Six seasons and a movie always sounded like such a gleefully tantalising prospect, but after the sacking of Community ’s creator/showrunner/mad genius Dan Harmon, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea anymore. Community is a show that’s more surreal than sci-fi, but it’s also funny, smart, warm-hearted, inclusive, geeky, innovative, unpredictable, and utterly unlike anything ever seen on American network TV. Soaring above the clouds in this way comes at a cost, however, and Community has also had a tumultuous time behind the scenes during its three years on the air, culminating in the dismissal of Harmon last weekend.
It’s news that gives Community ’s season four renewal something of a bitter aftertaste. In SFX terms it’s a change at the top akin to removing Joss Whedon from the picture completely after season three of Buffy . Although none of us mere mortals will ever know exactly how much Harmon shaped the show, it should be clear to anyone who watches Community that what makes it so special is being the product of a singular, barmy vision. In his tumblr , where Harmon reflects on being fired, he mentions having the option to say “‘It has to be like this or I quit’” roughly 8 times a day”. While this is intended as hyperbole, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was closer to fact than fiction. How else do you explain a mainstream network comedy that has a running in-joke about a British time-traveller called Inspector Spacetime? Or a three year build up for a background Beetlejuice gag ?
Community is created for fans, not just casual viewers (though it’s smart enough to ensure that long-running arcs are never intrusive) and by replacing Harmon the suits at Sony have made a very conscious business decision to broaden its appeal. It’s quite likely that many of the show’s viewers don’t even know who Dan Harmon is, but as the recent online furore over Community ’s mid-season delay and the rapturous reception on its return proved, the show’s most fervent and dedicated fanbase can be found on the interwebs. They’re the fans responsible for the show’s incredible word of mouth, and the ones Sony are alienating by removing Harmon in such a seemingly callous manner, firing him (he claims) without even the courtesy of a call. That may well be common practice in TV land nowadays, but Sony are doing themselves no favours in winning over fans.
It’s not that there isn’t a good version of Community to be made without Harmon. Many shows survive without the original creative force. Another apt Whedon comparison would be Angel, where he was very much a hands-off creator, and that show went on to be just as good, if not better than its parent show under David Greenwalt. The cast will presumably remain intact (a huge part of the show's charm rests on the shoulders of its performers as the disappointing claymation episode proved), and Harmon writes fewer episodes than you might think, even so Community has improved with each passing season, and shows no signs of creative decay, which makes such a significant shake up even more of a blow.
There is, of course, another side to being a showrunner. They aren’t just idea factories, they’re effectively managers of a huge, money-making production, and as a result they’re as much businessmen as people who write funny things that appear on TV. Harmon may be a talent to be cherished and nurtured creatively, but if it's true he doesn't have the business acumen and diplomacy required to operate in the network system he was always going to be ousted to the fringes. Again, we mere mortals are never likely to know the full story, but if we take Harmon’s recent(ish) public spat with Chevy Chase as an example, Harmon, as the senior, more responsible figure, it would appear was in the wrong.
So am I member of the #threeseasonsandaboycott brigade? Not yet, though by moving it to Friday nights and cutting the episode order to just 13 (a blanket decision for many of their comedy shows, admittedly) NBC seems to be exhibiting a complete lack of faith for the show in its current form. I adore Community too much to not give it a chance post-Harmon, but in my heart it already feels like the show’s been cancelled. Cruel cruel cruel.