NBC’s sitcom Community needs help to survive. The series has one of the most loyal (and vocal) fan bases in all of television, and is a critical favorite, but its ratings get worse every week. An average episode of Community is watched by at least 10 million fewer viewers than its time-slot competitor The Big Bang Theory, according to the Nielsen ratings. That poor showing caused NBC to pull the show from its schedule abruptly in November of last year. This led to a groundswell of public support for the show. When 30 Rock failed to pull in better ratings in the same time slot NBC brought back Community at its regular time on March 15. The first episode back scored big ratings (a 2.0 rating in the 18-49 demographic and 10.6 million viewers in total), aided in part by the fact that The Big Bang Theory was preempted by the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Once Community was in direct competition with new episodes of Big Bang again it was slaughtered. This past week’s episode, “Virtual Systems Analysis” pulled a series low 1.3 rating in the 18-49 demo.
All of this comes at a time when the production is mired in a behind-the-scenes battle between star Chevy Chase and show creator Dan Harmon. During the shooting of the third season finale Chase, apparently upset about his diminished role on the show, walked off the set and refused to finish his scenes. This prompted Harmon to give a speech at the season wrap party where he encouraged the crowd to join in a chant of “F**k you Chevy”—In front of Chase’s family. Chase fired back with a series of voicemails, which Harmon himself made public, in which Chase blasts the show as a “f**king mediocre sitcom”. There is a saying in Hollywood that “all press is good press”, but that only applies when that press drives viewers to your work. The war between Chase and Harmon is either having no effect on the ratings or contributing to the mass exodus of viewers.
What Community really needs right now is good press, and if there is one person involved with the show that can provide that (and soon) it’s Alison Brie. On Community, Brie plays high-strung honor student Annie Edison, but she is set to co-star in The Five-Year Engagement, a wedding comedy starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt which is being promoted as the next Bridesmaids, last year’s surprise smash hit comedy. The film opens on April 27, at a time when Community’s season is winding down and NBC will be making the decision to continue the show or shut it down.
The movie is a Judd Apatow production. His past projects have been defined by strong roles for the supporting cast, who usually provide bigger laughs than the leads. Supporting roles in Apatow projects have made the careers of some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd. Bridesmaids, of course, featured Melissa McCarthy as the foul-mouthed Megan, a role that led to an Academy Award nomination. The media frenzy surrounding McCarthy’s performance likely led to her Emmy win for Best Actress in a Comedy for the middling sitcom Mike & Molly, a show that wasn’t on anybody’s radar before the success of Bridesmaids.
In The Five-Year Engagement Brie plays Suzie, the sister of Blunt’s lead character Violet. Suzie is matched with Alex (the brother of Jason Segels’s Tom), played by Chris Pratt who, as role on Parks and Recreation shows, excels at playing the lovable doofus. If Brie and Pratt are allowed to display their comedic skill set, they could become the most buzzed-about part of the movie.
The film’s trailer premiered in December of last year, and focused largely on the basic premise, and Segel and Blunt’s star-crossed romance. Brie did not play a prominent role in either the trailer or the ad campaign, which featured a photo of Segel caressing the face of an upside-down Blunt. But in the past month new billboards have appeared that feature Segel and Blunt flanked by Brie and Pratt, who are both whooping it up for the camera. The new billboard seems designed to introduce the supporting cast, and Brie, with her arm extended in “woo-girl” triumph, is striking the most eye-catching pose. Whether or not her role in the film is as scene-stealing as McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids remains to be seen, but the new poster is certainly designed to remind moviegoers of the hard partying ladies of last year’s hit.
Beyond this high-profile film project, Brie is also an integral part of the hit AMC series Mad Men. Mad Men is a cultural phenomenon, universally loved by critics, and is starting to pull in strong ratings for basic cable (3.5 million viewers for the fifth season premiere). As Trudy Campbell, the wife of duplicitous advertising executive Pete Campbell, Brie has been mostly relegated to the background during her five seasons on the show. This season, however, has taken Pete to the depths of suburban existential despair, a place so dark that Salon.com writer Robin Sayers has predicted that he may die. Should that theory come true, Brie may get an opportunity to make an impression to an audience that doesn’t already know her from Community as Trudy grieves for her husband (if it seems ghoulish to hope for a main character’s death, then you’ve not spent the last five seasons with Pete Campbell).
There are any number of factors that will ultimately decide Community’s fate. Unlike NBC’s other low-rated comedies, Community is produced by Sony, rather than NBC Universal. To be eligible for syndication (where the real money is made), a television show generally needs to run for 88 episodes. After this season, Community is 17 episodes short. Sony certainly wants the show to reach that mark, but they would need to convince NBC Universal that it’s worth it on their end. If The Five-Year Engagement makes big money for Universal, they may suddenly be Alison Brie’s biggest fans. All Universal needs is a way to push their own product. All Community fans need is some good news for a change.