Freak Shows: The Rise of the Lone Genius

Community college saved my life. I barely graduated high school, and at about 22, I decided to go to junior college and try to get an AA degree so I could transfer to a good school. It worked. But immersing myself in the experience was awesome. As Chris Rock says, "it's called 'community college' because everyone in the community can go there." I sat behind a Vietnam War vet with an eyepatch who talked about Charlie, and a philosophical retiree who thought that fluoride and liberalism was the scourge of man. Then there was the twentysomething oddball who used whatever opportunity he could to whip out his bagpipes. Have you ever grilled hot dogs at an end-of-semester party to the tune of "Scotland The Brave?" I have.

Community creator Dan Harmon knows all about this bouillabaisse of humanity. And he has spun it into one of the best shows on TV, at least for three seasons. The premise of the show is a study group at the fictitious Greendale Community College, but the show soon transformed into meta craziness that NBC frankly had a hard time wrapping its head around. Harmon was famously fired after the third season. Then, after ratings dipped considerably, he was hired back, something that never happens in television — especially after the creator described watching the fourth season as akin to being forced to watch your girlfriend blow a bunch of dudes, or your family being raped.

His comments were incendiary, I suppose, but the girlfriend metaphor seems a bit apt. To wit: The fourth season of Community — often referred to as the "zombie season," since characters looked the same but were given less to work with — was sad to watch. It was like NBC was keeping around its boring girlfriend for some routine sex and perhaps the occasional ham sammich, all the while waiting for something better to come around. Yet it wasn't ready to dump the show completely. And when nothing changed, they brought back Harmon.

So now the new season of Community, its fifth and the first one with the reinstated Harmon, has begun. It's good. I missed these guys. But the fact that it's good speaks to what I will call The Long Tail of Television.

The concept of "The Long Tail" was popularized by Wired writer Chris Anderson, who used the statistical term to describe how online retailers could thrive in the new marketplace. If you are the only one selling glow-in-the-dark dildos online, then everyone who searches "Day-Glo monster schlong" will land on your site. All you need is 10 people a day looking for such things. Meanwhile, in some lonely sex shop off Route 9, glowing sex toys sit and gather dust, waiting for the magic moment that one of those 100,000 people in the whole world of 7 billion looking for one might wander in.

I submit that Dan Harmon is the Day-Glo dildo of network TV. And here's why.

Community started out slowly and gradually built an audience. NBC always seemed on the brink of canceling it, but too many diehard fans complained and petitioned, and the network realized that the show was creating a large background buzz. Even though ratings might not be where networks want them, there is more value beyond numbers.

HBO has figured this out about Game of Thrones, the most highly-pirated show on TV: According to NPR, the network figures that more people watching the show, illegally or not, will mean more money for them in DVD sales, word of mouth, etc. There is and always will be a finite amount of people who will actually pay to watch their service, and they know this.

Somehow NBC figured out that allowing one person's vision of a TV show, however strange, would connect with enough intelligent, similarly wired people in a given audience to build momentum. Harmon's other show right now is a cartoon on Adult Swim called Rick and Morty, a kooky show about a boy and his mad scientist grandpa that is already beating powerhouse Archer in the same demographic. Like the dotcom-geek who made it rich and turned his billion-dollar startup office into a playground, Harmon has been given total freedom to go apeshit on the show, and the stoner audience has responded in high numbers.

This was further proven on Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan was seemingly given free rein to do whatever he wanted, free from committee vote and influence. As more and more shows created by single visions (Orange Is the New Black, for example) win Emmys and Golden Globes, the major networks seem to be finally getting it. The lowest common denominator with the highest ratings no longer seems to be ruling the roost. And it's about time.

 
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