NBC announced today that Community, the comedy with perhaps the most devoted cult following in television, has finally run out of luck after cheating death multiple times. It’s been cancelled after five seasons and 97 episodes. The number is somehow appropriate because it’s the exact same number of seasons and episodes racked up by another NBC comedy with a devoted cult following, NewsRadio.
The two shows don’t have a whole lot in common creatively, but they do have a surprising amount in common in the way they developed: originally seen by NBC as potential mainstream hits, they became extremely weird and personal, different from anything else on the network, and the network executives always seemed a little disappointed not to get the mainstream shows they were expecting. Both shows survived intemperate outbursts from their creators (Paul Simms, NewsRadio‘s creator, managed to insult everyone and everything in a Rolling Stone interview without getting fired; Dan Harmon wasn’t so lucky). There are differences—Community‘s weakest season was its fourth, the one without Harmon; NewsRadio was cancelled after its weakest season—but you can see why one NewsRadio writer once said on Twitter that the fan concern over Community was reminiscent of the ’90s and NewsRadio fans.
Both shows, in the end, wound up with what are pretty long runs by TV standards. Community was certainly luckier than its fellow Sony production Happy Endings – another comedy that turned into a cult show, but one that was axed after a fairly short run. In retrospect, what seemed at first to be the worst thing that happened to Community may have turned out to be the best: CBS put The Big Bang Theory up against it on Thursdays at 8. This guaranteed it would never get great ratings, but it would never get great ratings in any time slot, anywhere. But being up against the No. 1 comedy on TV shrunk ratings expectations to a minimum: that’s the kind of slot where it helps to have a loyal, devoted audience that will follow you no matter what. It’s the difference between low ratings and cancellation ratings, and that’s one reason Community was useful to NBC. Thanks to its following, it performed acceptably in a slot where no show could perform well.
What NBC plans to do on Thursdays now, I have no idea. People have been screaming at the network for years to give up on the Thursday comedy “tradition” and accept that they blew it; NBC must-see-TV is over. We’ll see whether they get the message. What we do know is that NBC is going to pick up some other comedies expecting them to be big mainstream hits, and will be disappointed when they turn out to be beloved cult comedies instead. That’s the nature of the TV comedy business today; the hope is that a show can build enough of a small but faithful audience – on TV, online, everywhere – to help it survive a few years. Because in the end, no one remembers a show’s ratings; they only remember how long it ran. And by that standard, Community was kind of a hit.