Since my children were born, I’ve developed something of a tradition: at the beginning of each fall television season, I pick one new show that I make an effort to follow. It wasn’t a conscious thing I started doing; apparently one new show is all I can handle adding to my schedule and giving my full attention. I watch other shows, of course, but if I miss an episode or have other things to do I don’t sweat it. Sometimes it works out: I love animation, so Adventure Time and Gravity Falls have been rewarding to follow, although my one-show-at-a-time habit meant I missed out on Bob’s Burgers and am only belatedly catching up. Other shows have been disappointing: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip looked like the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing, but after a promising start it never felt remotely like anything real, and was often laughably pretentious and self-important. It was a relief when it was canceled, but so help me, I watched every episode. Other programs, like the already-forgotten Nathan Fillion cross-country racing adventure Drive and the completely bonkers conspiracy thriller Zero Hour, didn’t even last more than a few episodes.
It is both harder and easier to be a fan of a TV show than when I was young. On the one hand, it is easier than ever to time shift, recording and watching a program on my own terms with a DVR or finding it online. I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and part of my thinking was that if I missed something, it might never be shown again. I didn’t want to miss anything. It’s easier to let go now in the knowledge that YouTube, Netflix, or a DVD set will allow me to catch up down the road. I think The Simpsons is the first show that stopped being “appointment television” for me; the decline in quality around 2000 was part of it, but I also knew the episodes I missed wouldn’t disappear into the ether like so much of the stuff I watched as a kid.
But that same accessibility raises the bar. When I was a kid, if you knew the names of background characters, or–God help you–the behind the scenes personnel, it made you a superfan; now there is so much information that there’s practically no end to how deep you can go. My wife recently got into Doctor Who, and while that’s an extreme case—fifty years of history, and a show that is particularly beloved on the Internet—it’s incredible just how much material there is to master. Mastery is still a key value of geekdom: how do you know you’re the biggest fan unless you can out-trivia anyone else in the room—or online, where it becomes a more daunting prospect?
The most intense relationship I’ve had with a television show in recent years was with Community. Beginning in 2009, Community was a classic “hang out show” stocked with colorful characters who were just fun to be around: Greendale has often been compared to The Simpsons’ Springfield, and its knowing embrace of TV and movie clichés (mostly expressed by TV-obsessed Abed) included many elements close to my heart: wordplay, slapstick, doppelgangers, pastiche, and metanarrative games. One of the common criticisms of the show was that it flattered an audience that congratulated itself for getting references to other TV shows and movies, and I wouldn’t deny it, but what can I say? Community rewarded an obsessive attention to detail: as closely as the audience was willing to look, creator Dan Harmon had anticipated it and put some callback or Easter egg there to reward them. The show’s mixture of smart and dumb comedy grabbed me, and there was enough genuine feeling underlying the arch tone for some truly cathartic moments. It didn’t just feel real: it was better than real.
It didn’t hurt that the show premiered during an uncertain time of my life, including the birth of my second child and a reevaluation of my career. The fact that it was set on the campus of a community college also meant I could relate to it, or at least recognize the character types involved. Community was funny from the beginning—the interaction of Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), forced to return to school after his fake law degree gets him disbarred, with Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver) is a highlight of the pilot episode—and although the first half of season one is considered uneven, especially compared to what would follow, it steadily improved and kept my interest throughout. However, “Debate 109” was the episode in which Community went from being a good show to being my favorite show: the episode’s multiple threads (Jeff assists go-getter Annie in the debate against rival/mirror-image City College; the study group discovers that Abed’s student film project has been eerily predicting their activities; “non-traditional” student Pierce tries to help Britta stop smoking through hypnosis) come together brilliantly after a comic crescendo without becoming frantic or madcap. The final scene, set to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home,” captures the feeling of discovery—of self and of others—that is part of the college experience, and was central to the show at its best. The episode is quintessential Community as both psychological comedy and laid-back farce.
It was also fascinating and exciting to watch the fan community develop online: reading along with Todd VanDerWerff’s reviews at the AV Club, taking part in the discussion and speculation with other fans, watching the comment threads increase in size and fervor. It was fun to get swept up in something big; by season one’s “Modern Warfare,” an epic paintball battle told through the rhythms and visuals of an action movie, Community was a cult phenomenon. The fact that it continued to be low-rated and seemingly underappreciated by parent network NBC only added to the fans’ love: like Arrested Development, this would be the show all your friends would catch on to in four or five years, after it had been canceled due to low ratings. Those of us in the know were ahead of our time.
In retrospect, my infatuation with Community’s first season was like the bloom of first love: in subsequent seasons I either had to adjust to the reality that the show wouldn’t stay the same forever, or move on. The second and third seasons were often great (the Christmas episodes “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Regional Holiday Music” have become required seasonal viewing for me), but it was inevitable that there would be missteps, and divisions within the fan community appeared as viewers reacted differently to the show’s plot developments. (“Epidemiology,” the second season Halloween episode, was especially divisive, with its apparently real zombie plague.)
I began to sour on the show during its third season, as its increasingly outlandish plots and the emphasis on the dark undertones of the characters’ psychology became both off-putting and unreal. The genre-hopping that seemed so brilliant in “Modern Warfare” came to seem like a crutch as they went to that well a few too many times, and instead of realistically flawed but likeable people the study group started to seem genuinely emotionally disturbed.
And this is where the realities of modern fandom started to wear on me. Show creator Dan Harmon has a highly visible presence online: he’s active on Twitter, he regularly holds forth in his “Harmontown” podcasts, and he’s not shy about sharing his opinions on storytelling, dealing with actors and the studio, and anything else. His troubles with the network and producer Sony, and his run-ins with cast member Chevy Chase, came to dominate news about Community; questions about its renewal were more dramatic than the show itself in its third season. Eventually, Harmon was leaking angry phone messages he had received from Chase, essentially airing dirty laundry in public. As much as I enjoyed his work, I was starting to feel that I knew too much about the man behind the curtain. I know, I know, “trust the art, not the artist.” Easier said than done. When the decision about Community’s fourth season finally dropped, it seemed to be the worst of both worlds: the show would continue, but Harmon was removed due to his inability to work with Sony. As I said, I had already become dissatisfied during the third season, but I trusted Harmon to turn things around, and I stuck with it. But the prospect of a “zombie Community” run by someone else, even someone sympathetic to Harmon’s aesthetic, didn’t appeal.
I watched a couple of episodes of the fourth season, but I wasn’t feeling it. Barring a few moments here or there, it wasn’t very good, and felt like a parody confirming all the criticisms of Community as heartless and too clever for its own sake. Combined with the sour feelings I now associated with it, tarnished by my knowledge of the behind-the-scenes rancor, I checked out and didn’t look back. I was busy anyway, and if Community was no longer the show I had loved so fervently, I no longer needed the escapism it had represented.
And yet. . . . In the wake of news that Dan Harmon would be returning to take the helm after the generally reviled fourth season, NBC is promoting the January 2 premiere of the fifth season as a rebirth and a return to form. Seeing the teasers for the hour-long premiere event, with Jeff Winger returning to Greendale as a teacher (I guess he graduated at the end of last season, but from what I’ve heard no one was very satisfied with how it unfolded), I’m actually a little excited. Clearly NBC is hoping to bring back fans like me, and maybe hook some new ones. I’m going to give it a shot. It will be hard to recapture the excitement I felt during the first season, but it will still be nice to check in with old friends.