Can Dan Harmon’s return save ‘Community’?

Senior Television Writer
06.01.13 148 Comments

Paley Center

Dan Harmon to the rescue?

A year ago, Sony declined to renew Harmon’s contract as “Community” showrunner, for reasons the studio never clarified(*) – though even Harmon himself later acknowledged that he wasn’t that easy to deal with, and maybe wasn’t worth the bother on such a marginally-rated show. But after a season where “Community” newcomers Moses Port and David Guarascio tried – and often struggled – to continue the show in Harmon’s image, the man himself is on the verge of returning. Harmon tweeted that he’s coming back, and I’m hearing that the deal isn’t officially closed (Sony had no comment), but that signatures are a formality at this point.

(*) For the umpteenth time, one reason that was definitely not behind Harmon’s departure: Chevy Chase. His continued presence had nothing to do with Harmon leaving, nor does his departure have anything to do with Harmon’s return. They didn’t get along, but that had nothing to do with either decision.

This is a very strange development for a number of reasons. First, I can’t think of an instance where it’s happened before, nor could several industry veterans I asked. Showrunners who leave their series voluntarily occasionally return later (David E. Kelley took several years off from “Chicago Hope” before coming back for the final season), but someone being fired and then invited to return is either without precedent, or at last hasn’t happened in the last few decades.

Second, though the ratings were down this season under Port and Guarascio, they weren’t down any more significantly than many of NBC’s series, and it was one of only two comedies the network renewed, surviving even over administration standard-bearers like “Go On” and “The New Normal.” Some fans were very unhappy with the creative direction of the show, but others were fine with the new episodes (some even said they preferred them to the third season under Harmon). And if fan concern was a motivating factor for any of this, Harmon wouldn’t have been let go in the first place. From a business perspective, the things that made Harmon a liability from Sony’s perspective have not gone away.

So why was Harmon asked back? Harmon mentioned in that tweet that we can thank Joel McHale for his return, which squares with what I’ve heard from people close to the show: several of the castmembers weren’t happy with the season 4 scripts and pushed Sony for Harmon’s return. Given that – and given that the ratings actually decreased without Harmon, suggesting that “Community” was never going to resemble a broad-based hit no matter who was in charge – I can see Sony deciding to appease both their stars and the fans, and perhaps enhance the show’s afterlife on DVD, streaming, etc.

I doubt Sony will ever explain this decision in any more detail than the last one, but I’m glad to have Harmon back (along with, reportedly, one of his former lieutenants, Chris McKenna, who wrote “Remedial Chaos Theory”). Port and Guarascio did their best Harmon impression last year, and it mostly wasn’t effective; had they returned, or a new showrunner came in, I had hoped they would try to chart a new course for the show rather than struggling to capture Harmon’s very specific voice. Now, though, we have the real voice back.

I’ll be curious to see how Harmon chooses to treat season 4. He could write the whole thing off as a dream(**) or an alternate timeline or a Dreamatorium simulation gone awry. Or he could return with these new stories intact, and have to deal with where Port and Guarascio left certain things (notably Jeff as a college graduate) in the same way they had to deal with what he did with Chang in season 3. Given that Harmon always said he didn’t think the show had to end when the characters graduated from Greendale, I could see him finding some appeal in coming back with one or more of the study group no longer enrolled.

(**) Comic book analogue: when writer/artist John Byrne quit “The Sensational She-Hulk” in a dispute with the editor, then returned two years later, he treated all the issues in between as a dream, and even did a half-joking cover where he tried to renumber the series so it was like he never left.

Regardless of how he chooses to treat the 13 episodes produced without him, the bigger question is whether Harmon can turn “Community” back into “Community” – and what that even means. The third season was already much darker and less consistently funny than the first two (albeit with one of the series’ very best episodes in “Chaos Theory”). The show evolved a lot under Harmon, from a first season dominated by more straightforward campus hijinks to a second season packed with high-concept episodes to a third that entered some very strange (and, in the case of Chang’s conquest of the school, creatively unsuccessful) territory, even by “Community” standards.

It may be that Harmon has spent his downtime this year thinking of all the ideas he would have used on the show if not for the Sony executives, and he’ll come back to the job re-energized after the time away. But it’s also possible that “Community” was a complicated show with a limited creative lifespan, and that the second Harmon reign isn’t a return to the glory days of “Modern Warfare” and “Cooperative Calligraphy.”

But if any producer can right this particular ship, it’s Harmon himself. I don’t know that he’ll succeed, but this is by far the most exciting, and appropriate, choice Sony could have made.

What does everybody else think?

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