It’s Time to Let ‘Community’ Go
Writing about Dan Harmon feels kind of pointless, because Dan Harmon has done it. Better, probably, but that’s not the point. Dan Harmon has so much to say about Dan Harmon that sometimes he wrote about Dan Harmon shockingly well, and sometimes he wrote about Dan Harmon pretty damn poorly, but it didn’t have time to matter, because there was so much more Dan Harmon for Dan Harmon to discuss.
“Is Dan Harmon his TV show??” is a question that has been asked a lot, mostly by guess who — just guess. And he is — in something like the inverse of how corporations are people, Harmon is Community. The thing is: once Dan Harmon starts in on Dan Harmon, or Community starts in on Community, I don’t want to join the conversation.
But Community has completed its much-hoped-for, highly-improbable sixth season on Yahoo! Screen, and I write about TV comedy, and here we all are, together, like an unexpected, makeshift family.
When Community started, way back on NBC, I liked it immediately. My friends Joel McHale and Donald Glover and John Oliver were there, a roiling dislike for Dr. Ken Jeong had yet to be inspired in me by the Hangover movies, meta-meta-humor-humor seemed novel and fresh, and I had never heard of Dan Harmon. The show was clever and funny and surprising: the chicken fingers episode is one of the most fun and ingenious parodies I’ve ever seen, the paintball episode was immersive and rollicking, blah, blah, blah, Community has certainly had its good points.
But six seasons is a long time, and a lot has changed. It can’t be easy to write a show called Community when half of the Community has fallen away. The conceit of the show — that a study group of disparate classmates are not just close, but life-ruiningly co-dependent — is undermined by 3/7ths of the original gang departing. Losing Donald Glover’s Troy, Yvette Nicole Brown’s Shirley, and Chevy Chase’s Pierce (well, that loss was a plus, but you know) has been a fundamentally problematic blow. Promoting Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton and Ken Jeong’s Chang didn’t help; they were better as minor characters shown in small doses. And adding Keith David’s Elroy and Paget Brewster’s Frankie was just confusing — unfamiliar and seemingly high-functioning adults are both able and willing to join our excessively close former-study group? Sure. Okay.
(Not to break out of a rhythm here, but was making Frankie so similar to Annie a dare that the writers came up with in the room? Or were they only able to envision a few traits for women and Shirley was always such a damn puzzle? Paget Brewster is a personal favorite, and she did the best with what she was given, but why was she given that?)
In Community’s sixth season, the gang’s closeness felt like a put-on, and one that the show had not-that-ironic contempt for. New characters were introduced without purpose, and integrated poorly. An early episode where Frankie sways Danny Pudi’s Abed into logical thinking made for a compelling argument for both the character and the show’s evolution, but by the penultimate episode, Frankie was reluctantly enjoying the group’s groupiness with the rest of them.
And let’s talk about that second-to-last episode, the 12th of the season. In it, Dan Harmon’s wife and confounding gender studies dilemma Erin McGathy is introduced as a character and immediately married off to Garrett, a side character with a stressful voice. The plot, again, hinged on the group’s self-declared specialness and unwavering bond ruining someone else’s good time, but the bond felt thinner than ever: Abed was mostly absent, only appearing as a voice behind the camera, leaving Jeff, Annie and Britta to cling to the Dean, Chang, Frankie, and Elroy. The old group was outnumbered by additions.
Oh, and it ended with a direct-to-camera appeal from an actor playing the episode’s writer, explaining that the entire storyline had been “his” personal paean to incest. The whole thing felt like someone wanted to tell the audience, “hey, fuck you,” but got too lazy or drunk and ended up mumbling, “hey, can you just go fuck yourself?”
But the finale — the finale was very compelling! If you liked Community, you should watch it. Consider this a full-throated conditional recommendation, because why the hell not.
The show might be over, but it might not be. Yahoo has yet to announce its fate. But the 13th and final episode seemed resigned, flirting with ending it all of its own accord. The whole gang, even an imaginary Shirley, discussed not just the unlikeliness but the futility of a seventh season. The show was reimagined and re-reimagined, characters wrote characters by doing impressions of characters, and there was a heartfelt speech about what television (and, by some extension, people, specifically Dan Harmon) owes us. There was even, in an undeniably apropos final scene, the world’s most existential board game spokesfamily. The writers refused to set up a clean season seven, and the entire thing felt like a finale/suicide note. It would be a solid last episode, if that’s what it turns out to be.
In the end, everything Dan Harmon creates ends up being about whether or not it’s okay that Dan Harmon is kind of a prick as long as he makes stuff people like. The more and more explicitly said stuff is about The Dan Harmon Problem, the less likable it is. Here, Dan Harmon takes a hard left by turning ever-so-slightly outward (the turn might not be much, but the effort must be overwhelming). But when it seems like we might be glancing at a greater truth, we are usually reminded that Dan Harmon is special, and the cycle starts over again, and again. After all these seasons, it’s clear that what we talk about when we talk about Dan Harmon is Dan Harmon.
I definitely think that Community was a unique and exciting voice, and that even in its most recent season that voice could still sometimes be heard. I don’t know that this makes Dan Harmon okay as a human man with real people who love him. I don’t know that it excuses his all-encompassing self-obsession, his well-documented megalomaniacal streak, his cruelty, his drinking, and all his other proudly-displayed poops. I also don’t know that it doesn’t make him okay. Neither does Dan Harmon.
I do know he made a television show that was often absurdly good and wholly original, and just as often sucked on the end of its own tail like rent was due. I know that there are a lot of TV creators who were never overtaken by their show or, if they were, weren’t so goddamn precious about it. But I don’t know that those guys are any happier, or better off, or that their shows added more to the medium. I do know I don’t want to talk about Community again for a long, long time, but I hope when I do I will remember it fondly.
Whatever happens next, I hope Dan Harmon and his Community are at peace. I’ve said my goodbyes.