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Community Without Dan Harmon? Suits Axe Auteur, and Fans Lose

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Dan Harmon attends the 2012 PaleyFest presentation of "Community" at Saban Theatre on March 3, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.

The good news for Community fans came before last week’s upfronts, when NBC committed to pick the sitcom up for another (albeit possibly final) season of 13 episodes. The bad news came late on Friday, when news broke that creator/writer/mastermind Dan Harmon would be replaced by the studio, Sony, as showrunner of his eccentrically brilliant comedy. Nor would this be one of those situations where a creator turns the day-to-day over to another producer while still keeping control. Harmon wrote on his Tumblr–where he also mentioned by the by that neither Sony nor NBC spoke to him before essentially firing him–that his involvement with the show was all but technically over.

Two questions: Why? And what does it mean for the show? The “Why?” is less depressing, so let’s take that first. Harmon is notoriously, and by his own admission, not the easiest guy to work with. He’s clashed, loudly, with NBC and Sony for three seasons over the show’s creative vision (the network and studio wanting him to aim for less complex, more accessible storylines in hopes of higher ratings). He made news for battling publicly with co-star Chevy Chase (himself, notoriously, no walk in the park). Things were at a simmer from the get-go (I remember grumblings over line readings and a costume issue when I visited the set before the show even premiered), but they exploded embarrassingly when Chase left Harmon a furious voicemail after the third-season wrap and Harmon played the recording in public.

Finally, maybe most important, Harmon didn’t manage time, budget or personnel well–he controlled the show’s vision down to the most minor details, but by his own admission, he was not great at keeping the trains running on time (or keeping its various engines happy).

Stubbornness, fighting, budget and time overruns—high ratings will earn a producer a lot of indulgence on all these points. Community did not have high ratings. And for reasons yet to be detailed, Sony could not, or didn’t want to, resolve this in a way short of basically canning Harmon the day after the season-three finale in a Friday-night news dump. (It was the studio’s call, but NBC could have and evidently didn’t push for Harmon to stay.)

There’s another part to the “why?,” but let’s leave that for a second. What happens to the show? Showrunners get fired all the time. Creators leave shows, launch other shows, or choose to cut back. It happens, and because TV is generally such a collaborative medium, it’s usually survivable. There are lots of writers and producers who have a hand in the show, and ideally, they can keep the show sounding like itself (with shifts in tone over time) for a long time—even Simpsons-long.

Harmon, though, is one of a small but growing number of TV creator-producers who are really like writer-director auteurs in the movies–people whose involvement is so great and whose control of the voice, vision and details so thorough, that the show would simply stop being itself without them. There would be no point to Louie without Louis C.K. Girls would have little reason to exist without Lena Dunham. There’s a spectrum of how irreplaceable a TV auteur is: The West Wing survived after Aaron Sorkin left following season four, even if it never quite sounded or felt the same. Likewise, as Alan Sepinwall noted in his Community post, when David Milch left NYPD Blue.

But as TV has changed—creatively and business-wise—to embrace more totalizing artistic visions, a handful of shows have become more purely auteur-driven. There a lot of controversy about how and why Deadwood ended, but the bottom line was that with Milch doing John from Cincinnati, there was no Deadwood without his voice and obsessive involvement. The Walking Dead (with an existing story in graphic novels) did fine without Frank Darabont; it is hard to imagine Mad Men doing the same even if it was floated in contract negotiations. Seinfeld had a couple more successful seasons after Larry David left; but how or why could you possibly do Curb Your Enthusiasm without him?

Whatever anyone who worked with Harmon would say about the experience, it is unquestionable that he loved Community and drove himself all hours to ensure that every episode, whether he wrote it or not, reflected a singular vision. The show was rich and detailed, regularly turning out special episodes–elaborate parodies, stop-motion, last Thursday’s told mostly in the form of a dead-on recreation of an early-90s-style 16-bit videogame—that other sitcoms would rarely, or more likely never. He constructed the episodes like Cornell boxes, detailing his narrative goals for them graphically with the kind of mania reserved for the insane, or the brilliant pain-in-the-ass.

That’s not for everybody. Community’s audience was small—4 or 5 million, say. And yet those 4 or 5 million tuned in, unlike the audiences for any other network sitcom, not just for the stars but for Harmon himself, to see what jack-in-the-box would pop out of his brainpan that week. And the audience was small but unusually sticky: put the show up against American Idol, the numbers held; put it on hiatus and they came back. They weren’t many people, but they were going to watch Dan Harmon’s show, goddammit, whenever and wherever they had to.

If Sony and he couldn’t reconcile, why not just cancel the show—as there’s a good chance it might be after a short season four anyway? Can you make Community without Harmon?

Well, you can make a Community. The new producers (from the very good Happy Endings) are no doubt talented. There’s a strong cast in place. The characters are well-established, and someone who studies the show can get a sense of their relationships, the humor and the voice. A new Community could be really good. But the same unpredictability, the chaos, the sense of play? Impossible.

That may well be Sony’s intention. The studio, and NBC, have long wanted Harmon to make a broader, more traditional comedy about a group of community college friends getting into predicaments, believing that would get bigger ratings. That might have been true the first season; it’s a foolish hope now. A sizeable chunk of Community’s loyal niche will probably leave if Harmon’s gone. The show is moving to a new night—the death-to-ratings Friday—and people who are not going to watch Community have decided not to watch it. Could the show have been broadened after the pilot, even in season two? Maybe. Now? Not, to paraphrase Dean Pelton, without a time hoodie.

There’s another possibility, maybe more plausible, definitely more depressing. Studios make a major chunk of their money by producing enough episodes of a show to go into syndication. The magic number used to be 100; it’s dwindled down lately to somewhere in the 80s. Which is—roughly—where Community would end up after a final, 13-episode season with NBC. The thinking could be: make just enough episodes to trigger that payday, preferably with showrunners who can keep the budget down, and whether the original fans hate it or not, you’ve made back your money. If anyone watches, hell, that’s gravy!

It could work. But God, what a grim slog that last run of episodes would be to make.

Look: I don’t know the specifics of why Sony dumped Harmon in this way or whether it was realistically possible they work together, even for a short last season. (I doubt the theory that Harmon was fired because of Chevy Chase; Chase was brought in on the theory that the show needed a star three years ago, but he’s a weak link in the cast if anything and by now I highly doubt many fans watch the show for him in particular.) Maybe the auteur model is just a problem for network TV—which, maybe, needs replacability to ensure long-lived shows that can replace themselves—but it’s what NBC signed up for.

Regardless, it’s not my brief to argue that creative geniuses are morally entitled to unlimited indulgence, with whatever resources they require, ratings or no, whatever their behavior. I’m also not here, though, to give rationalizations for companies’ bottom-line decisions, or to cheer them for doing whatever they need to to maximize their return on investment. That’s Sony shareholders’ problem, not mine.

TV’s a business. And the business that makes great TV possible also sometimes destroys it. I don’t really care which well-paid party was more in the wrong here. I care about the show, and the fans who stuck by it. For them, this is a really lousy solution, period.

It is, perhaps, a sign of Community’s eventual doom that the show produced so many colorful expressions for something going bad. But I’ll say it: whoever is finally to blame here, keeping alive a zombie Community without its singular vision is the darkest timeline. It is, dare I say it, the opposite of Batman.

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