|This may or may not have been my initial reaction.|
From the beginning, Community had been weird, exclusive, and (at first glance) kind of caustic. While people inexplicably and constantly compared Modern Family to Arrested Development when it first came out, I'd say Community is the more similar of the sitcoms. And it takes a certain kind of person to want to watch that type of show every week. Frankly, it takes a certain kind of person to watch the pilot of any show and say, "I didn't love that, but I'll stick around to see if it gets better." I sure as hell didn't do that with Up All Night, nor did I even try to move out of my comfort zone to watch The New Girl. So that's one hurdle.
Community also rewards people who have been watching every episode since the beginning. Pick any episode from the second season, especially the latter half. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design, for instance. Unless you're reasonably familiar with conspiracy movies, the relationships between Jeff, Annie, and the Dean, and the role that Troy and Abed play in their study group and on campus, that episode makes little sense and probably gives a minimal level of enjoyment. Put another way - here's a screencap of creator Dan Harmon and stars Alison Brie, Joel McHale, and Donald Glover reacting to the news:
|I liked Horsebot 3000...|
That is COMPLETELY incoherent to anyone who hasn't seen every episode of season 3 so far, as well as one random episode from season 2; and nobody who doesn't follow these guys on Twitter or read The Daily What on a daily basis would have even seen this. That's a lot of effort to put in for a television show, which is supposed to be fun and easy.
Contrast that with any episode of Modern Family. They all have the exact same plot - the grizzled patriarch is worried about being too old for his hot wife; the uptight mom drives everyone crazy with her anal-retentive ways, but they love her for it; the gay couple has a completely unimportant tiff that gets resolved with 2 lines of dialogue in the finale. Nobody's buzzing about it on The AV Club or Splitsider the next day, but they bring in the ratings like nobody's business.
At the end of the day, Community was tailor-made for a niche demographic. Recent college graduates who use pop culture references as a way to relate to each other, have enough energy to keep plot threads in their minds over the course of several seasons, and are willing to spend time searching for visual Easter eggs (like Amy Poehler's hilarious stock photo showing up in a hospital break room) are the show's bread and butter.
When those are the only people you talk to, or the only blogs you read, you're tricked into thinking there are a lot of you out there. But there aren't. You could say that this is the Nielsen rating system's fault (even though they factor in online and DVR views, and NBC is especially mindful of things like that), but seriously - how many people do you think are really watching Community? 3.5 million sounds about right to me.
This isn't a screed against Middle America's intellectual laziness, or about why we can't have nice things. If anything, it's my attempt to rationalize something before it ends up breaking my heart. Community is by far the most ambitious, unusual, warm-hearted, and intelligent show on TV, and it will leave a big hole in my heart when it goes. But the fact that it's existed as long as it has is encouraging, and the fact that there are at least 3.5 million people up in arms about its impending death is even more so, even if six seasons and a movie isn't in the cards.