By David Bray
On Wednesday November 21st, it was reported that comedic legend Chevy Chase was leaving the NBC sitcom Community, effective immediately. Community, which has been in constant danger of cancellation from its debut, has its fourth season premiere postponed by NBC until February. But there were still two episodes left to film for the current (and possibly final) season, which will be made without Chase. Should fans be worried?
When Community first debuted in the fall of 2009, a lot of people were excited to see Chevy Chase back in action. After a successful run of hit movies in the 70s and 80s, Chevy faded into obscurity as his star power dwindled in the 90s and early 2000s. With Community, Chase joined a cast full of rising stars including The Soup host Joel Mchale, standup comedian/Internet sketch comedian/hip-hop phenomenon Donald Glover, physician turned movie star Ken Jeong, and Daily Show correspondent John Oliver. For the first time since National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), he was relevant to the world of comedy. For three plus seasons, Chase played Pierce Hawthorne, the dried-up heir to a moist towelette empire, taking classes on the whimsical campus of Greendale Community College. He was the old, wealthy, racist member of a study group full of lovable misfits, and his character was a culmination of all the other Chevy Chase characters we have seen over the years. The role was a nice tribute to Chevy Chase’s career that has spanned five decades, but he will be remembered for the actions off camera even more.
During Community’s third season, the show was put on a network induced hiatus because the show was not performing well in its time slot. There were three or four months with no new episodes, and Community’s tech-savvy fan base followed intently the on-goings in the show’s production, awaiting the return. For many, this included hanging on every word of the show’s creator Dan Harmon’s Twitter account. Harmon, who has always paid close attention to what fans think of the show, said some less than professional things about Chevy Chase on the final day of shooting for the season. This led to drama about whether or not Chevy would return for a fourth season if the show were renewed. While the other members of the cast tried to brush off the tabloid stuff by making jokes about it on Twitter, Chase did a couple interviews with the Huffington Post, including this one where he says being on the show was a “big mistake,” leaving fans less than confident about the show’s future with him in it. It was eventually renewed, but NBC and Sony (who produces the show) decided to let Harmon go from his position as show-runner. Many fans blamed Chase for that, but Harmon was the first to back him up and say that while they did not always see eye-to-eye, they basically liked each other.
Community had been scheduled for return on October 19th, but many fans worried about the quality of the show changing with new show-runners David Guarascio and Moses Port at the helm. More than anything, fans were looking forward to new episodes and the hope that the show might perform better in its new time slot (Fridays at 8:30), but a few weeks before it aired, NBC decided yet again to postpone the show in favor of other programming until February 7th. Once again, fans were in the dark about what was happening with the show, so when it was announced that Chevy Chase was leaving, it could not have come at a worse time.
The fourth season was half as long as the others to begin with, and now NBC is experiencing more ratings success than it has in years. The network has not canceled the show, but it has never gone out of its way to promote Community. All the while, unoriginal and unfunny shows like Whitney keep getting promotion time during football games and more episodes ordered. Perhaps NBC realizes that smart comedies do not get good ratings, and if they do not promote it no one will miss it.
From a production quality standpoint, Community could go on without Chevy Chase and be in better shape than most shows that lose a famous star. Community needs Chevy Chase far less than Two and a Half Men needed Charlie Sheen or The Office needed Steve Carrel. They could replace that role in the study group a lot easier than replacing the regional manager at Dunder-Mifflin or two fifths of Two and a Half Men. Fans of the show may have gone to Community because of Chevy Chase, but they stayed with the show because of Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, and Jim Rash. One aging veteran is not going to make or break their chances of success. In fact, without the grumpy old legend on the set, they might be even better than they were before. The problem is that network TV being what it is, Community might never get that chance.
Whether it gets canceled this spring or starts the sixth season, Community will always be remembered as a smart, quirky show that never quite got the validation it deserved. While shows like The Big Bang Theory and Mike and Molly achieve success in the antiquated Nielsen ratings by appealing to a lower common denominator, Community stands with gems like Arrested Development, The Office (UK), Star Trek (The Original Series), Firefly, and The Wire as true artistic visions of their genres, that people will continue to discover on streaming sites like Hulu and Netflix long after they have been canceled.