This is the Darkest Timeline

Earlier today Community creator Dan Harmon confirmed via a post on his Tumblr that he will not be involved at all with the fourth season of NBC comedy and immediately we were all struck by the realisation that we are in fact living in the darkest timeline. Community without Dan Harmon, without his crazy episode plans, without the continuity he brought to the series and characters as a whole… well Sony really Britta’d that one up.

As happy as I am that there will be another (half) season of the program, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have been better to just cancel it after the amazing three episodes that finished off the third season this week. The first half of the season didn’t do much for me, feeling repetitive and dry, while the second half arced beautifully and continued to play with genres from Law and Order to 8-bit videogames and war documentaries. Harmon’s program showcases some of the strongest writing currently on television, so we’ll have to wait and see whether that continues to be the case with the new showrunners. Still, it will always be Harmon’s show, in the same way in which The West Wing always belonged to Sorkin and Gilmore Girls to Sherman-Palladino. The problem, I think, is much bigger than NBC and Sony. Hiatuses are to blame.

Hiatuses are foreign to those of us not based in the U.S.A.: it seems peculiar to break up what is supposedly a coherent whole into two or three parts dependent on holidays and so on. Television seasons in the U.K. are typically much shorter. With a hiatus, programs like Glee get away with bad writing and repetitive storylines because unless you’re marathoning those episodes, you don’t pick up on the discrepancies that easily. Those programs with season arcs get lost with hiatuses, particularly if that hiatus is longer than normal. Narrative momentum is sacrificed  to someone’s attempts at prophesying not only viewing habits, but hype and critical acclaim. See one of the saddest victims of hiatuses: FlashForward. The hiatus promotes amnesia and allows the urgency of a good narrative to be lost amidst a chaotic programming schedule in which everything comes back on television at different times.

Without the ability to assess a program in terms of its consecutive narrative appeal — because the hiatus breaks up that narrative and makes it harder for it to function — networks use ratings to make scheduling choices that further destroy the success of such well-written programs by corrupting the narrative. Once they’ve reached that point, it seems to me that networks try to assign blame to individuals for a program’s low ratings, rather than looking at the way in which the story is being told due to format and broadcast restrictions as potentially problematic.

What do you think? Are hiatuses to blame or do people just not like fantastic writing? Is this the darkest timeline? Let us know your thoughts in comments.

  • http://twitter.com/rlmckie Lee McKie

    While ratings are certainly a major determining factor in decisions such as this, I don’t think it was the only one. There are many reports out there that Dan Harmon and Sony had a strained working relationship at best. Since “Community” has been scheduled to air on Fridays (typically a poor night, ratings-wise), I don’t believe that NBC actually feels a significant increase in ratings will occur due to the change in leadership of the show.

    That being said, network television in the U.S. is, like it or not, a sponsorship based medium. Currently, the only real viable way to judge popularity in order to sell important advertising is the ratings system. Quite simply, not enough people watch “Community” for them to continue to air the show at a prime advertising spot. It has now finished its third season and its audience is what it is. I wish the audience was larger, believe me. It’s one of my favorite shows and one of the most creative on television at the moment. But I can’t continue to blame a network for making scheduling decisions when they have advertisers and shareholders to answer to. Ultimately, it’s a business. The big change in ratings that I would like to see would be a way to accurately judge viewers of a show taking into account DVR and online viewings (Hulu, Netflix, etc.).

    As far as the difference between U.S. schedules and U.K., I do believe we’re at the point where it might be better to shorten the season lengths of U.S. shows. It already happens with cable TV shows, where typical seasons of shows like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” or “Game of Thrones” run anywhere from 10 to 13 episodes. I say “better,” from a creative standpoint, but from an advertising standpoint, the traditional networks are still going to push for as much advertising money as they can get, and that will require the longer 22-24 episode seasons. And it is possible to get the maximum advertising dollars with broader shows like “NCIS,” “Two and a Half Men,” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Would CBS want to shorten those seasons at the loss of advertising dollars just to make the narratives of the shows more cohesive? No. Not from a business standpoint, surely. Not when there is evidence of those shows bringing in huge ratings with 20+ episode seasons.

    At the end of the day, the 3 seasons of “Community,” have so far given us 71 episodes which is far more than we would have gotten from a show like that if we got it in 6-8 episode seasons. By the time they accumulated that many total episodes by the U.K. model, it would have taken a decade and the stars would have moved on to other projects. As much as I would like for the show to continue on for six seasons and a movie, I am thankful that we got as much of such a great thing as we have.

  • Critterfur

    The whole thing about “hiatuses” is relatively new, in my opinion, even to American audiences. There have always been little breaks here and there in a normal American television program (about 22 episodes to a season, which is about 5 months worth, and a season usually runs concurrent with the average length of a school year, starting in the fall and ending at the beginning of summer, which amounts to about 9 months; so 5 months of show on a 9-month schedule, with repeats and tiny breaks for specials and the like making up the remaining 4 months). However, the idea of taking month-long (or longer) breaks has only really started in recent years, mostly due to the emergence of continuity-heavy long-arc shows like Lost. Lost was one of the more expensive television shows ever produced, and eventually the toll of production and writing caught up with it. Season Three opened with only 6 or so episodes, then a 4 month long break to catch up, with the other episodes aired after Christmas (also, Season 4 got considerably shortened by a nationwide writer’s strike).

    For the most part, many American shows for years and years have been tailored to be new-user-friendly; they tend to introduce and resolve plotlines all in the course of a single episode, and the characters don’t tend to change much, allowing someone starting a show in year 5 to be about as caught up as someone watching from the beginning. Then we started to get shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and so on, and the dynamic changed…viewers often had to watch a show through it’s entirety to really understand the bigger story (but the advent of DVD box sets of full seasons allowed viewers to watch each season of a show as a cohesive whole anyway).

    It does seem like pay-cable networks like HBO are using the “British” model (shorter seasons, with no risk of cancellation mid-season because all the episodes are filmed before they’re aired, unlike many American shows which only show about 9 episodes at a time, making sure that if a show isn’t popular or profitable it can be canned without too much fuss). In the case of Community, the extended hiatus had very little to do with any sort of production catch-ups and more to do with NBC basically threatening the show at gunpoint, taking it off the air temporarily in order to not only build anticipation for its return, but to show their strength and how little they cared about the product. The whole system is nothing new, really, but it really does hurt when well-written, original shows like Arrested Development and Community are kept alive at the whim of “suits” who often only have a business background and no grounding in the arts of any kind. Sorry for the lengthy response.