Saturday, May 19, 2012

My Five Cents: 'On Writing' 'Community' Without Dan Harmon...

Last night Vulture broke the news all of us Human Beings were fearing: that Sony and NBC were replacing Dan Harmon as showrunner on Community. The issue came down to a contractual one: last year Harmon had signed a one-year deal to stay with a show that he created-- that spawned from the inner pop culture nerd in his mind-- and this year they decided not to renew the contact. Instead, they are bringing in two consultants on Happy Endings (yay!), who also worked on Aliens in America and a FOX pilot that didn't go this season. Happy Endings has a similar sensibility with its humor as Community, but let's face it, the two shows are not comparable. I would argue that no show is comparable to Community. And I'm not even talking about which show is better or funnier or words that really have no place in art anyway.  

Community just lives and breathes in its own category because of its ambitious nature and "all in" attitude to things that, on paper, certainly seem like insane risks to the suits at the studios and networks. You either "get" their humor or you don't; you either "like" their humor or you don't. No harm, no foul. It's not for everyone, but for those it is for, well, they will protect it with their lives.

We've all seen how creative and passionate the Community fans are-- from staging flash mobs outside NBC-Universal offices to protest the show being on hiatus, to the "Six Seasons and an Movie" art show that has artists from around the world sending in pieces to be displayed. The audience may be small-- certainly miniscule from Nielsen's archaic tracking system, anyway-- but they are mighty. I can't even imagine what they will try to get going to bring Harmon back.

NBC Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt said during his upfront ceremony just earlier this week that he imagined Harmon would still be involved in the show next season, though not running the day-to-day. It's a business decision, surely, and one that none of us who aren't in those meetings can truly comprehend. They're clearly looking for something different, probably even broader, to bring in new viewers and pump up the numbers. Though they moved the show to Friday nights in the fall, they probably want to try to grab some of The Big Bang Theory's audience to come over and join the Community party. They probably figure: "Hey, they are both shows about nerd culture, why not?" And in some ways, yes, that is true, and there is cross-over. But there is great risk in that, too-- risk that the audience who loved Community for three years won't stand by their man-- because their man is no longer steering the ship. Chang the show too much, and it's a brand new show.

Series go through reboots often, and they lose showrunners at times, too. I'm not saying it can't work; I'm just saying I'm highly skeptical right now because of all of the variables in place. It may be a fun show-- a show I want to watch-- but it's surely going to go through some growing pains in the first few episodes to adjust. And it's not going to be the same show. There are a legion of us who may always be unable to stop comparing it to what it was-- what it could have been-- with Harmon at the helm. 

Greenblatt clearly wanted to assuage some of these worries by saying Harmon would still be involved. To the typical television fan who doesn't really know the behind-the-scenes of the business, that may be enough to sigh relief and move on. Then again, those kinds of fans aren't following the upfronts... And I imagine all of Community's fans are savvier than that anyway. They still may not know the nitty gritty definition and responsibilities of a showrunner versus an executive producer, so Harmon was out to educate in that respect:

"If I actually chose to go to the office, I wouldn’t have any power there.  Nobody would have to do anything I said, ever.  I would be “offering” thoughts on other people’s scripts, not allowed to rewrite them, not allowed to ask anyone else to rewrite them, not allowed to say whether a single joke was funny or go near the edit bay, etc.  It’s….not really the way the previous episodes got done.  I was what you might call a….hands on producer.  Are my….periods giving this enough….pointedness?  I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying “it has to be like this..." 

You can say a lot of things about this situation, but not with authority unless you've ever been around Harmon while he worked or the executives at Sony who made this decision while they worked. I, sadly, have had the opportunity for neither, so this is just my opinion. But when a show has such a specific vision as Community, and you cut off the head that created that vision, doesn't the body just twitch for a minute and die? I was thrilled NBC was giving the show a fourth season because I wanted to believe it meant they believed in it and they honored and respected the talent involved. But I don't want them to give it a fourth season only for it to fizzle and flounder out, a shadow of its former self. I'm sorry, but I still can't wash the taste of that final season of Gilmore Girls without Amy Sherman-Palladino out of my mouth.

A show like Community takes a lead from its title and creates just that among its cast, crew, and fans. As much as Harmon is this show, he has amassed a writer's room that know and understand him and can hopefully infuse as much of his vision into the episodes that are to come. That should inspire confidence for the next batch of episodes, but Harmon isn't the only one leaving: EPs Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan are moving on to their 20th Century Fox deal, and I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of writers left out of normal new series staffing turnover and loyalty to Harmon being culprits, too. Honestly, now I'm even a bit worried about the on-screen talent. They all (well, maybe not Chevy) knew what show they signed on for with Community in the beginning, but season four is pretty much a new beginning for them-- but without a new pilot script to read and consider before signing on the dotted line. Sony isn't just taking a risk that will affect their bottom line here. And I may love Chang, but I hate change.

Full letter from Harmon, here.

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