I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Ken Levine. The veteran TV guy has kind of done everything, from taking over as showrunner (“M*A*S*H*), to producing, writing and consulting on everything from “Cheers” to “The Simpsons” to “Wings” to screenwriting (Tom Hanks’ awesome Volunteers), and to creating a show (“Almost Perfect.”) The guy has even done play-by-play commentary for Major League Baseball for a few years. He’s been around. He knows the business. He’s highly respected, and he’s old enough now that he can say what he wants and doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks. Now, he doesn’t know Dan Harmon personally, but he hears things, knows people, and has a fairly great understanding of the business, so his take on the situation certainly carries some weight.
His take? 1) The industry is heartless and brutal, and 2) Dan Harmon pretty much shot himself in the foot. He wrote at length about it on his blog, but here are some choice excerpts:
On the history of sacking showrunners:
Networks have been firing showrunners for years. You just never heard about it. Before social networks and the internet, showrunners were essentially invisible. Just names in the credits. Now showrunners have become quasi-celebrities themselves, which I think is a good thing. Only 70% of the viewers think Joel McHale makes up those funny things he says instead of 90%. But the point is, this isn’t precedent setting.
It’s always easier to fire writers than actors. People do notice when their favorite star has been replaced by Ashton Kutcher. (Which tells you how off-the-charts psycho Charlie Sheen had to be to get canned from TWO AND A HALF MEN.)
Shows tend to survive without the original creative force. Even WEST WING when Aaron Sorkin was sacked. Even MASH when Larry Gelbart quit. MASH is a perfect example. If they could replace the genius of Larry Gelbart with a couple of knuckleheads like me and my partner and the show still survived, then you know it’s pretty bulletproof.
On how bad Harmon had to screw up to get fired:
For a network to fire a showrunner, his behavior had to be pretty unruly. The network weighs the value of his contribution with the nightmare of dealing with him and must decide if he’s worth it. Dan Harmon apparently wasn’t worth it.
And let’s be real. NBC has no faith in COMMUNITY. They scheduled it in a death slot of Friday night. They’re only looking to appease viewers and show that they’re cool, and make more episodes to fill out a possible syndication deal (i.e. more money for them). So if the creative quality of the show suffers for these last thirteen episodes, no one in Burbank gives a rat’s ass.
On Harmon shooting himself in the foot.
From what I’ve heard second-hand, Dan Harmon was very erratic. There are horror stories of 24-hour writing sessions. A number of writers have supposedly run screaming from the show. So if these stories are true (and I have no proof that they are), it’s not just NBC that has problems dealing with him.
The Chevy Chase incident. Forget who said what to whom and who was an asshole and who was a bigger asshole – the fracas never should have gone public. And it was Harmon who spilled the beans by airing his dirty laundry during a stand-up routine. Networks frown on this.
On Harmon’s future prospects:
And finally, I worry that Dan going public with this will ultimately hurt him. Other networks might put him in the “too much trouble” bin. He’s a talented guy but he’s yet to create FRIENDS. And I wonder, is this worth it? Besides getting all this stuff off his chest, what is the upside of going worldwide with this feud? Yes, your fanboys rally around you and you’re a media martyr, but they’re not the people who can say “yes” to your next project. They can’t make the decisions that will shape your career.
I do think most of that tracks, and as much as most of us hate NBC’s decision, Levine is probably right that Harmon had to be such a huge pain in the ass that they couldn’t hold on to him for 13 more episodes on a Friday night. If you follow him on Twitter, you know how erratic, moody, and depressive he can be. Dan Harmon is a genius, but he’s also kind of a dick.
I simply think that, if Harmon really was that much trouble, and this was all a ploy to keep the “Community” fanboys happy, then they should’ve just cancelled the show. They’re not pleasing the fanboys by bringing back the show without Dan Harmon, they’re just alienating us more. They’re keeping our ire alive longer, and they’re making a martyr of Dan Harmon. Next December when the show ends, they’re going to have to go through this process all over again. NBC will never hear the end of this UNLESS they do to “Community” what they did to “Chuck,” which is to say: Drag it out so long that even the hardcore fans lose interest in the show.