In his commencement speech to University of the Arts in 2012, author, television writer and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman said of freelance artists, “People keep working … because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine.” Later the same year, I heard that Dan Harmon, the creator/showrunner of NBC’s Community had been let go for season four. After hearing that, I could only assume that Harmon’s work was tardy and that he wasn’t very easy to get along with because his work was solidly good.
Community is one of two veteran NBC comedies that will be returning next year. The show follows seven unlikely friends at Greendale Community College as they work in a study group and get into ridiculous and humorous shenanigans. The group, comprised of group leader Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), faux-activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), anal-retentive good-girl Annie Edison (Alison Brie), mother and Christian sandwich shop owner Shirley Bennett (Yvette Brown), pop-culture obsessed Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), former star jock Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and the benignly politically incorrect senior citizen student Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase).
With such a diverse cast of characters, what makes the show work is the individuality and quirkiness afforded to each person, and how they manage to mesh together into the group dynamic. Why would they let Harmon go when his voice helped shape that dynamic and his was the artistic direction that made Community what it was? I couldn’t say with certitude. What I can say is that Harmon’s absence was heavily felt through the painful run of season four. While season four show runners David Guarascio and Moses Port made valiant efforts, their Community hit more like a poor facsimile of what they thought it should be, relying on old jokes and staples of the show that they could not successfully pull off. One of their biggest failures was in their attempt to capture the voice of Abed Nadir, who, though never blatantly stated, clearly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and whose humour is difficult to capture if there isn’t a firm grasp on his character.
Though uncomfortable, I refused to give up on the season, promising myself as a fan — and out of respect for the actors who did their best with the material that was provided — that I would watch to the end. The problems I had with the season went beyond their failure to communicate the wit and individuality of the characters’ voices. While understanding the limitations of a half-season pickup (only 13 episodes as opposed to the customary 22), the finale was entirely botched. Threads that they had been developing since the season three finale (for example, Chang [Ken Jeong] working with Greendale arch rival City College) were unceremoniously dropped, and replaced with a bizarre sci-fi dream sequence that heavy-handedly relied on the now overused paintball trope, and rushed us through a hectic half hour.
The closest season four came to feeling like a solidly good episode (that also captured the essence of Abed) was “Basic Human Anatomy,” in which Abed and Troy pretend to switch bodies, which accounts for any lack of authenticity in the portrayal of Abed’s character. It is being displayed through Troy’s perception of him, which, while delightfully close, cannot be 100 percent exact. Part of the tone and quality of this episode may arise from the fact that it was written by series regular Jim Rash, who plays the flamboyant and fantastic Dean Pelton. It was the first episode Rash ever wrote for the series, but it felt closer to Harmon’s Community than any other episode in the most recent season.
Harmon’s return, however, is not the only one of note, and possibly not even the one that will impact individual episode quality. Writer Chris McKenna will also be returning to Community with Harmon. McKenna’s episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which split the episode into six narratives of possible outcomes at a pizza night, snagged the only Emmy nomination the show has ever received. McKenna’s episodes, in fact, rank amongst the most entertaining and innovative episodes such as “Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design” and “Paradigms of Human Memory.” With such good writing credits to his name, news of McKenna’s leaving caused almost as much uproar as Harmon’s.
It should also be noted that when Harmon left, there was also a mass exodus of other staff writers who helped shape the show and knew the characters well. There’s no word on their return yet, but what truly may have been the problem last season was that the voice and vision of the show was lost. Hopefully with the return of the creator, the show can return to its former glory.