Chuck Lorre is arguably the most successful TV producer of the past decade. His ability to connect to the zeitgeist is legend. At present, he’s winning a throwdown between his program, The Bang Theory, and network TV’s other college-based show, Community (they air directly against each other Thursday evenings). Both are well-written, ably-acted, and sport a loyal fan base. Yet Community struggles to survive, while Mr. Lorre’s show is already generating millions in syndication profits. What gives?
The surface answer is that Community is more innovative, and therefore, less mainstream. To be sure, Community has taken some surrealistic turns - but that’s what its fans love about it. The real secret to TBBT’s success and Community’s struggles are deeper, at the zeitgeist level.
Take a look at the pictures above. Community, for all its innovation, is actually the more old-fashioned of the 2 programs. Its stars are rooted in a 1990s version of 20-something glamour. Yes, Abed’s quirky, but its stars are mostly beautiful - Jeff Winger’s attractiveness is a consistent plot device, and a part of Annie’s anatomy is so celebrated it’s (they’ve?) spawned its own fan sites.
The Big Bang Theory understands that geek culture celebrates its otherness. The stars of BBT aren’t working towards fitting into the larger culture. None of them, for example, wants to get back a high-paying law job, as Jeff Winger on Community does. TBBT crew wouldn’t even be tempted by the notion.
Anthropologist and marketing consultant Grant McCracken, writing in The Harvard Business Review mused, “Our heroes used to be the people who stole lunch money. Increasingly, they are the people from whom it was stolen. This has got to have something to do with the rise of Silicon Valley and people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.“
Put simply: Jeff Winger is the guy who stole your lunch money. Look at that grin on his face - he looks like he swiped your chocolate milk, too. The public is never going to take him to heart the way they do the stars of BBT.
Advantage, Mr. Lorre.
Sorry Mr. Arvin, but I think this was a fairly shallow assessment of Community.
The major difference between TBBT and Community lies in the latter’s canonical investment in its emulation of the “monomyth“— That is to say that Community narrates a hero’s journey, both corporeal and metaphysical, as it relates to his relationship with 7 other characters. This requires Jeff Winger to begin as a fundamentally unlikable person, as the monomyth draws power from its illustration of change and progression.
Season 1 Winger is the guy who will swindle your chocolate milk. Season 2 Winger is punished for the first time for his manipulative, lawyer-ish nature. Season 3 sees Winger reflecting upon his own need for change, and in the forthcoming Season 4, we will likely see these lessons manifest in a changed protagonist— One who may not place as much value in the ‘high-paying law job’.
TBBT (which I admit I am much less versed in, and thus less entitled to speak to) makes no such commitment to long-haul story arcing. Barring certain dating/relationship throughlines, each episode is self-encapsulated and results in no lasting consequences for its characters. In fact, TBBT’s characters are so homogeneous as to be interchangeable in almost any instance of dialogue. The male characters share the archetype of “brainy beta”, while the females act as the chaotic element that they must (hilariously!) grapple with ad nauseam. Scenes are quick & scrappy setup-punchline throwaways that could happen between any of the show’s token nerds (as long as it’s not Raj, because his dialogue must consist mainly of stereotyped nonsense).
I’m somewhat thrown as to your determination that Community is the older fashioned sitcom. Stylistically speaking, TBBT’s multi-camera setup is increasingly antiquated and less watchable, with laugh tracks in particular falling fast out of style. And while Community’s far lower ratings don’t reflect it’s critical reception, the consensus has always been that the show finds its greatest strength in its ability to innovate, particularly in melding the dramatic with the comedic—something that is rarely allowed to be a tent-pole of the genre.
As for the ‘beautiful people’ thing, are we forgetting that TBBT features a predominantly white cast, while Community displays one of unprecedented ethnic and religious diversity? As far as middle America is concerned, TBBT’s players are much closer to belonging in an Abercrombie ad, while Community’s belong in an ESL classroom. This in itself is another indication of the latter series’ more modern (and relevant) approach.
All this said, I can’t agree with you more that Mr. Lorre is the clear winner. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working, and history will remember him as a showrunner with a highly marketable and profitable show.
But then, you’ll also find white bread in every cupboard in America.