A “Community” Challenge

The quirky sitcom, which finally gets back to school Thursday, faces a do-or-die semester.

This season's strongest episode of "Community," centered on Troy and Abed's housewarming party, gave us seven fantastical, what-if scenarios, each set into motion with a roll of the die.

The scenarios facing our favorite sitcom of the surreal, which returns to NBC Thursday night after a three-month hiatus, are more limited – and more clear-cut: Either "Community" expands its devoted audience in the coming weeks or likely ends its run after three great seasons.

The comedy about a group of losers at a dysfunctional community college has much going in its favor, beyond a great ensemble cast and clever writing that celebrates sitcom conventions while breaking them. Though the show has been off TV since December, it's benefited from a second life, largely online.

Fans started virtual petitions and Facebook groups to save the show. The cast, in character, put together a video for College Humor in the form of an advertisement for Greendale Community College. Donald Glover, who plays Troy, starred in a "Save Community" mock PSA for MTV Canada that circulated on the Internet ("People have stopped laughing. Bees have stopped making honey. No one's died in 48 hours... Everything's at a standstill").

Show creator Dan Harmon told The New York Times that viewers have been catching up with past episodes on Hulu – and suggested the show's online audience wasn't being taken into full account. “The most coveted demographic, and most coveted of that demographic, these very smart, upwardly mobile, college-age kids, just don’t watch TV anymore,” he told the Times.

That point was made in more comical fashion in the latest online "Community" promo: a three-part animated mini-series posted last week on Hulu and the show's website. "You haven't been counting online students? That's our biggest demographic!" perennially outraged student Britta tells the hapless Dean Pelton.

The web series, with the viewership in-joke and a "Lord of the Rings"-like plot (Abed is given a coveted secret key to the school), typified the smart and quirky sensibility of a reference-heavy meta show where zombies can attack or a paintball war can break out at anytime.

Whether "Community" can become the breakout show it deserves to be is a crapshoot of another kind. The show's challenge is steep – especially with competition like "The Big Bang Theory" and "American Idol," which made life tough even for an established quality comedy like "30 Rock."

Fans need to watch – and hope that "Community," whose characters live in a state of arrested development, doesn't end up like "Arrested Development," another innovative cult favorite that’s finally set to make a limited comeback on Netflix next year, seven years after Fox cancelled the show.

In the meantime, check out some "Community"-related videos below as the gang at Greendale Community College roles the dice on a do-or-die semester:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, milt-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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