Whenever I am asked what my favorite television show of all-time is, I try to change the subject. To insult the many comedies and dramas that could make a strong case for the singular honor by not evoking its name would be tragic, and I may make a fool out of myself to the individual I'm having a conversation with by uttering the "wrong" answer and unknowingly conveying that I am a gigantic moron (human interaction is the worst.) When pressed, I used to say Community, the comedy that managed to lovingly comment on seventy years of television with clever satire and great silliness in a respectful manner while simultaneously making fun of the viewer for watching television in the first place. But, since the season four premiere, I still say Community, but it's immediately followed with a sigh and a sentence that begins with "I mean…" Following the conclusion of season three, creator/showrunner Dan Harmon was fired by Sony for the minor offense of being the world's most difficult employee, leaving the show's writing staff for Jeff Winger's senior year at Greendale Community College with probably the hardest task in the history of television. Creators/showrunners have left a show before, but no show has ever seemed to be as connected to the individual as Community was to Dan Harmon, and in the year 2013, every fan with a few Google and Wikipedia searches can discover every member of any show's writing staff, along with their Twitter accounts.
The critical and fan reactions of the first seven of the thirteen episodes of the new season has been predictable in retrospect: it's not the same. For the most part it isn't "bad", but even with several returning writers on the staff, something is off, a simulacrum that isn't a low fat version of something that tastes good. There are a couple of possible explanations for this.
It's the editing. Editing is an overlooked but very important aspect of comedic television — New Girl is as excellent and popular as it is in part by its use of lightning fast cutaways to make every one liner snappier, and every dramatic beat seem all the more filled with the pathos of the Greekest of tragedies when the moment is allowed to develop in real time. Andy Bobrow, who has been with the show for three years and wrote the season four premiere "History 101," appeared on the podcast A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume a few weeks after the episode aired, partly for damage control. Plume asked him about the editing process, and this was Bobrow's answer, encased in blockquote for dramatic effect:
In seasons past it would all fall on, you know, Dan would take the lead in editing. And the rhythms of the show and the timings that you would end up with would come right out of his DNA. And I think that's what a lot of the fans — a big thing that we're hearing fans say is 'The show feels different but I can't put my finger on it' — and I'm pretty sure it comes down to the editing.
If you're watching the show and thinking 'something feels a little different and I don't know what it is', it's the edits.
It's the mass exodus. Dan Harmon was one of six executive producers to leave the show that were involved with the production the previous year. Six. Joe and Anthony Russo, who together directed the pilot to Community, and individually combined to direct thirty episodes, left during the middle of season three. The talented brothers — who also directed the pilot to Arrested Development (and won an Emmy for their trouble) and thirteen subsequent episodes individually — had a good amount to say about the look of Community. Chris McKenna, the talented credited writer for the classic "Remedial Chaos Theory" episode among others, left for The Mindy Project soon after Harmon was fired. Veterans of Family Guy and Scrubs Neil Goldman (Fat Neil's namesake, as well as nerdy creep Neil Goldman from Family Guy) and Garrett Donovan (Garrett, a.k.a. CRISIS ALERT!!!) also booked it last May.
It's the lack of money. The budget was clearly lowered for this season, which was particularly evident in the sets in "Conventions of Space and Time." Dan Harmon in the past had put his own money into the show, which he obviously would not do anymore.
It's the romance. There is a possibility that romantic relationships just aren't sustainable in Community's ecosystem. For what other reason did Dan Harmon and the writing staff drag their feet with Jeff/Annie and Troy/Britta throughout season three (and by that I mean besides the Jeff/Annie thing being creepy)? Aside from Shirley and Malcolm Jamal-Warner's marriage — which for the most part takes place off-screen — the only long-term relationship that ever occurred on the show until this year was Jeff and Britta, which was a friends with benefits situation that went on without the audience's knowledge for the majority of season two, which more than anything seemed like a deliberately original way to deal with a sitcom romance, and also a joke on how some sitcoms have lived exclusively on the excitement of an intrashow hook-up. For whatever reason, all of the episodes that involved Troy and Britta being a couple were weaker than the ones that didn't. Dan Harmon has been quoted extensively, and has pontificated on anything and everything in the fifty episodes of his podcast Harmontown, but I don't remember him ever talking about the influential writer Kurt Vonnegut, yet I think he had something Vonnegut once said about romance in mind at times during his tenure. Here comes the blockquote again:
So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.
I have other things I want to talk about. Ralph Ellison did the same thing in Invisible Man. If the hero in that magnificent book had found somebody worth loving, somebody who was crazy about him, that would have been the end of the story. Céline did the same thing in Journey to the End of Night: he excluded the possibility of true and final love — so that the story could go on and on and on.
It doesn't look like Tritta (Britoy?) is in danger of engulfing the whole show, like some other couplings ended up making a sitcom entirely about it and dragging it to its demise, but during the Harmon era Community was special because unlike most other comedies, characters don't necessarily get rewarded by self-improvement and/or just hanging out long enough with a boyfriend or girlfriend — they're too busy working on their own personal self-worth to reap any rewards other than to continue getting to hang out with their friends.
It's not about the thing it's always been about all along anymore. Last season's "Origins of Vampire Mythology," one of only four episodes that Harmon received sole writing credit for, wrapped up with possibly the greatest Jeff Winger speech of them all. After discovering and then informing Britta that her ex-boyfriend Blade literally could not feel shame due to an injury to his brain, Jeff stopped Britta from following through with her instinct and running to Blade. “We should stop making hatred of ourselves someone else’s job, and stop hating ourselves.” It was a beautiful lesson about finding the strength to not hate yourself, a kind of lesson that you just don't hear on television, and definitely not as bluntly. It was so transparently the words of Dan Harmon almost to the point of irresponsibility — a man obsessed with why he has his self-destructive tendencies, and with why we put up the walls we put up sometimes to try to insulate ourselves from pain was using NBC's satellites to pontificate and preach about his specific beliefs and problems. It's what made Community almost dangerous — Harmon wasn't afraid to not be funny for minutes at a time to get his message across, or to use the once sacred Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC timeslot to show an 8-bit video game for half an hour. It was completely irresponsible, exhilarating, and great, and it makes all the sense in the world that Sony fired him.
(Right: this is Splitsider, but how do you expect the jokes to be of equal quality if the characters are coming from a different emotional standpoint than you in the audience is used to? Motivations matter in comedy, even when Annie is insulting Jim Belushi.)
It's Chevy Chase's fault. It's always his fault. It's hard to remember that Pierce actually saved the group's asses on more than one occasion. In the penultimate season one episode, Mr. Hawthorne slept with the substitute Spanish teacher so she would make the final exam passable for the study group (he never told the study group, which is really out of character.) Pierce also won the big paintball game to win back Greendale from City College. It's sad how Chase's off-screen behavior led to the Pierce character repeatedly finding himself isolated from the group in various episodes of season four, both as a meta-joke by the writers and to keep the peace — it means that there were plenty of potential stories involving Pierce that had to be thrown away. His story with Jeff in "Economics of Marine Biology" reminded us that one of Pierce's biggest roles was to be Jeff's annoying surrogate father, and Joel McHale's character finally meeting his real old man shouldn't diminish that role so much as evolve it.
Chase was fired before the 11th and 12th episode of this season were shot, and how that is dealt with will be pretty interesting. Also interesting is how Chase was kind of right when he said his character was getting too racist; he just expressed his displeasure in a rather uncouth manner.
In any case, there is hope. The writing staff nailed Jeff and the meeting of his father. The reveal in "Paranormal Parentage" that William Winger was a boxer was perfect and very depressing, once you remember all the way back in the season one holiday episode "Comparative Religion" that Jeff had to learn how to fight because he was never taught how. "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations" (these titles sometimes…) was the strongest episode of the first half of season four, despite the messy Shawshank Redemption/Prison Break parody B story — instead of being haunted by the show's rich history, Community took advantage of it. For the next six weeks, starting tonight, we'll see if they can continue to add to the legacy.