The other shoe has dropped for NBC’s “Community,” its creative team and its fans.
One week after the co-mingled good news/bad news proposition of NBC ordering 13 additional episodes for the low-rated comedy while rumors swirled that showrunner Dan Harmon wouldn’t be returning, it has been officially revealed that Harmon is out at “Community,” confirmation that broke only a day after the three-episode finale that left many (most?) fans rhapsodic.
In a traditional Friday news dump, word of Harmon’s exit — you can call it “firing” or just “Sony Pictures TV opting not to renew his deal” — hit the Internet late evening Eastern Time along with the added information that “Happy Endings” and “Aliens in America” veterans David Guarascio and Moses Port will take over as showrunners for next season.
I’m not saying that the news was held specifically until the exact moment that Sepinwall went to sleep to prevent his writing about it, but you can be sure that he’ll have a story up tomorrow morning. The buzz has been out in the ether for long enough that we’ve had plenty of time to reflect it. Our pal Joe Adalian at Vulture has a good story up now with all of the information.
As Sepinwall and I discussed on Tuesday’s podcast, there isn’t one specific magic bullet explanation for Harmon being shunted aside. Silly people will suggest it was related to the rather insignificant little kerfuffle with Chevy Chase that got some gossipy traction this spring, but that’s ridiculous. There are many reasons why this could be interpreted to make practical sense for NBC and Sony, but placating the star of “Snow Day” is so far down the list that you’d nod off and fall asleep before getting to it. So let’s say this and move on: NBC didn’t choose Chevy Chase over Dan Harmon. Period. Full-stop.
On a creative level, it’s basically impossible for fans of the show not to feel saddened and betrayed. The gesture to bring “Community” back for a fourth season was pretty much that: It was a gesture. It served no business purpose for NBC other than gilding-the-lily syndicated factors that mostly benefit the production studio.
What I said on the podcast is what I think, though: There’s no point in bringing back a show that the fans love for specific cult-y reasons and eliminating the person most responsible for the cultiness of it.
But here we are.
The recent spring run of “Community” episodes has been the most DanHarmonious of the show’s run, with a dark exploration of Abed’s psyche that it would be hard not to view at least partially (or entirely) as Harmon’s examination of his own psyche. The show’s therapeutic exploration has been frequently hilarious to watch, but I’ve also found it a wee bit uncomfortable, because amidst the extended homages and wink-and-nudge parodies, “Community” has been an open wound this spring. That’s not “uncomfortable” as a pejorative. “Community” has simply gone for a wider range of emotions and reactions than most network sitcoms would ever attempt and it continues to succeed an admirable [and occasionally astounding] percentage of the time. As effective as NBC’s “Parks & Recreation” has been at poking around in the hearts and souls of viewers, “Community” has often been at jabbing a wire hanger into weird recesses of our brains.
“Community” this spring has felt entirely like the “Community” Dan Harmon wanted it to be, which wasn’t always the case in the first two seasons when the push-and-pull between network aspirations and Harmon aspirations occasionally seemed to be at odds. That consolidation of vision has resulted in one of TV’s most fanatical fanbases, but even if you don’t want to say that it has led to a drop in “Community” ratings, you can’t contest that it has made it more difficult for a casual viewer to drop in and absorb. Those three episodes on Thursday tiptoed in and around brilliance, but were they welcoming to new eyes? Yeah, probably not.
NBC gave up a while ago on telling Dan Harmon to be accessible. And NBC knows that in its new Friday home, even with less confrontational showrunners in Guarascio and Port, “Community” isn’t going to become anything other than what it is, audience-wise. There was a much more generic ensemble comedy that NBC once hoped “Community” would be (or at least a more popular/populist comedy), but even if “Community” were to suddenly become that comedy, it wouldn’t draw 10 million viewers overnight. It probably wouldn’t draw 5 million. Then why bother jettisoning a man who the “Community” cult worships as a prophet, if not a God?
The answers are practical, rather than creative, and they’re explained well in the Vulture story, which has actual reportage on many of the nuts-and-bolts difficulties that have nothing to do with Chevy Chase. I understand why the studio and the network did what was done. I completely understand it. As a fan of the show and as a critic who often adores the show and always respects it, it’s disappointing.
But the Vulture story also says that Harmon will be asked to stick around as a writer and consultant. If you follow Harmon on Twitter, you know that he’s not a man without pride, so who knows what he’ll decide to do.
Since I put this story in my blog, I’m allowed to be a bit editorial and I wish Harmon would take that diminished capacity and make sure that “Community” is able to sail into harbor safely in what will be the last 13 episodes unless they’re not. Surely it would be a relief to just be in the writers’ room and not have to worry about bringing the show in on schedule and on budget? That’s easy for me to say and, I’d imagine, agonizing for Harmon to contemplate.
[UPDATE: Harmon’s tumblr response.]
OK. Like I said, Sepinwall will have much more to say on this subject tomorrow morning when he wakes up, but I wanted to make sure the news was up on HitFix so that fans had a place to respond…