The Future of Community

The week of the television upfronts, when networks unveil their fall line-ups and announce what shows will or will not be returning, is always more stressful for me than it should be. I mean, I don’t work on any of these shows and I’m not in the business, so I don’t have any financial interest in these decisions. However, as someone who is pretty passionate about television, I’m kind of invested in what shows return and what shows are cancelled. I also like to know if I’m going to have some decisions in the fall when faced with valuable space on my DVR. Thursdays at 8 pm have always been a particular nightmare for me. I usually have to watch the NBC comedy live, DVR The Vampire Diaries (don’t hate – it’s a great show) and then watch The Big Bang Theory on demand. This year, the upfronts were a source of particular anxiety because I love a lot of shows that were on the bubble for renewal. There was a real chance that Cougar Town, Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings, 30 Rock and Community could all be cancelled. I was preparing myself for the worst, so I was pleasantly surprised when all the shows were picked up in some form or another: Cougar Town is jumping networks (from ABC to TBS), Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings received a full 22 episode pick up from NBC and ABC respectively, and both 30 Rock and Community were given 13 episodes orders by NBC. While 30 Rock will be ending their run after these final 13 episodes, there was a possibility that more episodes of Community could be ordered (in other words, it wasn’t necessarily cancelled after those episodes, the network could extend the deal). Though Community was moving to Friday nights I was still pretty optimistic; though Friday nights are often thought of as a television graveyard, this also means that expectations for shows on Friday are much lower and therefore networks are happy with ratings that would be considered low any other night. And to say that Community is “ratings-challenged” would be putting it nicely. So it really was the best case scenario – all my shows were returning in the fall and my favorite of the bunch was given a time slot where perhaps it would be able to thrive. I was a happy camper.

And then NBC/Sony Pictures fired Community’s creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon.

The loss of the showrunner and primary creative mind might not be that big of a deal to some other shows; the more routine or procedural shows on the schedule tend to follow a general pattern so their success is not necessarily tied to one person’s vision. I’m pretty sure I could take over Two and a Half Men and put out the same crappy product that is currently being produced. Many showrunners have handed off the responsibility for their shows to hand chosen successors so they can go off to develop other programs. A change at the top of a long running program may be less disruptive as storylines and character development have already been done; the heavy lifting accomplished, a new showrunner just has to keep the show afloat.

But then there are shows that are so intertwined with the man or woman who created them that it is difficult to even imagine what the show would be like without them. The Sopranos without David Chase? Forget about it. Mad Men without Matt Weiner? Breaking Bad without Vincent Gilligan? Vastly different shows. All these programs come from man’s specific viewpoint and bear the stamp of one person’s distinct voice. Take that away and you take away the very essence of the show.

Community, I fear, falls into this category. This show comes right from Dan Harmon’s wacky brain. If you’ve seen the show, and based on the ratings that isn’t many of you, you know that the show is quirky and hops around in different genres of storytelling. One week you get homage to spaghetti westerns and another week you get a spot on Ken Burns documentary parody. It’s all creative, surprising, smart, funny and – more often than not – pretty brilliant. But it is 100% Dan Harmon. This is his baby. The actors are all great, but they are speaking his words and executing his concepts. By most accounts, he IS Community.

I get why they may have wanted to let him go. Dan Harmon was allegedly kind of difficult to work with. He’s publicly feuded with Chevy Chase, one of the stars on the show, which is generally not a good thing (I tend to side with Harmon in principle – Chase isn’t exactly rumored to be a peach to work with either – but not in his execution).  His show isn’t doing all that well in the ratings, though it is a critical darling with a fairly rabid and devoted fan following. People are speculating that the main reason that they show was brought back was to hit the right number of episodes for syndication (they already have an agreement with Comedy Central). If that is the case, they don’t care about quality; they are only after quantity.

So I’m not really sure what to expect when the show returns in the fall. I’m trying to stay optimistic, as the showrunners that they have brought on formerly worked on Happy Endings, a show that doesn’t necessarily have the same sensibilities, but at least is in the same general comedic ballpark. As far as I know, the entire talented cast is returning, which is also a good sign. I’m definitely willing to give the new team a chance; I love this show far too much to just write it off. If I’ve stuck it out with The Office all this time, I can certainly give the new showrunners my support for what is could be the final 13 episodes of the series. But by the same token, it’s still kind of sad to know that the show I knew and loved is essentially over. The best I think I can hope for is a pale imitation of the original; without Harmon, I just don’t think that Community will be the same. If that’s the case, I’d rather the show ends it run after these 13 episodes rather than further mar the greatness it once was.

If you haven’t seen the show, I do encourage you to seek out the first three seasons on DVD. It takes a few episodes for the show to find its footing, but once it does it really is fantastic. I really don’t understand why this show isn’t more popular.

Thanks to Dan Harmon for three spectacular seasons and good luck to new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port. I have a feeling they are going to need it. The fact that the memo sent to cast and crew about how to handle the situation was immediately leaked to the media indicates that there is trouble afoot in the halls of Greendale.