Welcome to the Darkest Timeline: What the Firing of Dan Harmon Means for Community
It’s been a rough few weeks for fans of the NBC sitcom Community. The low-rated, critically acclaimed series wasn’t guaranteed a fourth season until the eleventh hour, on the next to last day of the NBC upfronts (a meeting of advertisers and executives where the network unveils its lineup for the following season). Though the series was picked up for another year, the episode order was shortened from the standard 22 to 13, and the show was shifted to Friday nights, between Whitney and Grimm. Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC entertainment, explained the move by saying that Community “has its faithful audience and they will follow it to the ends of the Earth. And I really wanted to do something to invigorate Friday because we love Grimm. So I thought, let’s move a show where the audience will move with it.” In his statement Greenblatt also made an oblique reference to replacing Dan Harmon, creator and mastermind of the series, as showrunner. The line sent a shockwave through the show’s fans, who couldn’t imagine the series without Harmon’s unique voice guiding it.
On Thursday NBC aired the final three episodes of the third season on the same night, which it promoted as a “three-part finale” event. The episodes were all very funny, but so different from each other that there seemed to be no reason to air them as a connected block. It seemed to be yet another case of NBC simply not understanding what the show was—a problem that has plagued the innovative comedy from its first season onward. On top of everything else, the episodes received the worst ratings that the series had ever seen ( a 1.3 in the 18-49 demographic, and a mere 2.97 million viewers total).
But the drama really picked up late Friday night, after word leaked (and was soon confirmed) that Harmon was officially out as showrunner. Details are still developing, but it appears Sony Television, who own and produce the series, hired writers David Guarascio and Moses Port, formerly of the ABC sitcom Happy Endings, to join the fourth season staff—but with the secret intention of forcing Harmon out and handing them the reins. Sony dropped the hammer Friday night, but announced that Harmon would stay on as a consulting producer. But according to a post that Harmon made on his Tumblr account this was all done without a single phone call to him, and he had not been informed of his demotion until he read the reports. As for his title change, Harmon dismissed his new role by explaining just how neutered he would be, should he decide to return to the writer’s room:
“…if I actually chose to go to the office, I wouldn’t have any power there. Nobody would have to do anything I said, ever. I would be “offering” thoughts on other people’s scripts, not allowed to rewrite them, not allowed to ask anyone else to rewrite them, not allowed to say whether a single joke was funny or go near the edit bay, etc.”
Harmon’s forced exit comes on the heels of the departure of executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, who left the series to work at 20th Century Fox, and the producing/directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo—all of whom helped guide the direction of the series from the very beginning. Once word of Harmon’s firing got out writer Chris McKenna, who wrote many of the defining episodes of the series, including this season’s brilliant multi-timeline episode “Remedial Chaos Theory”, and producer/writer/cast member Dino Stamatopoulos (better known to Community fans as Star-burns) both announced via their Twitter accounts that they would be leaving the series in solidarity with Harmon (both had other development deals, but were planning to remain on the writing staff for the upcoming season). Just like that, every member of the original creative team of Community was gone.
To understand why Harmon’s departure is so catastrophic, we must understand the ways that Harmon is different from other network showrunners. Harmon’s obsessive love of pop-culture informs the series. During the first season that manifested chiefly in the vivid fantasy life of film student Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), but beginning with the now-classic paintball episode “Modern Warfare”, the series became known for its detailed genre parodies. Parodying varied sources, from horror films, to video games, to My Dinner with Andre, each episode carried the promise of high-concept, but still character-based, comedy that was unlike anything else on television. Sony repeatedly fought Harmon on the direction of the series, asking him to tony down the show to appeal to a broader mainstream audience, but Harmon wouldn’t budge.
And then there is Harmon’s equally obsessive attention to plot and character. While working at Channel 101, a website that he created with former writing partner Rob Schrab that highlights short independent films, Harmon shared his story formula—an adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey framework that Harmon diagrammed as a circle divided into four quadrants. When Wired Magazine ran its feature story on Harmon (appropriately titled “How Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community”), they revealed that the whiteboard in the writer’s room was filled with these circles. Every character, every storyline, every episode was accounted for. The story circle even made an appearance in the season three episode “Regional Holiday Music”. As Abed raps during a musical number he sings, “If years were seasons this December would be the December of our December” as a Harmon circle is shown on screen with pictures of previous episodes in places that correspond to Harmon’s story points, and with empty spots in the fourth quadrant. This seemed to indicate that Harmon had a basic outline for at least four seasons of Community. Now we’ll never find out what was to fill those empty slots.
So what will become of Community? The series will produce 13 episodes next season, with an option to go a full 22 if they pick up more viewers or NBC’s new shows fail. Guarascio and Port are talented showrunners—Happy Endings, over the course of its first two seasons, has become one of the funniest shows on television and also, crucially, a series with well-defined characters. Community staff writers such as Andy Bobrow and Megan Ganz are still expected to be there (though the way this weekend’s bloodbath is accelerating, that may have changed by the time you read this article), which means there would be a few people left on staff with an understanding of—and respect for—Harmon’s vision.
And, of course, the cast will remain—one of the most talented casts in television, with emerging stars Donald Glover and Alison Brie and established favorites Joel McHale and Chevy Chase (should he return, which seems somehow more likely that Harmon is gone). Complicating things is the fact that many of the characters were reflections of Harmon’s own psychology. Jeff’s attempts to overcome his narcissism, Abed’s consistent misreading of social cues, and even Britta’s passionate but ill-informed activism all come from Harmon. Without that backbone, how can these characters maintain their familiar shapes? It will be like a zombie version of Community, but not in the fun “Epidemiology” way.
“Introduction to Finality”, the final episode of the third season, ends with a montage that offers both a resolution on many plot threads, and also a tease for what could lie ahead. We see Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) opening up her sandwich shop with Pierce (Chevy Chase), a realization of her goal since the first episode. We see Jeff (Joel McHale) begin to search for his estranged father. And then, finally, we see Abed tear down his Dream-a-torium to make room for his friends, as Britta (Gillian Jacobs) appears to be moving into the room it occupied. All these scenes offer closure and show how these characters have grown over the course of the three seasons we’ve spent with them. The very final moment pays tribute to the fans that campaigned so hard to save the series when it was put on indefinite hiatus at the end of 2011, as Abed disappears into a new makeshift Dream-a-torium as the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie appears on the screen. In retrospect, the episode stands as a finale to Harmon’s Community, and an emotionally resonant one at that. What the next season, or any beyond, will be remains to be seen.