By: Jordan Ferguson
The last thing the Internet needs is another piece on the “Golden Age of Television,” waxing rhapsodic about True Detective, eulogizing Breaking Bad or speculating on Game of Thrones. By 2014, it’s established that the hour-long drama is undergoing a renaissance, but what about the sad tale of its less respected cousin, the half-hour situational comedy?
One could argue, and I think I am, that the half-hour sitcom is most people’s first televisual love: for my old ass it was weekday afternoons spent with reruns of Diff’rent Strokes and Good Times, for you it was probably Friends or Seinfeld, but our communion with sitcoms is what transforms the television into a place of comfort and solace. Sitcoms and the characters that populate them are the warm blankets we wrap ourselves in after a shitty day of school or work, and a good one can provide a respite from the stresses of our lives that few other things can. The rigid predictability of the three-act structures allows us to step, for 22 blissful minutes, into a world that’s amusing, but never threatening or surprising.
As it happens, two of my favourite current sitcoms, which happen to be two of the best on the air today, simultaneously decided that predictability and comfort are overrated.
On one end is Community, a show that elicits the sort of rabid fanboyism out of me that no other show has. Because I am that sort of fan, I knew all about the backstage drama that plagued the show’s third and fourth seasons: the firing of brilliant but volatile series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, replaced by the competent but nonthreatening David Guarascio and Moses Port (previously of Happy Endings), as well as the midseason departure of Chevy Chase made for a fourth season that was… fiiiiine. I mean, a bad episode of Community is still better than any episode of Two and a Half Men as far as I’m concerned, and the cast could carry me along on charisma alone, but it’s undeniable that the show was missing the sort of irritable tetchiness that Harmon brought under his tenure. Forced to finish filming with an uncertain future, the show tidied up a few loose ends, bringing disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger to graduation as he prepared to head back to the world outside a better person.
Then, in a move with no precedent, Harmon was rehired to the show that sent him packing, forced to chart a strategy for a fifth season with chess pieces he hadn’t positioned. So, he reset them (“repiloting,” as Abed calls it, likening it to season 9 of Scrubs). Jeff was hired as a teacher, the other characters, who have all diverged from their original paths for varying reasons, re-enroll at Greendale to get their lives refocused. The wondrous Jonathan Banks (aka Breaking Bad’s Mike Ehrmantraut) fills the chair vacated by Pierce as the study group becomes the “Save Greendale Committee,” charged with improving the school when one of its alumni is accused of being responsible for a bridge collapse.
It’s a sizable shift to the landscape of the show: Harmon and crew have to acknowledge storylines they had no part in crafting (blithely referred to as “the gas leak year,”) as well as prepare for the heartbreaking decision of show MVP Donald Glover to pursue other interests after this season’s first five episodes. Knowing about Glover’s departure, as well as a significant off-screen plot point revealed in last week’s genius, Zodiac-riffing Ass Crack Bandit episode, has given the front half of the season a bit of a somber undertone, despite the marked improvement over last year in every possible way, from the editing to the pacing to the deliberate absurdity: episode 2 ended with Dean Pelton’s inner voice singing a pained torch song about Microsoft Excel. In French. Because, of course. It feels like I have my show back, and this is really my show; a look through my Netflix history would reveal I’ve watched every episode of Community at least 63 times. It’s my comfort food, guaranteed to bring me happiness, to take my back to my own community college days, majoring in journalism, hanging with a tight group of people who were some of the best friends I ever had (if we need to draw comparisons, I was like the horrifying offspring of Pierce and Abed).
What we’ll be left with if the show moves into its prophesied sixth season (and a movie) will look nothing like the show we started with, but it’s a move born of necessity. Unlike Archer creator Adam Reed, who just got bored.
Archer as a whole suffers from being almost too good; it’s been so consistent over its last four seasons, what’s left to say about it other than, ‘it’s funny, and you should be watching it.’ Because it is damn funny, and you should be watching it. But after four seasons of gleefully anachronistic spy farce, Reed started wondering where the show could go. Blessed with the unlimited possibilities of animation and the best assembled voice cast working today, Reed decided to take the show’s espionage concept and discard it wholesale, while answering one of the primary questions hanging over the show’s premise since it debuted. Without spoiling the hows and whys, the espionage organization ISIS is no more, and the core staff is left with nothing but each other and millions and millions of dollars worth of cocaine. So, why not form a cartel: as now-former head of ISIS Malory puts it, “How hard could it be? If Mexicans can do it…?”
An extended season preview that ran during this week’s premiere offered assurance that the true appeal of the show is the characters; as long as Sterling keeps his douchey hedonism, Lana her prideful arrogance, Cheryl her glue huffing and Pam her… everything, it doesn’t matter what they’re doing. As the premiere episode rushed to its conclusion to set up the new premise it felt like the staff was as psyched to get going as their title character, whispering “Archer…Vice!” at the episode’s end with giddy excitement.
These are ballsy manoeuvers for both shows. For Community, never a ratings titan as it is and close enough to the coveted syndication-ready hundred-episode mark, if such sweeping changes to the show result in a significant dip in viewership, it’s very possible the suits at Sony cash their chips while there’s still cash to be grabbed. At the other end, Archer is one of FX’s most successful shows, and it’s to the network’s credit that they’ve given Reed and Co. so much slack with one of their lineup’s crown jewels.
Sitcoms might be the security blanket we cling to for easy comfort, but we do the artists behind them no favours if we cling to it so tightly we choke out the creativity that made them great to begin with. What Community and Archer have done in their fifth seasons is remind us that change is often unexpected, but always inevitable, and usually for the best.