The Dangerous Bravery of NBC's 'Community' and 'Awake'
The Dangerous Bravery of NBC's 'Community' and 'Awake'
Laurel Brown
Laurel Brown
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
Penguins as a sign of insanity. Pillow fights with the gravitas of Iwo Jima.

These things count as brave on network TV. NBC Thursday nights may have just cornered the market on such bravery with last night's Community and Awake.

There's a good reason why we rarely associate "bravery" with network television. Brave implies risk, and brave rarely brings in the all-important ratings. But somehow, for some reason, NBC has allowed at least part of its Thursday-night lineup to be a bastion of courage in the typically bland and safe world of network television.

Why do Community and Awake count as brave?

The Documentation of Bravery
Community is in grave danger of cancellation. The smart move, in such a case, would be to play it safe. To keep the show's essential weirdness toned down for accessibility to wider audiences.

Community being Community, the show went the other direction.

This week's "Pillows and Blankets" ignored every rule in the sitcom handbook and went with a Ken Burns-style documentary. Through the use of found footage, blurry photographs and a whole lot of gravitas, we could almost believe a pillow fight was a high-stakes conflict.

And stakes were high. The friendship between Troy and Abed -- one of the most consistently charming and accessible things about Community -- would live or die based on the outcome of the pillow fight. Like everything on this show, "Pillows and Blankets" meant nothing and everything, all at the same time.

This episode was risky on multiple fronts. The dry documentary style was stylistically brave -- there was literally no action for large segments of the episode. Focusing on a pillow fight, of all things, counts as a brave theme. There were even courageous character choices in "Pillows and Blankets" as a silly war brought out the worst in everyone.

Bravest of all? A reference to The Cape, a complete non sequitur to all but the most dedicated Community fans.

The Insanity of Bravery
Far from Community in tone and intent, Awake ends NBC's current Thursday-night lineup. There are no pillow forts and mockumentaries here -- true life and death lie at the center of this show. In its examination of a man living two lives, Awake is unflinching in the face of insanity.

This insanity is no fun. Or maybe it is -- now there are penguins!

Why did Awake suddenly introduce omnipresent penguins in this week's "That's Not My Penguin"? What do the penguins mean? Does Awake actually want audiences to identify with a man whose very reality is crumbling around him?

That's a tall order. It doesn't help when Awake insists on getting weirder and weirder as the potential insanity creeps in. The show is excellent and possibly brilliant in its story and execution, but this is hardly a crowd-pleaser. The chances of any audience for Awake is and always has been small.

The Outcome of Bravery
Will NBC's bravely experimental television programs bring the network all deserved glory and attention? Will we soon see more television that stretches the limits of what we can accept?

Probably not. Sorry.

Bravery implies courage in the face of adversity. And bravery only matters when there's a chance -- often a good chance -- of failure. Every great war story is filled with examples of bravery, but the brave rarely survive to tell the tale.

It's all too likely the bravery of Community and Awake will end in failure. Time and time again, we have seen a premature end to most boundary-pushing experiments on TV. Cancellation always haunts the brave.

But that doesn't mean the bravery isn't worth it. Whatever the ratings results of NBC's brave choices in the cases of Community and Awake, the very existence -- however brief -- of these shows is worth the effort.

Want to help keep Awake or Community on the air? Make sure you don't miss the next episodes by adding them to your Watch List on the BuddyTV Guide App.

Should networks take a risk with their programming? Is there any value to brilliant shows that seem doomed to failure? Let us know what you think below!

(Images courtesy of NBC)