Mittell’s article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” discusses the emergence of complicated storylines in TV shows from the past 20 years or so. While many shows make use of repetition and other devices to allow newer viewers to get into the show, other series assume a certain level of prior knowledge.
A very interesting narrative structure was used in the third season of Community. Similar to the Rashoman effect (repeating a story from different perspectives) that Mittell mentions (37), the episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” presents several possible timelines for the show to take, based on which character leaves the room at a certain moment. The “darkest timeline” features one of the characters dying, another losing an arm, one relapsing into alcoholism, etc. Though this is not the timeline that continues in the next episode, the darkest timeline does still exist. The real timeline is referred to as the “prime timeline,” possibly alluding to the fact that it is more appropriate for a primetime NBC show, where all of the characters have a nice happy resolution at the end of the episode.
However, one character named Abed seems to be vaguely aware of the darkest timeline. Later in the season, Evil Abed, from the darkest timeline, crosses over and attempts to make the prime timeline the darkest. This brings up the issue of which timeline is real, and whether the darkest timeline is all in Abed’s head. This is plausible since Abed has trouble understanding social situations and often uses TV and movies to help him. He constantly references TV series and films, and sometimes constructs events in his life to mimic their plots.
This episode uses a strange narrative device, especially since this plot arc brings Community into something like science fiction, which it does not generally explore. Weird episodes like this might not appeal to a wide audience, contributing to the show’s low ratings. Caldwell, in his discussion of televisuality, talks about “loss leaders,” which he describes as having “high prestige-claims but predictably low [ratings] numbers” (20). He writes about this in relation to style more than narrative complexity, but these often go hand in hand. Something like this occurs in shows like Arrested Development, which has many complex and overlapping narratives, as well as a distinctive style. During its run, it had very few viewers despite critical acclaim, though it has since gained many fans. But is that what is happening with Community?
Along with its weird plotlines and characters, Community requires a vast knowledge of TV and movies to be fully appreciated. While it is not as extremely self-referential as Arrested Development, it does assume a high level of outside knowledge. It is not too high-concept or narratively complex for viewers to understand or enjoy any given episode. When the show does use strange narrative structures, it is often an explicit reference to other TV series or movies (e.g. claymation Christmas episode), but the episode is funny even if you don’t get that one reference. Maybe it is Community’s constant engagement with itself as a TV show and the things it references that turns people off. Or it may have to do with Community’s weird brand of humor. Maybe it is something else.
When Caldwell mentions loss leaders and their tendency to be cancelled, he raises the following question: “Which type of series should be deemed more symptomatic of a period, the few with high ratings and prestige, or the greater number with high prestige-claims but predictably low numbers?” (20). With DVDs and Netflix, people may not feel as compelled to watch a highly praised series while it is on TV, since they can just watch it at some point in the future. Even better, they can wait until the show ends and then watch it all in 3 days, ensuring that they will catch every self-reference and follow all of the complex narratives throughout the series. Unfortunately, this viewing behavior can come at the expense of the series’ cancellation.