dan Harmon could indulge his most off-putting fantasies; they expected him to deliver you and 10 million of your like-minded friends to the people who want you to buy hybrid cars and bassinets and Axe Body Spray.

A successful show can eventually become a product, but even then you are not the consumer. (DVD sales alone can’t support a network-quality sitcom.) When a series has enough episodes (usually around 100, but nowadays even 80-90 may be enough), it can be syndicated to a cable network or local broadcast station where it can once again be used to market suppositories andĀ depilatoriesĀ and station wagons. (I’ll wager that the only reason Community gained a fourth-season renewal is that it’s approaching the pearly gates of a syndicated afterlife.)

Make no mistake: some truly great television has been found at the intersection of art and business. At its best, commercial TV can be mass entertainment and still have something to say. But never forget that economics rule the day. You want television that doesn’t exist first and foremost to bundle up and market you? Well, my friend, I’ve got a channel for you. And it comes with a tote bag.

Update: Variety’s Andrew Wallerstein says something similar about Harmon’s ouster, and further details the unachieveable balancing act faced by the new showrunners.


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