After several close calls, it finally happened: earlier this month, NBC cancelled Community. It was not, as Entertainment Weekly points out, particularly surprising news. Despite its rabid fan base, the Dan Harmon meta-comedy has always struggled with actual ratings, and while the fifth season did fine — Harmon's return to the show after his high-profile absence for season 4 actually boosted viewership slightly — it wasn't enough to keep the show afloat. Immediately, the speculation began: if Community wasn't going to work on NBC, could it work elsewhere? If Arrested Development — another cult favorite with high prestige and low ratings — had found a second home on Netflix, then why couldn't Greendale just, you know, move?
They could. And it seems like they will. Deadline reported yesterday that Sony — the studio behind Community — is in talks with Hulu for a possible sixth season of the show. The talks are preliminary, Deadline stresses, but Harmon, after some initial hesitations, is on board for a change of venue. "I’m not going to be the guy that recancels cancelled Community," he writes on Tumblr, soothing fan concerns that he was that guy, the guy who would recancel cancelled Community. Hulu it is! Or at least, Hulu it might be, if the deal goes through, which, Harmon notes, it easily might not. ("There are lots of reasons a Community resurrection could be difficult," he warns. "So be prepared for that.")
On some level, that's exciting. Shouldn't we all — all of us who have ever loved a show, not just Community, but Firefly or Party Down or Trophy Wife or any number of other shows that were very good at being shows and very bad at getting top ratings on network television — be thrilled at the possibility of these programs getting a second life on the web? Theoretically, it seems like alternative distribution platforms can pick up where networks can't, or won't. If Community moves to Hulu, declares Forbes, "it could signal new hope for TV shows that are prematurely axed." This could, they say, be "a game changer" for niche-y shows with iffy ratings and devoted fans. Hurray! Hurray? Maybe.
At least in the short term, there's tremendous potential for places like Hulu and Netflix to pick up quality stuff that's been cut by network. But in the long-term, there are some potential problems. For now, it's likely true that Team Harmon would have near total creative control at Hulu — historically, that's been a major draw of alternative distribution networks. Moving to another broadcast network would bring with it another set of creative executives, and another set of masters to serve, but a network like Hulu, starving for engaging original programming, would likely give Community the same hands-off creative control Netflix was known to give to House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Probably, we'd get more or less the Community we know and love, but on our computers, and for $7.99 a month. The cultural conservative in me wonders if a move to Hulu would be life support for a slowly dying show — all good things must come to an end, better to leave the party while you're still having fun, etc — but let's ignore that for now. Let's say Community has a #sixthseasonandamovie left in it. Let's say the move to Hulu is, for the show and its fans, an unequivocal positive, that the sixth season would be great, and that fans would pay for it. Even then, it's not clear to me that the TV-to-Web is going to be the savior of quirky-but-cancelled programming.
Part of the reason Hulu would want this stuff — the stuff that comes with a rabid fan base, but has been rejected by network TV — is that it's quality content with a built-in fan base. But Hulu's success ultimately depends on keeping that rabid fan base. Hulu needs people to come for Community, and stay for everything else. Netflix, once exclusively a means of distributing pre-existing content, has figured out how to make original programming work. So far, Hulu hasn't. Picking up TV abandoned by NBC (a Hulu co-owner) is a start — certainly, it's a smart short-term strategy. With Community, Hulu would have a flagship show, if only for one season. But for long-term success, Hulu needs Community fans to get real into Moone Boy, real fast. Maybe they will. Maybe Community will run and while it runs, Hulu will develop amazing content, and they will advertise that content to all the Community fans, who will stay, because of the new and amazing upcoming content. Certainly, it's possible. But the more successful Hulu becomes, the less likely they are to revive network hand-me-downs.
For now, though, let's say that Hulu is, as Forbes says, a "game-changer" for "prematurely axed" programming. The question remains: is it good for Community to keep Community going? On the one hand, the show still has a fan base. There are still people, a lot of people, who want to watch it. It's also true that plenty of shows have transitioned from one network to another and come out better for it. Damages moved and flourished. Cougar Town moved and flourished. Friday Night Lights moved and flourished. It is absolutely possible to switch networks and flourish. That should be reassuring. And it is, to some extent. But it's also hard not to feel that the trajectory here is wrong. In 10 years, or five years, even, distribution platforms could easily have democratized to the point where we can move from one TV to web and back again and there won't be any hierarchy of media at all. We're not there yet, though. When Broad City moved from web to cable, that felt like an exciting step forward for the show. This feels a little bit like settling.
Donald Glover, one of the show's core cast members, has already left the show, ending his run five episodes into the fifth season. Harmon himself has expressed trepidation about continuing. "Ninety seven episodes. Over eighty pretty good ones. Mission accomplished," he writes. For fans, letting Community go would be bittersweet. Maybe it's even premature. But isn't it better to leave in a blaze of glory than to peter out slowly on Hulu, the cool guy at the party who'd have been a little bit cooler had he left 25 minutes ago?
Image via NBC