Maybe the best way to visualize the geekier subsections of the Internet is to picture a heavy-set guy in a novelty t-shirt screaming VERY LOUDLY about the things that he likes or dislikes. So Comic Book Guy, basically. Anyone who spends any amount of time reading Twitter feeds or the blogs of fandoms knows that it doesn’t take all that much to send these people into hyperbolic rages.
But even if they knew this predilection towards outrage, the executives at Sony and NBC had to have been stunned by the category 5 storm that broke out when they announced that Dan Harmon was not having his contract renewed (read: they fired him) for the fourth season of Community, the NBC sitcom which he had created and executive produced for the past three years.
Community, a single-camera comedy about a group of seven friends attending community college together, has struggled in the ratings since day one. Despite failing to cross over to mainstream success, the show’s offbeat sense of humor, multi-layered characters, and keen awareness of pop culture have garnered the program a rabid fan base. And in his time as showrunner, Harmon catered almost exclusively to those fans, pushing the show’s meta-humor and self-referential style to the point that no newcomer could have possibly understood half the jokes. The result was a show that not only was barely anyone watching, but that was actively repelling new viewers.
The show had, from the get-go, an experimental streak, building entire episodes around pop culture and movie parodies (there was the Mafia episode, the Zombie episode, the Action movie episode) and under Harmon that experimental nature got pushed harder and harder. The show would have episodes that were intentionally designed to be laugh-free explorations of the characters’ various inner anguishes, episodes involving animation and complex special effects, and multi-episode arcs that served to make the world of Community that much more insular and self-referential.
Community will return for its fourth season on October 19th with a pair of new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port. And for all intents and purposes, Community could come back on the air a fresh and funny show. The new showrunners could turn out to have strong ideas for the staff and students at Greendale Community College, and the show will go on for a few more seasons without missing a step.
But it won’t be the real Community. And it won’t matter the way that Community did in its first three seasons. It simply can’t.
What’s interesting about Community as a show is that it failed almost as often as it succeeded. For every episode that accomplished the myriad tasks that Harmon and his staff set out for, there would be two or three that bungled at least one element, be it story, character or emotional beats. Some episodes felt tossed off and half-baked.
Indeed, from a cold, clinical business point of view, the firing of Harmon makes sense. Listening to the DVD commentaries and reading episode break-downs from the guy reveals a show that was in a near constant state of chaos. Episodes would be re-written on the fly, or go before the cameras with incomplete scripts, with Harmon and his team having to fling various elements together in the editing bay. When you add in Harmon’s (in)famously contentious personality, you realize that the backstage feuding and high writer’s room turnaround make a lot of sense.
This would not have been so bad if the behind the scenes turmoil wasn’t reflected in the show that aired, but, well, it did, especially in the third season. Community changed tones and quality levels fast enough to induce whiplash. Harmon et al. also attempted an ambitious plan to tell several ongoing, arced out stories over the course of the season, but the emphasis on call-backs and foreshadowing left many episodes feeling half-complete. And the pay-offs, when they finally came, were uniformly not good enough to justify how much time and energy had been devoted.
Again, from a dispassionate viewpoint, the decision to fire Harmon and try to start fresh made sense.
Except that, when it comes to art, there is no room for a dispassionate viewpoint. And Community, even with its wildly shifting quality levels, was art under Harmon. It was a show that was constantly struggling to be the best version of itself, and to push that quality level higher and higher. It’s faults were only ever those of insurmountable ambition.
What set those first three seasons of Community apart (if you’ll allow me to be unbearably pretentious) was that it was one of the few shows on television (let alone network television) that sought to transcend itself.
What I mean by that is Community, even at its worst, was always seeking to be more than just a pop culture referencing sitcom. It sought to be ABOUT pop culture, and ABOUT sitcoms and the tropes that such shows utilize.
Take for example the character of Abed Nadir. The character was established as a motor mouth, emotionally restrained weirdo who obsessed about movies and TV shows and interpreted everything in his life through that filter. The show made good use of these traits as a source of humor in the early goings, and still does to a degree. But as time has passed, Community has pulled the curtain back on Abed, revealing a person who genuinely struggles to connect and communicate with other people and finds that he can only do so through pop culture. The show was brutally honest, both about how lonely such a life can be, and also how infuriating this type of person can be, even to people who love and understand them.
And that goes for all the characters. When the show began, the entire ensemble was made up of broad types: The Crazy Old Man, The Dumb Jock, The Neurotic Egghead, the African-American Christian Housewife, etc. As Community has gone on, it has developed these types into actual, well-rounded people and sought to explore the facets of those personalities and the underlying motivations behind their behaviors. Oftentimes, this resulted in darker, sadder episodes as the characters were forced to confront the worst aspects of the themselves and the damaging affect those flaws had on people they cared about.
The thing of it is, though, is that even when the episodes didn’t really work on their own THE SHOW WAS ALWAYS BETTER FOR HAVING DONE THAT. Even when the show messed up individual episodes and arcs, there was a prevailing, guiding voice that ensured that all of the events we saw made a difference, and that the emotional growth the characters experienced mattered. When the characters experienced breakthroughs or turned emotional corners, the show played fair and made sure that those breakthroughs carried over into subsequent episodes. Nothing ever got reset just for a joke. And so, even when episodes didn’t work, it was worth it just to watch these characters continue to evolve. Because when an episode came along that NAILED all of its goals, that payoff was so much sweeter for having watched the process every step of the way.
That prevailing, guiding voice? Yeah, that was Harmon. And he’s gone.
More than that, the ‘feel’ of Community is gone. It no longer feels like art. It feels like product. And look, ALL art is product to one degree or another. Anything airing on TV right now that doesn’t have the named “David Simon” in the credits exists to make someone somewhere a couple bucks. You don’t need to remind me of that.
But there are those shows that are so singular, and so unconcerned with the trends and tempos of the larger world that they achieve a feeling that is free from those commercial origins. And Community had that feeling. It felt odd. It felt different. It felt like something that played by its own rules and was utterly divorced from corporate mandate.
Even when it failed, it failed on ITS OWN TERMS. It stumbled when its ambition aimed too high, or when its resources were too low. But Community was always trying to be the best version of its own declared identity, not marching to the bean-counters’ drums. Of course a process that experimental in nature would muck up on occasion-
-but any show that was that willing to throw caution to the wind and really REACH to be better and deeper than anything else was worth fighting for, and worth loving, even in the bad times.
And now that’s gone. Community may very well come back and be just as funny as it used to be. It will have the same cast, who are uniformly excellent, giving their A-game. There is no reason why Community can’t come back a funny, enjoyable program.
But it’s not art anymore. Art can’t be derived from contract disputes and corporate power plays. Art needs that singular, guiding voice, even if it is the voice of a contentious troublemaker.
Community may still be a good show. But it doesn’t matter anymore.
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