If you’re a human being, you probably don’t watch Community. The show’s audience is engaged, empowered, and one-sixth the size of the audience accidentally watching whatever’s on after The Big Bang Theory. And I know why you don’t watch. Even by the standards of low-rated cause-célèbre wonder shows, Community is hard to like. The lead characters are pricks, lunatics, deluded mock intellectuals, and self-important gasbags. The most likable character on the show would be the most annoying person you have ever met.
So Community‘s brilliance testifies to the full commitment of the actors, the writers, and mad-genius showrunner Dan Harmon. And Community‘s ability to last five seasons on NBC testifies to the postapocalyptic state of television in general. The medium has expanded beyond the old horizons. Viewing habits have evolved, continually and radically. For proof, you need only ask yourself these questions: What was the first TV show you never watched live? Did you wait for every season of 24 to hit DVD? Did you download Lost on iTunes? (Nobody watched The Wire, and then it ended, and then some of us watched The Wire and made everyone who hadn’t watched it feel bad for not watching it.) A couple of years ago, people bemoaned the end of the Golden Age of Television. This year marks the end of the Television Age of Television.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and iTunes, among others, have revolutionized TV. The Wire is now available on HBO Go, the service that allows a silent majority of under-25s to scheme fantastic television off their parents’ accounts. The service hiccuped for True Detective, and it hiccuped again for Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, other, illegal online platforms enabled hardcore Downton Abbey and Sherlock fans to watch those shows months before they aired on PBS. Ten years ago, a generation came of age never having learned how to buy music from a store. Today, a new generation will grow up never needing a television to watch TV.
That doesn’t mean TV-on-television will end soon, of course. Live shows are bigger than ever, sporting events still mint ad dollars, and some of us continue to enjoy the security blanket of 500 channels we’ll never watch. But the trends are there. Netflix and Amazon are both plotting aggressive slates of new shows, and no one in America feels anything besides utter hatred for their cable company, so no one will mourn when all the Time Warners and Comcasts finally die two minutes after we press the ”die” button on our remote controls.
Community, by the way, was recently saved from cancellation oblivion by Yahoo’s new streaming-video service, Yahoo Screen, and will premiere its sixth season this fall. So, to recap: A low-rated show from a gradual-decline network was just rescued by the search engine your dad’s too cool to use. This may not be world-shaking, but the implications are.
Post-TV television won’t necessarily be better, but there will be more fan service, and more narrowcasting: You’ll watch your shows, I’ll watch mine. Not so long ago, television was becoming more like movies, but now it’s probably more accurate to say it’s trending toward the niche-ified world of music. The fourth season of Arrested Development, on Netflix, was like the concept album produced by a rock band in its experimental phase; like most concept albums, it was interesting and terrible. There has been much hand-wringing that Community‘s sixth season may suffer the same fate, but I hope it will be good. I do know that I’ll be watching it, on my computer.