Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The t-shirt economy

I suspect this will be the last time I blog about Community for a while, unless there’s an absolutely mindblowing late-season episode that also happens to be an homage to something extremely near and dear to my heart (but since they’ve already done Dungeons & Dragons, fan conventions, multiple horror movies and Abed as Batman, it’s hard to imagine what that would be). Community seems to have gotten through its period of post-Harmon adjustment and settled into its new rhythms, which honestly are a lot like the old rhythms: generally good, occasionally great. I may have found the occasions of greatness more frequent and more delightful in the first three seasons, but the disparity is small enough that it’s hard to tell if that’s due to a legit change in the show or just my own bias knowing as much as I do about the behind-the-scenes stuff. At any rate, me and Community are cool ... but for how much longer?

There are four episodes of Community left this season, and possibly forever. I’ve been trying to keep my ear to the ground for any announcements about a potential fifth season, but haven’t heard anything yet. Much as I want to be optimistic about it, almost everything (from the fact that the fourth season was only ordered at 13 episodes, to the departure of Chevy Chase, to the long slow slide of Community’s ratings from mediocre to borderline-dire) indicates the opposite of “And then the show was renewed for 24 more episodes in 2013 - 2014, and they were phenomenal!” So I’m kind of expecting the cancellation lamentations any day now.

And yet ... when my wife and I were watching Community last week ("Intro to Felt Surrogacy" which will no doubt be forever referred to simply as “The Puppet Episode”), we couldn’t help but notice the pop-up ad for the NBC store about halfway through, hawking these t-shirts:

Which just struck me as ... odd. Not that it’s a bad shirt design (though I prefer the 8-bit graphic inspired by “Digital Estate Planning”), just that it’s odd any Season 4 designs exist at all. I really don’t claim to know much of anything about the nuts-and-bolts of production and profit margins on merchandising, but if you had asked me how likely it was that a show would have just-in-time apparel tie-ins for a specific episode, I would have given an answer from my gut that it would depend on the show; for a successful and popular series, I could see that happening, but not for any show that’s struggling or on the way out. And the thing about Community is, it’s not just a niche show but it’s one that NBC has always given the impression of not caring for or caring about or supporting in any real way. One year it goes on hiatus, another year it has its premier delayed beyond all reason so that the fall holiday episodes for Halloween and Thanksgiving air in the late winter. Neglect verging on abuse. This is the show that has t-shirt synergy at the parent network’s online store?

Maybe it’s not that strange, if there’s a true dichotomy between the visionary creative types who try to make Community unique and entertaining, and the network bosses who only care about bottom-line profits. Maybe the beancounters at NBC have never gotten Community’s humor or its worldview, but they know there are some hipsters out there who do, and who are easily parted from their cash, and t-shirts are a cheap and easy way to wring every last dollar out of the sinking ship taking on water in the Thursday 8 p.m. timeslot. But even given that calculation, it just surprised me that the decision-makers remembered that Community was still on.

Obviously it makes me want to hope against all hope that every time a new Community t-shirt is produced it signals that the programming execs at NBC are actively engaged in trying to raise awareness of the show and are invested in building up its audience, if possible, or at least reinforcing the loyalty of the small/fierce existing fanbase, either of which would mean that Community might still be around next year. Just like every so often I get a notification from Amazon about seasons of Community on DVD (I bought Season 1 for my wife a while back) and they include Season 4, which is listed at the exact same retail price as the first three seasons, despite the aforementioned half-order on episodes this season ... there have been delusional moments where I’ve speculated that maybe season 4 would end up being 22 episodes, that NBC would make a late order for the back nine and air them over the summer or something because, honestly, what the hell else does NBC have going on right now? But as day after day goes by and April starts to recede and May approaches, even I have a hard time clinging to that particular dream.

I’ve given up on Community ever being exactly like it was before, but I haven’t given up on it altogether. I’d still rather have it on the air, and make time for it every week, than not. If selling tees makes that even remotely possible, I’m all for it. Alongside the DVD set, I’ve also bought Community coffee mugs, and my wife already bought me yet another Community t-shirt. I’m doing my part! To what end, if any, remains to be seen.

(UPDATE: I wrote the bulk of this yesterday, trying to get ahead on posts. Lo and behold, this morning on the train I read this Todd VanDerWerff thinkpiece which makes a credible argument that Community is actually pretty likely to get a fifth season, since it does have a fiercely loyal niche fanbase, and NBC in fact has little to nothing else working right now. TVDW has a certain amount of cred with me, and again, I really really want to believe this. To be continued!)

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