Monday, May 21, 2012

On Dan Harmon's Removal from Community and Similar Bullshit

Annie tells it like it is

I should say something about Dan Harmon being fired from Community. God knows it's been bugging me enough. After the exhilaration of the show being renewed, followed by a gloriously fun three-episode finale, Sony Pictures Television decided to throw us all in the dumps by ousting its showrunner without even so much as a courtesy call, and so threatening to turn one of the most cutting edge shows on TV into something depressingly normal.

Obviously certain things must be gotten out of the way first. This is a low-rated show and it's a damn miracle it's been on as long as it has, and Harmon does not have the very best reputation as a showrunner- he recently had a major personality clash with star Chevy Chase (though in defense, Chase also has a difficult reputation), and there were rumblings of this for a time.

But let's, for a minute, put all questions of artistic integrity and creator ownership and so on aside. Does Sony actually think this is going to turn things around? It's not likely- the show has established what it is, what it is is something that's esoteric and appeals to a small base of devoted fans, and changing that- as replacing your showrunners will do- is more likely to drive the existing base off than it is to bring anyone new in. How many people are going to start watching- on Fridays, no less- because they've heard it's gotten slightly more normal? "Normal" isn't a hook, is the thing. It can help retain audiences but it won't draw them in on its own.

So, business wise, this makes no sense. This may be some weird desperation play by Sony to make it just popular enough to get a back 9 or even a fifth season, so that they can make a better syndication deal, but it's shooting the moon essentially. The odds that this will greatly increase viewership are incredibly low. It reminds me of the battle over Terry Gilliam's Brazil- in the end, even if Sid Sheinberg had gotten his way, the movie probably still wouldn't have done very much business at the box office, because there's no way you can turn a dystopian black comedy into a charming romantic adventure.  You're not going to turn Community into Friends either.

Creatively? To take something as personal and idiosyncratic as Community and remove its chief creative voice is probably not gonna end well. The best we can hope for is a respectable approximation of what came before, a victory lap as it were. The new showrunners have worked on Happy Endings, which is a very funny show- it's not ambitious, really, but they know what they do well, so maybe Community season 4 will just be funny and get by on the charm of its cast (which is substantial.) They also worked on Just Shoot Me, which was honestly okay with a few down spots so I'm not sure if that means anything one way or another. They were also involved with the pilot of a failed American remake of the British comedy The IT Crowd, for which they made no contact with the show's creator despite recreating the entire first episode shot for shot. This is less good news. Hopefully in the years since they have learned something about respect for creators.

So everything depends on them, and so far they have yet to poke their heads up. (Not that I can blame them.) If they are truly respectful of what's come before they can at least finish on a pleasant note, keeping some of the show's adventurous spirit even if it ends up a little less personal. But if they decide that their job is to make the show mainstream at all costs, things could get very, very ugly.

Of course, even if the last season of Community is not very good, we should appreciate what we've gotten. The original Star Trek also had a third and final season without its original showrunner's involvement, a year where the plots were silly and childish, a time that the fans like to call the "turd" season. And yet, Star Trek is considered a pretty great and important show.

No matter what, I feel confident that Community will be recognized as a great work of television. But the people coming on board should understand what they're inheriting, and understand that to try too hard to make it more commercial will not only make it worse, but also probably not deliver very many more viewers anyway. I really want the next season to be good. And I look forward to Dan Harmon's next work, and wish him well.

But maybe he should get himself to a psychiatrist's office too, because honestly, dude sometimes beats up on himself too much. I worry.

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