'Community' Season 4: By Courting Mainstream Viewers, Will the Series Lose Its Cult Cachet?

Community is weird.

One episode parodied Goodfellas, but replaced currency with chicken fingers. Another devoted its entire half-hour to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. One even used 8-bit video game graphics to tell the story. Not that there’s anything wrong with weird. The show is highly acclaimed and has a passionate cult following (when the show was absent from NBC’s 2011-12 mid-season schedule, a flash mob outside NBC’s Rockefeller Center in New York demanded a return of Community).

The show’s ratings, however, have always been lackluster. So, changes were made after season 3. Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, is no longer on board.Cast member Chevy Chase left before the upcoming season finished shooting. The “new” Community airs its season four premiere this Thursday at 8 p.m. Will the changes attract more viewers? Or will they repel the cult followers? Community is about to find out whether it’s better to have a niche core or attempt to appeal to the masses.

The show follows seven members of a study group at Greendale Community College. The group is diverse. Diverse enough that the dean of the school points out, “There is just one of every kind of you, isn't there?” In the first three seasons of the show, the study group has been through a lot. They have been involved in not one, but two, campuswide paintball wars that got way out of hand. Mixed in with the parodies are constant pop-culture references, 30 Rock-paced jokes, and enough meta-humor to last a lifetime (plus a full on hatred of Glee).

The humor has attracted the niche viewer, who feel a part of the show because they get the inside jokes, but it has failed to garner a larger audience. When an entire episode is based on the movie My Dinner with Andre, a 1981 cult classic, the casual viewer isn’t going to get it as much as someone entrenched in the culture of Community (I am a Community fan. I had never seen My Dinner with Andre, but I still enjoyed the episode because I found the story clever even though I didn’t understand the reference).

The sneak peek at season 4 shows that things are changing. Rather than paying homage to a little known art-house film, the show appears to be going right for the pop culture jugular: The Hunger Games. Is this a sign of what’s to come? Will it attract more viewers?

Or will this parody be just like the parody of Glee? There, Community showed its distaste for the popular sing-along show and probably lost viewers along the way.

The three seasons of Community have experienced average viewership (in millions) of 5.0, 4.44, and 4.03 respectively. Compared to Two and Half Men, whose lowest average viewership in ten seasons was season five’s 13.68 million, barely anyone watches.

In the past, the topical nature of Community has appeared in one-liners and quick jokes. Will this continue, or will the show try to gain viewers based on the popularity of a movie like The Hunger Games? Is Twilight next?