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 seasons.
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 future.
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.