We should find out today whether "Community" has been canceled.
I hope it is.
It gives me no pleasure to say that. But it's time for some real talk about holding on to things that should be allowed to die. [Update: "Community" has been renewed, but that doesn't really change my thoughts on the fate of cult shows, which I discuss below.]
As someone who's devoted my professional life to loving TV -- and advocating for its underdogs -- the idea that cancellation is no longer the last word for various media properties is thrilling. These days, a network giving up on a show is rather like a character death on one of my favorite genre shows: Sure, it's a hindrance to getting things done, but it's ultimately something that can be avoided, evaded or undone. Just ask Buffy or the Winchesters from "Supernatural," who die or go to Hell or Purgatory as often as mere mortals stop by the store for groceries. These days, death is not The End.
But "Community" should die the true death this time. It's nice that fan campaigns, critical praise, financial incentives for studios and networks and the sheer number of media platforms all mean that shows don't have to die. But sometimes they should, because when they continue as lesser versions of what we love, it's painful.
When we are deciding whether we want an entity (a show, movie, web series, comic, whatever) to continue, we have to figure out what it is that we value about it. If those things won't be part of the next chapter, we need to learn to let go.
It's easy to get caught up in the frenzy to keep a show going (and I get caught up in frenzies as easily as anyone else). But we need to ask: What's being continued? A title and a premise and a bunch of characters -- or what those things made us feel? I think most of us value the latter more than the former, but when we're obsessed with simply keeping something going, it's easy to forget that.
And so we come to Thursday's "Community" finale, which was a perfect example of form being mistaken for function.
I was a "Community" doubter until Season 3's "Remedial Chaos Theory" turned me into a full-fledged fan. And as Todd VanDerWerff eloquently pointed out in his Season 4 finale review, Thursday's "Advanced Introduction to Finality" demonstrated that the show's new executive producers either didn't get what was awesome about "Remedial Chaos Theory," or were fearful of putting their own stamp on a classic "Community" trope.
Here's what was great about "Remedial Chaos Theory," in my view: It used a fanciful device in order to get the characters to confront and acknowledge difficult situations and complex feelings. We entered into their world, their concerns and their worries more deeply, thanks to the episode's elegant, understandable and inventive take on the old alternate-realities concept. The high-concept framing allowed for a humorous and compassionate examination of feelings of exclusion, fear and, yes, community.
The Season 4 finale was not that. It was painfully far from that. The episode wasn't really about Jeff's emotions as he got ready to graduate from Greendale Community College. His emotional through-line, what there was of it, was ragged and chopped up, given how much the overly elaborate plot kept intruding on a situation that should have been a big deal for the character. The episode came off as a bunch of stuff that happened, plus, hey, paintball, because that's another thing "Community" fans like, right?
Let it go. Let this show go. "Community" fans, it's time for this show to die. As someone who loves many TV shows in an almost unreasonable manner, I know what it's like to have this much fondness for a world so elaborate, well-established and unique. But I'd rather have no "Community" than a version that uses the tropes of the original without a corresponding grasp of what the characters are going through and why. As VanDerWerff pointed out, Season 4 of "Community" hasn't been a complete washout, but a combination of cautiousness and fan service does not amount to a meaningful vision for the comedy.
The truth is, watching the zombie version of a beloved show stagger around is more painful than grieving over that show's natural death. I very much wish that there hadn't been a seventh season of "Gilmore Girls," because what we got was an appalling repudiation of much of what we'd loved through the six previous seasons. I love "Angel" and I'm not exactly sorry it got a fifth season, but Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt so clearly had to trim their sails at that point that I almost wonder whether it should have ended after four years.
My point is, there's no cut-and-dried answer to what should and shouldn't continue, but as possible new homes proliferate, we need to think harder about these things than we have in the past.
Not all fan campaigns to renew or revive marginal shows are bad -- far from it. I'm usually on board with the majority of them. But we have to consider whether the vision and the quality of the shows we love will continue should they keep going in a new venue. Overall, I'm not sorry that "Cougar Town" was renewed, but with the installation of a new showrunner, the TBS version of the comedy has been a bit coarsened and there's often less depth to its romantic moments and its characters.
Having said that, the overall vibe of the show -- the combination of traits, moods and ideas that made it special -- is still more or less there most weeks. A fearfulness of messing with the building blocks has meant that "Cougar Town" more often lapses into formula, as often happened in Season 4 of "Community." But "Community" aimed so much higher that seeing a bastardized version of it on a regular basis is much more dispiriting.
I'm glad there will be more "Arrested Development" and "Veronica Mars," but if those properties hadn't been revived by the people who created them, I'd be very afraid. Actually, I'm convinced that one of these days a revival of something we used to love is going to be terrible, even if that property is re-created by its original team. In a way, I'm anxious to be over and done with that rite of passage already; it will help to make us even more circumspect about campaigns to propagate stories that shouldn't be extended under the wrong conditions.
Those conditions matter a great deal. A couple of examples of the wrong conditions: If Fox brings back "24" and Jack Bauer for yet another punishing go-round, I'm 85 percent sure the new incarnation will be a tired, mercenary attempt to wring more profits from a show that should be intense, vital and fresh (as it was in its prime). More "24" is likely to tarnish the show's legacy, not build on it. And if "Happy Endings" is renewed -- which I very much want -- but without executive producers David Caspe and Jonathan Groff to create the show's very distinct rhythms and sensibilities, or if the cast is altered in any way, then count me out. I want the "Happy Endings" that those people (and their writing and production staffs) are making. I don't want the packaging with different stuff inside.
Hardcore TV fans, you're awesome. I love your passion and your enthusiasm and your ability to get things done. But as we move into a new era in which we can extend the lives of TV shows, think about the power that you have. Think about what happens when your favorite properties are renewed without the vision, voices, actors, sensibilities or values you cherish. Think about whether half a loaf is really enough. Sometimes it might be, but don't we have enough proof that sometimes half a loaf is worse than nothing at all?
And of course, part of the maturation process for television fandom involves learning tolerance: Sometimes we'll think others are mistaken for loving the 2.0 version of a program, movie, comic, whatever. When we are wary of or don't believe in a revival or renewal, we may have to patiently ignore it. And yep, if "Community" comes back, I can just stop watching it, just as I stopped watching "House" after about Season 5 and "The Office" some time after Jim and Pam had their first kid. We're fully able to cancel our relationships with shows, even when they keep going.
But I'm past the point of uniformly celebrating any and all revivals, renewals and continuations. I regret nothing about supporting past campaigns, and I'm sure I'll be there at the barricades for new ones. But I'm convinced that as media platforms proliferate, we need to slow our roll sometimes.
It's hard to look at the shows that have gone awry after coming back and not wish for an alternate reality in which some of those revivals hadn't happened.
What if "Friday Night Lights" had come back for those two last seasons, but executive producer Jason Katims had been replaced by a head writer whose thought process was, "Hey, people like football games, right? And hey, it's a high school show, so how about some love triangles and mean girls?" What if "Twin Peaks" had just stopped after that completely bewildering, awesome, bizarre first season and kept us guessing about Laura Palmer for all eternity?
I bring up these hypotheticals because we need to think more deeply about what we bring back and why. As viewers, we have much more power these days.
Sometimes we have to choose not to use it.
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