Monday, May 21st, 2012

On the Dan Harmon Situation

OK, here’s what we know: Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, won’t be returning to his baby next season because…well, that’s the question, isn’t it? On his Tumblr (I love 2012), Harmon wrote, "A few hours ago, I landed in Los Angeles, turned on my phone, and confirmed what you already know. Sony Pictures Television is replacing me as showrunner on Community…Why’d Sony want me gone? I can’t answer that because I’ve been in as much contact with them as you have. They literally haven’t called me since the season four pickup, so their reasons for replacing me are clearly none of my business." So, really, like Harmon himself, all we have to go on is speculation and wild theories to try to solve this mystery — and to figure out what the hell Community is going to look like next season.

It's bizarre to think that only a week ago, we were fucking ECSTATIC that NBC had picked up Community for season four, even if the enthusiasm was slightly tempered by the show being scheduled on Friday nights…after the widely, if unfairly reviled Whitney. And then, fittingly on a Friday night, when NBC and Sony thought nobody would be paying attention (???), word got out that Harmon was going to be replaced as top dog for the show he created. The Internet was pissed and the cast, especially Dino Stamatopoulos, was furious:

(That's…probably not Chevy Chase's Twitter.)

By attempting to hide the news, NBC and Sony made a bad, testy situation that much more terrible. It reminded me of the 1977 Midnight Massacre, a move that New York Mets baseball fans remember all too well (even if they weren't alive). Tom Seaver was the team’s star pitcher, affectionally nicknamed The Franchise, and one of the best in baseball history, but he had a rocky history with Team President M. Donald Grant, who hated the fact that Tom Terrific wanted to be paid equal to his baseball abilities — which is to say, he wanted a good chunk of change. To most, that would be an understandable request, but Grant wasn’t most; he was a Wall Street type who when not busy calling Seaver greedy, was leaking stories to the press about Seaver’s wife. Seaver understandably wanted out of town, and on June 15, 1977, he got his wish: he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in the middle of the night, and when Mets fans awoke next day, they were first shocked at the news – and then they got mad. If only they had GIFs in the 1970s…

It’s not a perfect analogy — Sony and NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt aren't quite as awful as Grant, Harmon never asked to be “traded,” so to speak — but there are enough similarities to warrant a mention, especially the part about an owner fighting with a star attraction, the reason why people pay to see the team/watch the show, and how both situations were resolved by simply “getting rid of it.” Thing is, the “it” in question is what brought in an audience. As much as we all love Joel McHale, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, etc., Community's main attraction is its brilliant bastard of a creator. As I’ve said before, he might be a dick, but he’s our dick.

But how much of a dick do you have to be to be replaced? I, for one, have never met Harmon, but even he’s referred to himself as a “selfish baby and a rude asshole," so, yeah. Hollywood is full of self-involved jerks, but not all of them are as brilliant as Harmon. Very few, actually. (It’s worth mentioning that if the exact same actions were done by the showrunner of, say, Two and a Half Men, we’d be a lot less sympathetic to their cause. In fact, we’d probably endlessly lampoon them and call them a monster, but because Harmon’s “one of us” and a guy who’s created one of best sitcoms of the past 20 years, he’s become exempt for his actions. I’d call it unfair, but I’ve been doing it, too. We’re the real monsters.) But if NBC and Sony replaced Harmon to get rid of a thorn in their side and make Community a bigger commercial hit, why did they stick it on Fridays with only a 13-episode order? Sadly, the likely answer is money: Community has already been bought into syndication by Comedy Central, but if the show can churn out 13 more episodes, with a slim budget and fewer distractions from its irascible creator, that means that much more dough for everyone involved, especially NBC and Sony.

* * *

Vulture's Josef Adalian had this to say:

Harmon and Sony have been at odds since the first season of Community, clashing over everything from the show's creative direction (the studio and NBC have both, at times, asked Harmon to make the show at least somewhat broader in its appeal) to Harmon's management style (the producer admitted as recently as last month that he was "damn bad" at key elements of his job not related to what gets on the screen).

According to multiple people familiar with the production of Community, Harmon's flaws as a showrunner were at least partially responsible for much of the turnover the past few years. As one person familiar with Harmon's strengths and weaknesses told Vulture, "Dan is a brilliant at ideas, but he's terrible at [management]."

Anyone who’s surprised at that news clearly hasn’t seen the time NBC devoted 30 minutes of its schedule to an elaborate My Dinner with Andre parody – in 2011, no less. Harmon knows how to make amazing television, but he doesn’t know how to make “commercial” television. That’s why we love him; that’s why executives hate him.

* * *

That above tweet, from The IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan, is the thing that worries me the most about this entire situation. David Guarascio and Moses Port will act as Community showrunners and executive producers next season; their sitcom history includes consulting on Happy Endings, producing Just Shoot Me!, creating Aliens in America (which was quite good), and adapting Channel 4's The IT Crowd for American audiences. Or, more accurately, trying to adapt The IT Crowd for American audiences; it never made it to air (though scenes have leaked online). and if Linehan’s to be believed, they never asked the show's creator for advice. We don't have the full story here, of course, but it’s a little peculiar that Guarascio and Port never attempted to reach out to Linehan for assistance, advice, reassurance…something. I understand wanting to do something new, rather than try to replicate the success of something you're adapting, but that seems insulting to the show’s actual creator. Here's hoping they at least give current writers Megan Ganz and Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane, among others and assuming they stick around, a more involved role, especially because Neil Goldman, Garrett Donovan, and Chris McKenna won't be around. (If they do reach out Harmon, I’m honestly not sure what he’d say; he’s an understandably prideful man and quite distraught over this whole ordeal.)

As I wrote in my recap of season three's finale, the only reason Community has been able to get away with doing episodes that look and sound like 1980s video games is because of the relationships and dynamics of the characters at the center of the show. The worst thing Guarascio and Port could do is try to make Community more accessible by downplaying certain "inaccessible" aspects, like Troy and Abed's unique bonding. (Their history is at least somewhat promising — Happy Endings is another low-rated show with a devoted, pop culture-savvy fanbase, while Aliens in America, which could have been awful considering its risky, culture clash premise about a Muslim exchange student living in Wisconsin was funny and charming, in a Malcolm in the Middle kind of way; let's just pretend they didn't become Just Shoot Me! showrunners midway during its run, OK?) Even NBC and Sony have to know that, after three seasons, Community is never going to be a hit on the level of The Big Bang Theory or even The Office — it's an Internet sensation (with massive streaming numbers on Hulu), the likes of which have never been seen, and that's the way it should stay.

* * *

So far we've covered what happened and the new guys running the show — but will Community be worth watching next season? And the answer is: OF COURSE. Look, it sucks that Harmon's gone, really really sucks, because his unique, occasionally insane, often genius vision is why we adore Community so much, but it's not going to be a totally different show in season four. It's likely there will be fewer bottle episodes and fake clip shows, but McHale, Jacobs, Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Chevy Chase, and Jim Rash will still be around, and their ability to sell the scripts is one of Community's greatest aspects. I expect it to be a good show next season, never reaching the same peaks as "Remedial Chaos Theory," but never falling down the mountain as far as "Advanced Gay" — in other words, it won't be as bad as people are going to say, but it's not going to be as great as it often was, either. (I'm trying to be optimistic here, guys.)

Or maybe Community becomes The West Wing in the post-Aaron Sorkin years, and while it struggles to breathe under someone else's direction for three seasons, Harmon will write an Oscar-winning screenplay and create a show for HBO. I'd be OK with that, too.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/thatcharmingman Jonny Hughes

    The IT Crowd was a Channel 4 production, not a BBC one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thatcharmingman Jonny Hughes

    The IT Crowd was a Channel 4 production, not a BBC one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hugop Hugo Phan

    I liked Advance Gay. It's one of my favorite episodes.

    • A Good Question

      I thought Advanced Gay was pretty good too.

      For next year?  Community will still at least be worth checking out, and I'll give it a chance.  I'd be much more enthused about watching if Harmond were still there, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.herman Dan Herman

    " … it's likely there will be fewer bottle episodes and fake clip shows  …"

    Actually, we don't know this at all. Which is exactly the problem.

    The new showrunners are going to have to make difficult decisions, especially in regards to how much of the show's DNA they're going to have to keep in order to placate the heavy fans. If these guys sit down, watch the whole thing and truly understand what COMMUNITY's all about, it might be OK.

    However, they also have to balance that with whatever the Sony suits told them in terms of broadening appeal; clearly, that's at least part of the reason they even have jobs now, so it's going to be a factor. My biggest concern is they think the story structures in and of themselves (fake clip show, bottle episode, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE homage) were the reason they were funny, rather than the pathos that accompanied them.

    What happens when the first episode out of the gate isn't up to the fans' (at this point, impossibly high) standards? They start rooting around in the bag for COMMUNITY tropes, thinking the familiar will placate. BAM! Fake clip show scheduled for episode 3 or 4 (assuming there's at least some time required for turnaround after the first one airs). BAM! Two or three direct parodies/homages of, say, BACK TO THE FUTURE or GREMLINS (involving Furbys, natch), because "the fans super loved THE GODFATHER chicken fingers" thing.

    Of course, since they have to broaden the appeal, they also have to head into the sitcom stable and beat some dead horses. I'm not going to be surprised in the slightest if midway through season 4 we watch Britta and Troy hook up, Jeff and Annie hook up, and City College appear in almost every single episode as "the enemy" (complete with the Changmelion double agent) in an effort to streamline the "Us vs. Them" dichotomy that gives us clear protagonists and antagonists. Look for lots of Pierce-centric episodes (familiar face!) that have Chevy either severely reining in his dislikability or going full-on SH*T MY DAD SAYS — because both of those things have been done before, to the tune of CBS-like ratings. In short, look for things to be less confusing, because that's what "accessible" means. Unfortunately, "less confusing" also means "less complex," which is the very antithesis of COMMUNITY. Expect to see Abed getting his, too, either through a horribly contrived reappearance of the Secret Service agent or a meet-cute with a "weird" (read: pixie-haired ethnic) girl who "just gets him."

    The problem with bringing in people from the outside is they don't (appear) to understand what keeps those on the inside interested. And, given the new showrunners' utter lack of a web presence and their quite laughable misunderstanding of geek culture (as evidenced by the US pilot of THE IT CROWD, which somehow managed to copy almost all the British dialogue and appeal to neither US nor UK senses of humor), these problems worry me more than the rest of their pedigree.

    Abed with a non-digital girlfriend? Just shoot me.

  • CPFlorida

    Exactly, Dan Herman, exactly. The "ooh the fans love fake clip shows and genre episodes we'll just do those, they'll love it" scenario is what worries me the most.

  • JoshUng

    Oh, c'mon Joshua.  I was feeling at peace with the Community news, then you bring up Tom Seaver!  And now I'm depressed again.

  • http://twitter.com/francisrizzo3 Francis Rizzo III

    Didn't know their involvement with the IT Crowd. Ugh.

    The thing I'm most concerned about is the Season Three DVDs. No cast evaluations? Will anyone want to talk about these episodes? Man, that's depressing.

  • Tom

    I just worry that it's gonna turn into another outlet for NBC's liberal agenda.