After slow start, show gets attention of critics

Can a positive critical re-evaluation and heightening buzz help a struggling series when Emmy season rolls around? NBC is about to find out when it sees how voters respond to “Community.”

“As our season progressed, critics were starting to say nice things about our show,” series creator Dan Harmon notes.

Already, the number of critics enthusiastically jumping on the show’s bandwagon over the course of the season has helped secure the low-rated sitcom — starring Joel McHale and Chevy Chase as students at a mediocre community college — a second-season renewal.

“There wasn’t a great ratings story for the show, but increasingly, there was a lot of online chatter and critics standing up for the show,” says Jeff Ingold, Executive Vice President, Comedy Programming, NBC and Universal Media Studios, in charge of comedy development. “That helps in keeping a show strong in terms of how it’s perceived by the network. Hearing from objective third parties can keep these shows alive while waiting for audiences to find them.”

“Community” struggled early, debuting to mixed reviews and tepid ratings upon its arrival last September, when critics were more enamored with ABC’s breakout comedy “Modern Family.” USA Today’s TV critic Robert Bianco, for example, deemed its debut “a clear improvement on the seemingly unsalvageable ‘Parks and Recreation’ (another show that improved this season), faint praise to be sure. By March, Bianco declared, “It’s not the best of the NBC sitcoms yet, but it may be the most likable.”

And Vulture, New York magazine’s influential pop-culture blog, either ignored or was dismissive of the series early on, but once it started covering the series — two months after its premiere — it noted its creative growth, deeming five different episodes the best to date, or words to that effect.

NBC promoted the show persistently, sending out screeners of individual episodes. The gathering fervor culminated with the show’s acclaimed paintball episode (which the network sent to critics accompanied by a camouflage backpack). “Community” is routinely stuffed with pop-culture references, but this installment, written by Emily Cutler and directed by Justin Lin, was a delirious mash-up of such action flicks as “Die Hard,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “28 Days Later” and “The Matrix.”

A number of critics called the episode the most inspired halfhour of any series this season. Vulture gushed that it “had it all. Actually, it had much more than it all.”

“The network really drove to get the message out there,” says Glenn Adilman, exec VP of comedy development for Sony Pictures Television, which produces the series. “In the world of broadcast networks, this felt like a very special episode. People have been talking about it. It feels different and that can make some noise and attract the attention of (Emmy) voters.”

Says Harmon of the critics who came around: “You’d see in the comments sections of their blogs, ‘Why was this not a good show six weeks ago?’ They may have jumped the gun on dismissing the show, and there’s this inherent phobia of changing our minds — it makes us look weak. I do it, too. When ‘Battlestar Galactica’ came out, I said, ‘I hate that show,’ and 20 episodes later, I watched another episode, and it was obviously a great show, which I had to admit with my tail between my legs. So the natural response if you’re a critic is, ‘They finally got their shit together.’?”

But Harmon concedes he understands why early reviews may have been wary.

“?’Community’ definitely has elements that would have cynical viewers file away as a pop-culture-reference fest,” he says, and concedes the show has improved. “The actors are more comfortable with one another, and the writers are syncing up with the actors’ voices. So the show is getting better, and people are more accustomed to its sensibility.”

Could the change of heart in the media buzz affect the series’ Emmy chances?

“I don’t know if will generate Emmy nominations,” says Ingold, “but all the attention given to it may at least force voters to check out the show before submitting their votes.”

Harmon says he expects his show to be “under the radar, awards-wise, this year. But next year, if we merit it, they might say, ‘Hey, you stayed on our radar; you’re a survivor.’?”

He adds, jokingly, “So we’ll have all paintball episodes next year.”

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