As you may have already heard, when “Community” returns for its fourth season, it’ll be doing so without creator and prime mover Dan Harmon.
The news broke Friday night, maybe 26 hours after the magnificent third-season finale, that Sony was not renewing Harmon’s contract. He’ll be credited in Season Four as a consulting producer, but as Harmon himself explained on his Tumblr page earlier this morning, that’s a strictly honorary title with no actual power:
Nobody would have to do anything I said, ever. I would be “offering” thoughts on other people’s scripts, not allowed to rewrite them, not allowed to ask anyone else to rewrite them, not allowed to say whether a single joke was funny or go near the edit bay, etc. It’s….not really the way the previous episodes got done. I was what you might call a….hands on producer. Are my….periods giving this enough….pointedness? I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying “it has to be like this or I quit” roughly 8 times a day.
I love Harmon’s version of “Community”. Or rather, I loved it, because it’s clear that show won’t be coming back in September, or whenever NBC decides to put it back on the schedule. The network only ordered 13 episodes of the show, which wasn’t exactly a huge vote of confidence, but it meant my favorite show would still be on the air. And now, whatever it is that “Community” becomes without Harmon, it won’t be what it was with him, and that feels so very strange.
There are precious few pieces of pop culture that feel like they were produced just for me: They Might Be Giants’ “Flood”; Dean Parisot’s “Galaxy Quest”; Fountains of Wayne’s “Utopia Parkway” and “Welcome Interstate Managers”, Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” and most recently Ben Acker and Ben Blacker’s “Thrilling Adventure Hour“.
Most of those things are pretty geeky, so of course I’d love them; I’m pretty geeky myself. And obviously they weren’t produced for me at all, the creators being entirely unaware of my existence. But they all hit something so specific and resonant within me that I felt an instant kinship to them; it was clear that the creators didn’t just love the same things that I did, but loved them in the same way.
Dan Harmon’s “Community” seemed like the perfect expression of that sensibility, taking simple sitcom premises that have become part of our collective DNA — and by “our”, I mean “anyone who came of age in the 1980s as a voracious consumer of popular culture and never really stopped” — and bringing them to vivid, raucous, original life, inviting the viewer to be an active participant in deconstructing the show as it was going on. Harmon’s show was as close to a conversation as television allows.
The self-aware character of Danny Pudi’s Abed was there to let us know the show knew what it was doing when it deployed a decades-old trope like, say, Joel McHale’s hotshot lawyer Jeff Winger forced to attend community college because his bachelor’s degree turned out to be a fraud, invalidating his license to practice law. It sounded like a terrible sitcom contrivance, but Harmon made it credible, and then more than credible; he turned Winger’s ongoing stumble towards personal growth into an arc that was emotionally honest and as weirdly compelling as anything I’ve ever seen on television. And it wasn’t even the focus of the show, which is why Jeff’s soliloquy in the third-season finale lands as powerfully as it does. The show knew what it was doing all along.
“Community” was dismissed by some as a sitcom built entirely on references and parodies. It used them freely, without question, but the show wasn’t beholden to them; the first paintball episode would have been hysterical if you’d never seen a single action movie, for instance, because everything that happened was rooted in the way the characters reacted to the situation. Same goes for the zombie episode, which is really about the evolution of Donald Glover’s Troy; the Apollo 13 episode, which is about Alison Brie’s Annie deciding to stay at Greendale rather than leave for a new school, and the bottle episode, which uses a lost pen as an excuse to lock everyone in a single space so they can hash out their interpersonal conflicts (and reveal that Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley is pregnant).
And it did it all while being funny. Very, very funny. The scripts were razor-sharp from the beginning; the performances got stronger with every episode, as Harmon and the writers refined the characters to suit the strengths of the cast. The instant chemistry between Pudi and Glover led to the pairing of Troy and Abed as best friends — unleashing the hidden nerd inside Troy, who’d been introduced as an arrogant jock. Jacobs’ goofy side led to the expansion of Britta from cynical truth-teller to perpetual comic fuckup, which in turn led to a downplaying of Britta and Jeff’s romantic trajectory so the show could capitalize on the pull between Jeff and Annie, the result of McHale’s unexpected chemistry with Brie. Chevy Chase’s Pierce became a funny, tragic force within the group, even if Chase himself doesn’t seem to understand how or why.
Here, by the way, is the reason Dan Harmon was essential to “Community” being what it is: As the showrunner, Harmon could have insisted the show follow his original plan and stick to the original character combinations, but he didn’t. In each one of those situations, he got out of the show’s way. Every one of those unexpected pairings — and the vast riches that resulted — was the result of Harmon being secure enough to make a leap into unknown territory.
Sony’s decision to dump Harmon and go with new showrunners — Vulture reports that “Happy Endings” writers David Guarascio and Moses Port will take the center seat in Season Four — is a decision to venture back into known territory, or at least territory that isn’t thorny and complex and willing to forego belly laughs for the sort of emotional momentum and epiphanies we saw in the third-season finale.
Now, I like “Happy Endings” a lot, and I think Guarascio and Port might be able to do something fun with “Community”. But it won’t be Harmon’s show any longer. Harmon’s show is over, and my whole brain is crying.