On Dan Harmon and “Community”

As I said in an earlier post, I was traveling for much of the weekend and unable to post here. This means I am way, way late on the whole Dan Harmon thing, which means you have probably read every conceivable take on the subject, which means the last thing you want to do on a Tuesday is read about what someone has to say about the weekend’s old news. I get that, so if you want to skip this, go right on ahead. I understand. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

It is a shame that Dan Harmon won’t return to “Community.” That’s the beginning and the end of it. (I bet you’re glad you waited four days for these thoughts!) This isn’t the end of the world, nor is it a tragedy, nor is it a horrible event that will permanently mar television as we know it. It merely sucks that this incredibly talented person will no longer be able to craft this very particular, peculiar, wonderful show.

Television shows — as with movies, plays, novels, albums and other works of art — are not usually created in a vacuum. There generally isn’t one person pulling the strings and overseeing every single element of every single scene in every single episode. More often, someone (or multiple people) run the show while hiring talented underlings to keep the engine running. There are shows where everything is filtered through one person’s mind or voice (see: Aaron Sorkin and “The West Wing,” David Milch and “NYPD Blue,” Matthew Weiner and “Mad Men,” David Chase and “The Sopranos”), and there are shows where the person in charge mostly keeps the trains running on time while everyone around him or her does their work within the formula of the show (like “Law & Order,” “NCIS,” “Friends,” etc.).

“Community” was a show drawn almost entirely from the mind of Dan Harmon. This isn’t to say he came up with every line of dialogue or every plot idea, because he didn’t; this is also not to say that he wrote everything we liked and that he penned “Remedial Chaos Theory” all on his own, with no help from anyone. He worked with a staff and a crew, obviously. But it was a show told in his voice, and it was a show that was presented to the audience only after it had gone through his brain and he had made it entirely his own.

And he was, reportedly, not an easy person to work with. I keep thinking back to that Wired profile from last fall, the one that demonstrated how Harmon is “Community” given human form, how Harmon’s mindset and internal/external dialogue power the show, how he was masterful at crafting “Community” and how he seemed like an abysmal coworker/boss/employee. The perception that Hamon is/was a terror to work with was fueled when he was bickering with Chevy Chase and decided to make it public. Ken Levine — of “Cheers” and “MASH” and lots of other great television — points out that for Harmon to get fired, his behavior must have been pretty terrible.

It is true that Harmon was unceremoniously and callously cast aside. Sure, he wasn’t hurled into the streets or anything; he’s been running a network show for three years, so it’s not like we have to take up a collection for the guy. But the details of this don’t reflect well on his corporate overlords: NBC and Sony announced that Harmon was out on a Friday night — because that’s where you dump news, because you think nobody is paying attention, because that still works nowadays in an era where everyone has a phone on them at all times and can check the Internet whenever — and as Harmon himself pointed out, they didn’t even bother to let him know first.

Of course, the fact that Harmon Tumbl’d his thoughts shortly after the news broke is probably part of why NBC is happy to be rid of him. He basically called NBC’s chairman a liar, which he was within his rights to do, but which could make another executive think twice about hiring him down the line. And that’s fine. Maybe Harmon doesn’t care. He spoke truth to power and was open and honest with his fans, as he seems to have been for as long as there has been a “Community.” One of the best things about the show was the way we knew it was made for an audience ready to pause every frame to catch every detail, and we knew they fashioned certain moments knowing they’d make terrific GIFs, and they seemed eager to engage with their audience in a way seemingly unique to broadcast television. And because Harmon was so connected with his fans, posting and tweeting and sharing, we knew he was one of us, which is why the people who make up this show’s small-but-dedicated audience feel so bummed by the news. This isn’t just the creative voice behind a show we like; this is one of us, making television for us, and he won’t be able to do that anymore.

There is a slight silver lining to be found in the fact that we’ve seen 71 episodes of Dan Harmon’s “Community,” a show unlike anything else on television. (“Arrested Development” didn’t initially make it beyond 53 episodes, for what it’s worth.) The show wasn’t always perfect, but it was always interesting, different and smart. Even when the occasional episode was weak, there was still nothing else like the show in terms of scope or ambition; and when “Community” was very good — when it was great, when Harmon and his staff and the cast were really connecting with an idea from top to bottom, which they very often were — there was nothing else like the show in terms of scope, ambition and sheer ballsy brilliance. And the final three episodes under Harmon’s reign — aired the night before he was fired — perfectly encapsulated everything wonderful about his “Community.”

It is very likely that “Community” will return for 13 episodes and, barring some unlikely rating surge or NBC desperately needing the show to stick around, that could well be that. If that happens, fans will always have the first three seasons to remember. The show will return, and maybe it will be good and maybe it won’t, but it definitely won’t be the “Community” we’ve watched for three years. And if it doesn’t work — hell, even if it does — that’s fine, because we have those 71 episodes.

And what of the show going forward? What if it has an unexpected and unlikely ratings bounce, or what if the new version of the show (sans bottle/theme episodes) is cheap enough to produce that Sony and NBC keep making new episodes?  The two new showrunners — David Guarascio and Moses Port — are in place, potentially trying to retain some of the show’s current writers. (The biggest names associated with the show aside from Harmon have almost all left, with only Megan Ganz’s status left unknown.) The clearest comparison others have made — and I will agree here — is to “The West Wing” after Aaron Sorkin left. (Sorkin was similarly difficult to work with, often turning in his scripts very late and going very over-budget, but the big difference is that his show was an actual success.) Sorkin ran the show for four years, two of them astonishingly great; without him, the show had one terrible year and managed a solid final two seasons by shifting its focus to a show-within-the-show (about a presidential campaign).

“Community” under new management could turn out to be a decent show. The cast and the character relationships are strong enough to warrant tuning back in. It won’t be our “Community.” It will be a show with the same title and the same cast and the same sets and the same basic premise, only we will all know something is a little off. Our “Community” will still exist in those 71 installments and in whatever else Harmon has in his mind. Who knows? Maybe it can exist for another three seasons and, with the passage of time, Harmon can return to finish off the hashtag with a movie. It won’t happen, but a fan can dream.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Sony says “Community” cast members feel fine about the Dan Harmon firing | Digressions
  2. Pingback: Why Dan Harmon Was Fired And Rehired | Digressions

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