Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Darkest Timeline Sees The Light (#Darkest401)

How do you really quantify the passion of a group of fans? Recently, Vulture released an article outlining the top twenty-five most passionate fan bases. The frontrunners ranged from artists like Lady Gaga, to movie and book phenomenon Harry Potter, and to television shows like Game of Thrones and Community. Fan power and enthusiasm is often measured in ratings in the television world. An elusive unicorn named Nielsen judges how successful and, conversely, unsuccessful a show is by how many households equipped with a Nielsen box watch.

“But Jennifer,” you might say, “I don’t know of anyone that has a Nielsen box. In fact, I don’t think I know of anyone who knows what a Nielsen box actually LOOKS like.”

To which I reply: “Exactly.”

The problem with the Nielsen ratings system (bear with me, as I take this bunny trail detour for a moment) is that it is outdated. Yes, years ago this was an accurate way to measure television. For example, I’m fairly young, but I still remember clearly the ABC TGIF comedy block that they aired for years. I would eat dinner with my family, and then we would all gather around the television and see what wacky shenanigans Steve Urkel would get himself into on Family Matters that week.

And it’s a lovely picture, really – to have a family gathered around a television set together after dinner – but it’s not representative of the majority of families in the United States today. That’s not to say that families don’t watch television together, of course. One of my best friends and her father love to sit and catch up on numerous shows together.

However – and this is a BIG however – my best friend, her family, and millions of families across the country rely on other methods to watch television from week-to-week. Sites such as Hulu and services like Netflix offer a solution to the problem of not being able to watch television shows live when they air. And these sites and services only continue to grow and expand in order to cater to a growing market. It’s worth noting that individuals and families have conflicts throughout the week that prevent them from watching their favorite shows. Moreover, there are often numerous shows that air at the same time on different networks, often forcing viewers to choose which shows they watch live and which they must catch up on at a later date.

And thus, the significance of DVR.

There is, I promise, a point to my Nielsen diatribe. Community has oft suffered as a show (more recently than not) because of its lack of significant or impressive Nielsen ratings. But Nielsen ratings aren’t reflective, as I have noted earlier, of a fanbase’s devotion. Exemplified in the way that Community fans mobilized post-hiatus announcement (launching the #sixseasonandamovie hashtag into a battlecry), the show’s fanbase is anything but silent when it comes to their favorite NBC comedy. And the network has taken notice – it’s difficult to ignore felt goatees, dozens of letters, and flash mobs, after all.

What makes Community such a powerful fanbase is not the size, but the devotion – a devotion that, in fact, cuts both ways. My friend Mary once said that, when asked why she loves Community, she responded: “Because it’s a show that loves me right back.” Dan Harmon spent $30,000 out of his own pocket in order to pay for the rights to use Sara Bareilles’ song “Gravity.” And the reason that he wanted and needed to use that particular song was to properly homage the woman who made a fan video. The cast and writers attended the Six Seasons and a Movie Art Show in Los Angeles this summer. They’ve all been generous enough to reply to and thank fans. And, of course, the recently premiered a present to the fans – a sincere thank-you, inside joke, and love letter.

And then, in true form, we – the fans – turned around and did something for them, too.

When the network announced that Community (and Whitney) would not be premiering on Friday, October 19th as originally planned, fans were thrown into a slight state of disarray and panic. The show had been placed on hiatus post-“Regional Holiday Music,” and returned in March. Then, Dan Harmon was fired as the showrunner. Finally, Community was delayed in its initial fall premiere. Things were beginning to feel a bit overwhelming for some fans. We needed a win (much like everyone in the How I Met Your Mother “Subway Wars” episode), so a person on Reddit devised a plan: at 7:30PM EST on October 19th, the day that the season four premiere was supposed to air – and not before then – we would begin excitedly tweeting using the hashtag #Darkest401, as if the episode WAS actually about to air. And then, at 8:30PM EST, fans would live-tweet the “episode,” continuing to use the hashtag.

The plan was to trend #Darkest401.

... the plan worked.

The hashtag trended both in the United States AND worldwide, making it as high as #2 (and, surprisingly, holding that spot for around 45 minutes even after the “episode” ended at 9PM). So… what is the significance of this? Does becoming a #2 trending topic mean anything to NBC? Likely, directly, it does not mean much to the network. But there is something very important that network executives WILL take notice of: dedication.

For fans of a show to successfully trend, collectively, an imaginary episode of a television show they are passionate about… well, that says a lot. Recently, in an interview for the Six Seasons and a Movie Art Show, Megan Ganz discussed the passion that the fans have for Community, explaining that its significance lies in the fact that the dedication means that the viewers aren’t content to watch a half hour of Community once a week. Instead, they feel driven to – in their free time throughout the remainder of the week – creatively express their love for the show in other ways. There is significance then, in the fact that writers and actors care so much about a show that they take the time to pour their creativity and lives into it, and then we – the fans – take the show that they have bestowed upon us and spin creativity and inspiration from it.

The #Darkest401 is the hardest I have laughed on Twitter, perhaps ever. Ingeniously, people began to spin stories – to create fake quotes, bring back characters, and basically write their very own “darkest timeline” for an episode, all under the pretense of the episode actually existing. Only fans of Community, a meta and self-aware show, could create a fake episode of a very real show and make it trend. Moreover, the hashtag caused followers to bond with one another – to take someone’s idea and run with it. If someone mentioned Professor Slater appearing, other followers would gasp and “notice” her in their episode too. One person on Twitter so accurately explained that #Darkest401 allowed everyone to create their very own favorite episode. It also spawned such things as:

And still, I am sure, many of you are wondering internally or aloud: “What is the point?” At the end of the day, will we convert more fans to watch Community? Perhaps. Will the network suddenly and irrevocably decide to listen to us? Probably not. Will we be heard? Will we be noticed? YES. If the show is cancelled after this season, it will be for – likely – semi-valid reasons. It will not, however, be because its fans were too afraid to fight for it.

To be honest, I am proud to call myself a fan of Community: proud to stand beside people who care so much about the show. Proud to be fans of writers and actors who care so very deeply for the people who watch their program. Proud to have become friends with lovely individuals.

Whatever happens, we’re together.

Which makes this the perfect timeline.


  1. Such a great piece! You nailed it.

  2. I honestly can't imagine what life with be like if they ever take this show off the air. I know we'll have each other, I know we'll have the seasons we've been blessed to get, but not having new episodes, or cast interviews... I just can't go there. I love you all too damn much!