Pictured: (l-r) front; Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, Joel McHale as Jeff, middle; Danny Pudi as Abed, Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Alison Brie as Annie, back row; Ken Jeong as Senor Chang, Donald Glover as Troy, Chevy Chase as Pierce -- (NBC Photo: Mitchell Haaseth)
Acting dippy: Jeff (Joel McHale) and Dean Pelton (Jim Rash).(Photo: Vivian Zink, NBC)
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
One day last fall, a heated debate raged on the Paramount Studios set of NBC's Community over whether two actors could do a weird robotic dance while handing over a container of stale chip dip.
"I think the dip dance really works," insisted Danny Pudi, who plays nerdy Abed Nadir, one of the seven community college study-group pals who anchor this fan-beloved but ratings-challenged ratings-challenged sitcom (averaging 4.4 million viewers last season). Pleaded Alison Brie (Annie Edison), "We worked so hard on it."
Director Tristram Shapeero sighed, then relented. At "Action," Pudi, Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown (who plays Shirley Bennett) and Donald Glover (Troy Barnes) started gyrating like deranged penguins. Only Chevy Chase (Pierce Hawthorne) stood immobile as cameras rolled. His look: What the heck is going on here?
What the heck, indeed. On the one hand, this scene represents business as usual for a show that's defined by its quirky characters and surreal set pieces. On the other, things couldn't be more off-kilter for Community.
Last spring, the show's creator, Dan Harmon, was fired after he leaked a scathing voicemail from Chase, who was responding to a public dressing down from Harmon. In October, just as Community was due to kick off Season 4, NBC hit a half-year pause button. (The show finally surfaces for the season Thursday at 8 ET/PT.)
And then in late November, with two of 13 episodes left to shoot for the season, Chase quit.
The cast's optimistic mantra is "six seasons and a movie." And series star Joel McHale says he's shooting for "12 seasons and a theme park." But at this point, a Season 5 would be a small miracle.
"It may be ridiculous, but we have faith" the show won't be canceled, says David Guarascio, who executive-produces the show with Moses Port (both are veterans of Happy Endings and Just Shoot Me). "But I kind of wish we could just put out all 13 episodes at once, Netflix-style. I can't believe people have to wait this long to see what happens to the characters this year."
Guarascio doesn't rule out trying to keep the show alive if network execs kill it. "Our show has a passionate and loyal audience," he says. "It seems the more niche the outlet you have, the more freedom you have to give your rabid fans what they want."
Community's proud calling card is its unabashed strangeness. Where else would characters get turned into animation, disappear into a video game or, as with this season's premiere, stage their own Hunger Games battle to determine who can enroll in a class about the history of ice cream?
This season, there's a Halloween-themed visit to Pierce's creepy mansion, a Thanksgiving family feud at Shirley's house, and a showdown between Jeff Winger (McHale) and his long-lost father, played by guest star James Brolin.
"We have one foot in old TV and one in a TV world that hasn't yet been defined," says Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta Perry. "Our fans create sites about our show, they live-blog it, tweet it. We have a young viewership that's not casual, and that's a crowd executives and advertisers should want."
McHale echoes those frustrated sentiments, saying he hopes Community will be the show that gets the industry to acknowledge "that for many programs like ours, no one is watching when it's actually airing on TV, it's all about time-shifting and downloads. Once people really measure that well, we'd do better."
While The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman doesn't believe Community will survive ("Putting the premiere off this long tipped the network's hand"), he also thinks the show's cancellation would be a mistake.
"NBC will regret it, because these days it's increasingly difficult to make a comedy that even 2 million people are in love with, let alone a Modern Family with 10 times the fans," says Goodman. "Many execs haven't accepted that the TV world is changing under their feet."
But Goodman adds that a show as idiosyncratic as Community also carries a greater burden in an increasingly time-pressed world. "This is a fearless show with insane, quirky references that only come with careful viewing, but these days the question for any complicated drama or sitcom is, will people stop multi-tasking long enough to really watch," he says.
That pressure was keenly felt on set last fall, although cast members tried to put the best spin on a tough situation.
Brie noted that the show "might not attract a large audience, but we have a smart audience." Pudi nodded, adding, "It's a good feeling to be underappreciated."
But the sentiments were less than convincing. Much like the impending separation of the seven characters - who this season complete their last year of community college - the actors on Community are talking like graduating seniors.
"I've never been bored for a day on this show," says Jacobs. "I get inspired here. Maybe because we were never a smash hit, we're like junkyard dogs for this show. We fiercely love it, defend it, and so want it to go on."
Then, in a quieter tone, "Someday, people will realize how many people watched our show."