Here is proof Dan Harmon is a lovely sonofabitch:
However, I’m sure he is something of a network nightmare, evidently to the point they couldn’t even stomach him for one more mini-season. I’m only just really realizing that the finale last week was effectively the series finale as critics like Alan Sepinwall have noted: http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/can-community-work-without-dan-harmon
I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show that was so clearly driven by one person’s head get suddenly upended in such a way. It’s vastly different compared to something like The Simpsons which certainly had a golden age but has swapped writers constantly throughout its existence, its drop in quality more of a gradual deterioration based on just going on for way too long as it exhausted all its ideas and novelty. Probably the closest comparison I can think of to this Community debacle is Twin Peaks, which had big problems every time David Lynch left the room and was, in the second season, irreparably wounded by network interference that effectively forced the removal of all potential future dramatic heft and tension from the show in one fell swoop.
Of course, I haven’t actually yet seen what a Community without Harmon looks like, but I honestly can’t imagine how it won’t become completely crippled. I feel there’s something very creepy about this — a kinder, gentler, more budget-conscious, less challenging Community going through the motions, in no way ever attempting to overextend itself — because, even at the times it didn’t exactly work, that’s what Community did. The loss of that ambition, that childlike curiosity that seemed to always be asking, “What can we do with this medium this week?” is going to leave us with…? I genuinely can’t even wrap my mind around it. I mean, is the gang going to just start falling into Standard Sitcom Situations (insider term: SSS)? Will Abed and Britta get trapped in a small space and work out their problems (their time in the Dreamatorium on the last real episode was decidely not this)? Will the Dean accidentally schedule a costume party with the gang and a important meeting with the budget board at the same time and have to keep changing costumes and dashing betwixt the two locations? Is the whole series going to end with City College trying to buy out Greendale and we all have to get together and raise funds to Save Our School?
Okay, actually, the last thing I said sort of was the season finale of Season 2, but that’s the thing about Community; the reason I fell for it so hard, is that it is a traditional sitcom. It’s occurred to me that much of my favorite television as of late is particularly cynical. Arrested Development, for example, is an intricate comedic tapestry that should be used to teach classes how to write complex TV comedy, but I don’t truly care about the characters because they’re all horrible shits. They’re supposed to be horrible shits, but that doesn’t change how I feel about them. Another great show, 30 Rock, is full of cartoon characters that are just clown cars fashioned to overstuff with as many jokes as possible and then some. I admire and respect both of these shows, but I watch them to see silly things happen to the collage of ridiculousness their characters have gradually become over the seasons. I look at the characters in these shows and I can see the writing that makes them up. I see fantastic, difficult, intelligent writing, but it still amounts to a bunch of punchlines and plants and payoffs personified.
Community challenged this by making me care about the characters in it. They’re a big collection of jokes, but they’re also people who love each other and get upset with each other. Community insisted I see modern comedy as little more than a cynical smattering of jokes from ridiculous, sometimes awful people who we come back to every week to see just how stupid they can get or to laugh at them every time they fall. I don’t mean to reduce Arrested Development and 30 Rock to such simplistic, seemingly negative assessments, but I have to say, I don’t really care about Liz Lemon’s happiness and, though I’ll be glad to witness their return, I sort of fear any of the Bluths coming out on top. Community embraced its sentimentality. It made me love these people and want to hang out with them. The best thing I can say is that it reminded me of why I first liked sitcoms, and made me recall when, as a kid, I’d watch Taxi, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I used to laugh at the comedy, but I also genuinely liked the people in them; I worried about them when bad stuff happened and felt glad for them when they achieved things. Community brought this back for me and it did all of this while still being hilarious and surprising from week to week. It was made up of equal parts classic sitcom sentimentality and rapid-fire modern humor and it was a beautiful, unique marriage of both.
And it didn’t take the easy way out on either front. The sheer number of jokes per minute and the cinematic approach give it a clearly modern aesthetic, but it didn’t do it lazily, like, for example, something like Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, which is shiny and quick, but completely soulless. And it didn’t just drop in its sentimentality in a cliched, stock sort of way, like Danny Tanner pulling aside any of his family or extended family at the requisite moment in an episode to explain the moral of the story to them. Granted, Jeff Winger sometimes made a speech telling us the moral of the story, but it was never unearned or it was more complex than just “Jeff is right and this is the moral.”
To return to the idea of “challenge,” Community both frequently challenged itself and me. It played with the half-hour sitcom format, stretching and smashing and reforming it like Play-Doh, showing it could be a sitcom one week, an action movie the next, and a John Hughes film after that. There were times it didn’t really work out — the Treehouse of Horror-esque “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” for example, fell flat for me — but without taking these gambles, it wouldn’t be Community. Beyond that, it challenged me to care about the people involved. It dared me to not be a cynical, unfeeling shit and asked me to be concerned with the lives and relationships of these characters even in an episode where I watched a small, Asian man grease himself up and go crawling through vents in search of a monkey named Annie’s Boobs. And the amazing thing is it actually worked. Yes, there were times it didn’t (I’m afraid I didn’t care at all about Shirley’s wedding), but most of the time, the show earned the emotional payoffs it had worked toward and, again, it garners my respect for taking such a gamble. It might not have always pulled it off, but this is the show that defines itself by not only basing an episode about characters building a pillow fort with a functional society within, but also trying to get you to care about everyone amidst a ridiculous plot about a pillow fort society. And if it doesn’t do this, it’s not Community.
Maybe I sound a little melodramatic by this point, but let me put it this way: though I like 30 Rock a lot, I don’t think my chest is going to hurt very much when it ends. I’ll smile, I’ll laugh, I’ll probably feel relatively satisfied. As mentioned, I didn’t know till recently that the last episode I saw of Community, though it felt like a possible series finale, actually was the last real episode of the show and that goddamn thing still made my chest feel all stopped up. It made me sort of befuddled and uncertain of what to do with my emotions (MY EMOTIONS!) because this show made me feel more than I’m generally used to with TV or, really, with most of life. Community, like other shows I’ve fallen in love with a bit — The Wire, Twin Peaks, The Office (UK), FLCL — kind of hurts me to watch it. It really is so good it kind of hurts sometimes.
I’m not gonna lie. I hope the show ends. This probably speaks to deeper personal issues with intimacy or something lame like that, but some part of me wanted the show to end earlier. The thing is I was so deep in love from midway through Season 1 to the end of Season 2 that I didn’t want to allow for the show to potentially disappoint me. I didn’t want it to ruin what it had done so beautifully already. Season 3 (as referenced earlier) had a few missteps with me that made me think I might be happier if the show just stopped before it made me too sad. But then it would bounce back with incredible fucking brilliance like “Remedial Chaos Theory” and I would realize this was still the show that I loved that took risks and challenged me and itself. But, without Dan Harmon on board and with NBC seemingly having removed him with the (at least partial) intent of keeping the budget in check, I don’t have high hopes of Season 4 of Community still being the show I loved.
Admittedly, the characters are so well-defined at this point that it’s isn’t going to be a thoroughly unrecognizable version of the show. I’ve watched the episodes so many times that, broadly speaking, I predicted some of the logical character developments (Britta using her psych major abilities to try and curtail Jeff’s going nuts based on some issue of his vanity and Troy and Abed having a falling out). (I also thought there should be a video game-themed episode; I did, I swear!) It’s a testament to how beautifully written these characters are that I imagine new TV writers could come in and plausibly expand upon Jeff, Britta, Pierce, Shirley, Abed, Annie, and Troy (and apparently much of the writing staff did change from Seasons 2 to 3). But if it was Dan Harmon (and I think it largely was) who set the stakes so high that made Community the show it is, then the show is surely now going to go for something easier. And while it won’t pile on the cheese as thick as Danny Tanner did or ever be as empty as, uh, The B—- I guess her name is, it still won’t be my show. And then I would rather see it gone. I certainly hope the actors and writers and other crew find homes and fun, rewarding things to do, but there’s something horrifying to me about the notion of watching these characters I came to love performing warmed-over, distant-cousin versions of the show I fell in love with. It’s so depressing to me to imagine a zombified Community actually somehow becoming a mainstream hit and getting renewed, then going on for an eternal number of seasons as the plots get more trite and the lead characters all eventually marry each other or something.
I’m going to watch the fourth season, of course. I love these characters too much not to. There are some shows that should have stopped that I’ve kind of made my peace with to some extent, like The Simpsons. I’m able to recognize that what’s on TV now is not the show that once showed me what humor could be. But I don’t want to have to do that with Community. It hurt to care about these characters, but it’s going to hurt even more — and not in the right way — when they’re not the people I watched grow over the past three years or, maybe they’re the same people, but they just feel like they’re not trying anymore.
Lastly, though I am worried and upset about season 4 of Community, I am excited by Dan Harmon’s new project with Justin Roiland, Rick & Morty, for Adult Swim. Harmon on Adult Swim is a pretty logical conclusion; after being burned by the politics of network television, it makes sense to head for a channel that, upon seeing the pilot of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, told Tim and Eric to go back and “fuck it up more.” Though I imagine we can’t expect an exactly colossal budget, there’s definitely little to no worry about Adult Swim curbing whatever outlandish mindfarts Harmon and Roiland might have. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy whatever they come out with, though I have to admit I’m not expecting to get the same emotional connection to an 11-minute Adult Swim cartoon that I got with Community.
But I might be making a premature judgment here. The fact of the matter is that (though I don’t fully know the full extent of each guy’s involvement in it), Roiland and Harmon did create Mr. Sprinkles, an animated series that was part of Harmon’s quickly whacked VH1 show, Acceptable.TV. Mr. Sprinkles was eight episodes long, clocking in at 2-3 minutes each. Every episode felt like a combination homage/parody of a different genre with ridiculousness that ranged from a courtroom scene featuring a character named Farty McSimmons to watching the show’s protagonist shank a guy to earn cred with a prison gang called the “Imaginary Fun Time League.” The very last episode made my chest feel all stopped up.
And it’s still one of my favorite shows ever.