Community creator Dan Harmon is already planning for the fourth season of his NBC comedy, despite coming off a three-month hiatus.
"I think fourth season, when we get a fourth season, I'm going to go back to a Season 2 approach, which is follow my bliss, follow the writers' laughter and not be afraid to change things at the drop of a hat," he told reporters at WonderCon in Anaheim. "Always look at the episodes as a whole before writing the next one. Let's be six episodes ahead of the audience, but no more than that. That's just my feeling right now."
Harmon has good reason to be optimistic. Community triumphantly returned March 15 to season-high ratings, beating every show in its 8 p.m. time slot, except for American Idol. Considering the strong numbers and how close Community is to banking enough episodes for syndication, the creator feels it's likely a fourth season is in the cards.
"From what I understand of television, when you've got a third season sitcom that's generating revenue per episode, then it's the practical decision to bring it back for enough episodes to make it syndicatable on a larger scale, which it will be with 88 episodes," Harmon said. "That would be a fourth season pickup for 13 [episodes]. That being said, if we lay a fart next week, if we get a .2 rating, everything's a coin toss, but that could happen, too."
The excellent ratings for the midseason return and the outpouring of fan support have not gone unnoticed by the show’s cast.
"To have some time off and to come back, everyone comes back more grateful, whether you're part of the show, making the show or watching the show," said Ken Jeong, who plays Ben Chang. "I think if anything, this has been positive for us. The relationship between the show and the fans has actually become even closer because of this. I think this has been a good thing."
While the fan support was certainly there in the form of viral campaigns and flash mobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley Bennett, was still pleasantly surprised by the show's high ratings.
"We know that most of our fans watch online," she said. "I knew for sure our fans weren't monitored by Nielsen because I used to be on a show called Drake and Josh, which had great numbers and I could not walk outside without a kid or a parent recognizing me fromDrake and Josh. Community is Drake and Josh times 10, times 30. I knew there's no way this many people were recognizing me every day and they're not watching. They're watching, they're just not being counted. I thought maybe the same viewers who were uncounted would watch again, and we'd get our 1.3, our 1.5, but I guess they told 10 friends or they found their way to someplace where a Nielsen box was. I was shocked."
Brown admitted she didn’t expect Community to be renewed until she saw the ratings come in the morning after the midseason premiere.
"I kind of felt like we had run our course, and it was nice experiment and hopefully the fans loved it,” she said. “After seeing the numbers we got, it's given us all a renewed hope that we might be able to pull this thing out. If our fans show up again, if they show up next week and the week after -- I know Big Bang Theory is a formidable opponent and American Idol is a huge juggernaut. I get it. They're great shows, but if our fans just give us two or three more weeks and show there is a fan base that will tune in live, we've really got a good shot."
Fan support certainly helped Community return in a timely fashion, something Harmon compared to Chuck, another NBC series kept on the air because of its dedicated following.
"I think we all remember the Chuck thing unfolding where literally the fans saved the show. They owned it," he said. "It was like they had a piece of it and then we sort of watched in some bemusement and some horror as that same animal started to go, 'Oh, we don't like this storyline you're doing now.' What do you do as a creator when the people who saved your show start saying that stuff? I don't ever want to be in that position, not because I'm arrogant or megalomaniacal, but because I know that's not what the audience wants. You don't get on a roller coaster and have a steering wheel put in your hand. The audience wants to be voyeuristic. They want to believe people are real and they want to say what they like to other fans and even me, but there's a difference between that and the other end of the spectrum, which is some improv show where you're asking for suggestions then going, 'Okay! This episode is going to be about a teacup and a plumber!' Nobody wants to watch that."
Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta Perry, noted that perhaps fans wouldn’t allow another cult show to be canceled so early in its life. "TV fans are like, 'We saw what happened to Arrested Development, we saw what happened to Firefly, we will not let it happen to Community!’" she said.
It certainly helped that Sony and NBC went to bat for the show, putting together an epic trailer showcasing snippets of key plot points to come and a three-part animated series on Hulu, something Harmon mentioned he'd like to explore on a grander scale.
"The animated series was more Sony doing what they do well, which is being a big machine and keeping things going," he said. "They didn't want us to go dark for too long, so they made a deal with two of my trusted elves, Dave Seger and Tom Kauffman, to produce those things and keep a Community presence out there. I would love to do something like that in the future for fans and non-fans that could be a whole different thing. I'd love to do a comic book, I'd love to do a video game -- just because I think that's what storytelling should be in the modern era. Cheers should be a lunch box and a board game and a show if it's good."
Harmon also spoke about the Doctor Who analogue Inspector Spacetime, which he’d originally planned as a way to insert fan fiction into the show.
"Unfortunately, that's a legal mess. The fact that it's a take-off of an existing show combined with the fact that people are making this stuff up, that tends to be a one-for-one analogue to that other thing we're referencing, that made that experiment not get to go any further,” he admitted. “Some poor guy at Sony had to get the job of watching Doctor Who obsessively, so there's a filter it goes through that has to keep us protected. Inspector Spacetime will remain an Itchy and Scratchy in the universe that makes an interesting way of examining Troy and Abed's relationship."
The show’s March 15 return introduced a number of new plot points, including the shocking revelation that Britta comes from a long line of wives and mothers.
"It's great because you get to see a woman in conflict with herself, and obviously she can put together floral arrangement like nobody's business and she wants none of it," Jacobs said. "I love that about her. It makes total sense. You always wonder, 'How did Britta end up the way she is?' I feel like some character at some point was like, 'Who hurt you?' Maybe no one hurt her and she just doesn't like the fact she came from a normal household. There are still parts of her that are a mystery to me and I always like when we get to peel back the onion on the show and learn a little piece of the character's history."
Shirley also had a number of new developments, including getting re-married to her ex-husband and almost opening up a sandwich shop with Pierce (Chevy Chase). Although the business venture ultimately didn’t come to fruition, Brown said it would be a plot point for future episodes. "Shirley has a dream and Pierce has money, so there's a good chance they're going to see where it's going to go," she said. "Who knows if it's going to work out because it's Greendale. Nothing ever works out as planned in Greendale, but they're going to give it a go."
Although Jeong had little screen time last week, Chang has a major arc beginning in tonight’s episode.
"I've loved this season so much with Chang as a security guard because in Season 1, he's authority, Season 2, he's pathetic, he's a student, and Season 3, he's a blend of both -- he's pathetic authority," Jeong said. "I thought what Dan did was genius. When he told me at the beginning of the summer what I would be, I was ecstatic. I was just crying laughing, it was great."
Harmon and the actors teased what viewers can expect in the weeks ahead.
"I take some photos. I somehow get my hands on a camera for one episode," Jacobs said. "We have a very epic season finale."
"Shirley is paired with Jeff a couple of times this season and also Pierce," Brown said. "They're going back to the greatest hits of the first season with some of the pairings."
"There's another pillow fort episode that erupts into a civil war," Harmon added. "The episode I wait with bated breath to see people's reaction to is the Abed and Annie dreamatorium episode where they spend most of the episode in the dreamatorium running simulations. There's a Law & Order episode, and there's a video game episode that I'm supposed to be writing right now where they're all in a video game, kind of a 16-bit platform game in the episode."
Don't miss CBR TV's WonderCon interview with Yvette Nicole Brown and Ken Jeong below. Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.