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The ‘Community’ third-season blues

While today’s cancellation speculation will fall mainly on ABC’s “Charlie’s Angels,” which is knocking on heaven’s door following its slide Thursday to 1.2 rating and 4 share among adults 18-49, I’m looking at “Community” and wondering seriously about its long-term future.

Right away, let me say that I don’t think “Community” is in danger of a midseason expusion. It’s more a question of whether this year’s third season might be its last.

Thursday, the ensemble comedy drew a 1.5/5 — good enough for a bronze medal in its 8 p.m. timeslot, ahead of the first half of dramas “Vampire Diaries” (1.2/4) and “Angels” (1.1/3). Given all the usual caveats — competition from “The Big Bang Theory” (4.4/13) and “The X Factor” (3.1/10 in its first 30 minutes), as well as a tense American League Division Series elimination game between the Yankees and Tigers that drew nearly 10 million overall viewers, what’s the worry?

Gillian Speaking as a fan of the show, my fear is that hovering below 2.0 among adults 18-49, while tolerable for a cult favorite in this triage-tinged period for NBC, could become cause for double secret probation or worse when it comes time to form the 2012-13 schedule.

With the genre cycling back into popularity, comedy development is heated this year, and NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt should have plenty of alternatives to “Community” next spring. The fact that newcomers “Up All Night” and “Whitney” have premiered to ratings that “Community” wishes it had doesn’t help. In particular, “Up All Night” shows that an 8 p.m. laffer battling two heavyweights, “Survivor” and “X Factor,” doesn’t condemn you to a sub-2 demo number.

I also don’t think it’s helping that “Community” seems to be straining creatively so far this season. Though I’d still take it over almost any other comedy on the air, Thursday’s episode suffered in two ways: 1) a rerun of a formula where the study group is on the verge of a breakup, only to reunite, and 2) for the second week in a row, a dead-on-arrival, over-the-top storyline involving Chang (Ken Jeong, as seen in the clip above). To be fair, other fans of the show would disagree with me.

Ultimately, I’m much less worried about showrunner Dan Harmon’s creative juices (guest Michael K. Williams’ monologue about Legos was brilliant, for example) than his audience’s viewing habits. What I’d like now, actually, is for NBC flip “Whitney” and “Community,” to see what happens. “Whitney” currently has the larger fanbase and content more in contrast to CBS’ “Big Bang,” meaning it could be healthier at 8 p.m. than “Community” has been. Meanwhile, “Community” has almost never gotten the benefit of having NBC’s most popular Thursday comedy, “The Office,” as a lead-in. With that kind of shelter, what kind of grade inflation might “Community” receive?

Some NBC shows have survived the ratings shooting gallery for year after year. But that’s not exactly the only lifeline you want to have, especially given the possibility that the more forgiving climate could change by next spring. If “Community” is to endure beyond this season, it might not be too soon to get to work on the fixes.

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