(This piece was originally published on Chud.com)
I should preface this by saying I don’t know anything about the new showrunners/writers of Community. They could be lovely, brilliant people, but it won’t change that they are being set up to fail.
Fans of Community, still high on the news that the
low-rated cult hit would be getting a (shortened) 4th season, had their
hopes for its future cruelly dashed by the news that Dan Harmon would
not be returning as showrunner next year. I am going to skip past the
part about whether the show is good or brilliant or whether it was
better in the first half of season 2 or how big of an asshole Harmon is
relative to Chevy Chase, and just enumerate some of the reasons why this
is a monumentally stupid decision on a business and creative level.
Replacing a showrunner is always a risk, but it is frequently worth
taking from a network perspective (the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff
details some of the times it has worked out here). Seinfeld was such a phenomenon that NBC would’ve been foolish to give up on it when Larry David left. But Community
is not that kind of hit, and never will be. It’s had 3 years to develop
a huge following, and instead it has stubbornly maintained a modestly
sized but insanely dedicated one. If Chuck Lorre was causing problems
with the brass, it would make sense to bring in some new, easier-to-work
with blood to run Two And A Half Men. That show is
popular enough that it could retain a bunch of its audience via simple
brand recognition (and it could afford to lose the entirety of Community’s rating share and still be a hit).
But Community isn’t Two And A Half Men.
It was only renewed for a 4th season by the skin of its teeth, and not
because it had impressive numbers. What made it (barely) worth picking
up another half season was that it had cache with critics and that
rabid fanbase, which are exactly the kind of people who will revolt over a change in off-screen talent, whereas CSI’s
fans probably wouldn’t notice. It was, despite its goofiness,
essentially a prestige show. NBC got some nebulous value out of being
seen as a network that would support a low rated but unique, intensely
loved series, but this move has lit that image on fire and whacked it
with an axe several times before murdering its wife and burning down
their house to cover their tracks.
And this isn’t even argument for keeping Harmon in charge. What I’m
saying is if he is really just impossible to work with, then cancel the
damn thing. That would be a blow to fans like me, but no one could
seriously blame NBC or Sony (who owns the show in some capacity that it
would only sadden me further to research right now) for the decision.
If a show still isn’t paying its rent on time after 3 seasons you can
give it the axe and no one with an ounce of brain in their head could
say you didn’t give it a fair shake. Hell, some of us may eventually
gain enough perspective to be glad that we have a good-looking corpse
with no wrinkles or stretch marks; there are some who say Arrested Development was cancelled just as it was starting to lose a step.
So the question becomes, if they are going to keep it on without
Harmon, to what end? You’ve taken the good press you get from treating
sensitive artistes well and turned it into bad press for doing
the opposite. And having lost that bit of snob cred, the show really
needs to gain viewers to justify itself in the 4th season. This could
potentially happen under a new regime, but as I said the show has had
time to develop an audience as it is. If the new version succeeds, it
would be because the show had become something so different from what
initially drew its fanatical audience that they might as well have had
the new showrunners start a new show with Joel McHale.
Harmon, for whatever character flaws he has (I’ve never met or even
tweeted with the guy, for what that’s worth), is the very definition of
“irreplaceable” when it comes to Community. And not
just because a new showrunner won’t be as insanely committed to tweaking
every single thing in every single episode to their precise
specifications. Even if they were (which they won’t be, as they are
being brought in expressly to be less obsessive and insane), they could
not fully match his exact, exacting vision for that show. And Community
is a show that absolutely requires that consistent, uncompromising
vision be brought to bear on every single episode. It needs this
precisely because every episode is so wildly different.
Community’s popularity was largely built on it’s
steady stream of high concept parody episodes. In its 3 years on the
air, it has morphed for an episode at a time into loving, dead on
send-ups of mockumentaries, stop-motion Christmas specials, convoluted
heist films, gangster movies, zombie flicks, even Ken Burns
documentaries and freaking 8-bit video games. So the new guys can
either ditch this fundamental element of the show’s identity, or try to
do their own versions. And that is where I predict their ultimate
failure will lie.
Because it’s not going to be easy to replicate the demented audacity it takes to sneak a My Dinner With Andre homage onto primetime network TV by dressing it up in Pulp Fiction’s
clothes. But even if they can come up with ideas that bizarre and make
them work, they will also need to match the hilarious specificity with
which the show nails the tropes of its genres, like the succession of
cat scares in the zombie episode or the way the fake repairmen in the
heist convince the security guards that they’re better off just letting
them have the run of the place than bothering their boss with a security
issue during his big celebration. Then they’d have to match the level
of intangible detail that really makes the parodies sing; little,
completely inessential bits like the hot dog cart in the Law and Order
episode, Shirley reciting scripture while she blasts fools in
paintball, or 8-bit Troy jumping around needlessly whenever the group
stops to talk.
If the new guys can do all of that, they will have succeeded in maintaining Community’s
standard as the best source of cinematic parody since the heyday of the
Zuckers and Abrahams. And it will still fail to live up to the first 3
Because, and here’s where Harmon’s borderline pathology becomes irreplaceable, Community’s parody episodes were never just
parodies. Harmon not only took great pains to justify these bizarre
tangents within the show’s continuity, but to include some of the
biggest plot points of the series (Jeff and Britta hooking up, Chang
knocking up Shirley) in them. All of them reached for something
lasting, on either a plot or character level, something beyond merely
sending up convention, even if they did not quite get there (I’m looking
at that video game episode in particular). Harmon knows these
characters, he knows this setting, and he knows the message that this
show needs to reinforce in even it weirdest, most conceptual outings.
He knows this not just because he created them, but because he is
obsessive in the way that makes him difficult to work with. But that
obsessiveness is what made it possible to depict a campus-wide pillow
fight as a Civil War documentary and still have it feel like an episode of Community.
It might be tempting, particularly if you are an executive at Sony, to look at the way that an episode of Community
can be absolutely anything and think that it means there are no lines
to color inside of, and anyone can play around with it without
alienating the existing audience. But the show’s chameleon nature is
exactly why that strong, unique, consistent voice (with all the
headaches and budget overruns and chapped Chevy-ass it entails) is so
essential. It provides the tether that allows it to run so completely
amok with its formal experiments without betraying who the study group
are or losing sight of what Greendale is to them.
I want to be clear that this is not just about my not wanting
anything to change on a show I like, but things that are unique to this
particular one that make the switch a particularly bad idea. I love Parks and Rec, sometimes more than Community,
and I think Mike Schur is an excellent showrunner. But while anyone
would be a step down from him, if he had to leave that show it would
stand a better chance of maintaining its quality. Both casts are strong
enough to do a lot to smooth over a bumpy transitional period, but the
difference is that a new showrunner on Parks and Rec will have a clear goal: produce good episodes of Parks and Rec.
And while that is by no means easy, there’s a pretty clear blueprint.
Give Nick Offerman some funny talking heads, make sure Jerry gets shit
on at least once a week, have Tom act out the cheesiest aspects of male
culture and end with Leslie bringing out the best in everyone. Once a
year, Megan Mullaly shows up to wreak sexual havoc. If you can pull
that off once, you’ve got a decent chance of doing it again and again.
By contrast, what does a good episode of Community
look like? You’re going to have certain elements in play: Britta
screws up something simple, Troy fights back tears, Abed says something
meta, the dean dresses ka-razy, Jeff wraps it up with a speech. But if
you want to match what Harmon and his writers did, you’re going to need
to fit all of that into a perfect recreation of a PIXAR film, without
breaking from established continuity. And do the same for a superhero
team movie the next week. And a J-Horror film the next. And a snobs
vs. slobs sports comedy the next, and Game of Thrones
the next, and an Oscar-bait biopic the next. And each of those had
better double as an incisive critique of the genre they are imitating at
the same time. And they need to flow into each other to create a
coherent overarching plot. And above all, do it while delivering
consistent, organic character development without losing the acidic edge
that covers the essential warmth and optimism at the core of the show.
Without Harmon’s deathgrip on the helm, I see two possible futures for Community.
In the darker of the possible timelines, it will go blander, and
produce amusing, reasonable facsimiles of the more grounded, less
memorable episodes that padded out the daring formalistic exercises that
defined the original incarnation. I do not want this to happen because
I would end up rooting against a show that I once loved above all
others, and pulling for a blow to the careers of a cast I want to see
succeed. But I will be forced to, because the alternative would be that
the homogenized version thrives and network suits take home the lesson
that the only mistake they made was hiring a brilliant but difficult
creator like Harmon in the first place. That would not bode well for
the prospects of the types of shows I want to see developed in the
The other possibility is that they will make a noble effort at
matching the show’s previous inventiveness, but without the insane
devotion the creator had for maintaining the integrity of this world
while testing its limits, it loses the consistency of characterization
that previously anchored all the madness. It devolves into a sketch
show. And it might be funny at that, but it will not be what so many of
us Human Beings fell in love with. It will be something less.
To Sony/NBC/whoever it was who made this decision, as much as it pains me, I can see the reasons why you would kill Community. But we’d pretty much all be better off if you had just killed Community.