In our discussion last week about Community‘s upcoming move to Friday nights we confidently predicted that, despite swirling rumors, we saw no reason why Dan Harmon would not return as Community showrunner. Perhaps we should have been more precise with our diction. What we meant was that we saw no reason why Harmon would choose not to return. The idea that NBC/Sony would not bring him back never crossed our minds. So while we still stand by what we wrote last week we were shocked and dismayed (like everyone else) when we learned over the weekend that Harmon was replaced as showrunner and essentially fired from his own show (however, unlike everyone else, we read the news on our phone during a bachelor party in Chicago, after sleeping off the night before).
The big question, of course, is why would NBC renew the series and move it to Friday nights only to turn around and can Harmon? If they decided to leave the show on Thursdays, then we could maybe understand the change at the top, a last-gasp attempt to ensnare more viewers on what has traditionally been NBC’s strongest night. But by picking up the show for a shortened thirteen episode order and shifting it to the Friday night graveyard, it seemed that NBC had resigned itself to Harmon’s vision of Community, a brilliant but challenging program that defies normal sitcom conventions and constantly pushes the envelope, certainly alienating many viewers in the process. It’s no secret that Harmon has been notoriously difficult to work with, obsessing over ever detail of the show, no doubt providing an epidemic of headaches for the studio and the network. But it was clearly his show, perhaps more than any other show on network television right now, and to pick it up and then push it to Fridays seemed to be an indication that they were saying, “Okay, Dan, this show is never going to be a hit and it’s never going to be the show that we want it to be. But it has a rabid, foaming at the mouth fan base who will follow it to Fridays or to C-Span or to JetBlue seat back TVs, so here’s thirteen episodes. Go do whatever you want and we’ll stay out of it.” Clearly though, that wasn’t the thought process. Appears to be quite the opposite, in fact.
But whatever the motivations – sacrificing quality to painlessly reach enough episodes for syndication or feeling that Harmon was just too monstrously difficult to remain as showrunner or to placate an executive who desired Harmon replaced for one reason or another – Harmon’s now gone. We could speculate what this means for the future of Community. But we really don’t want to do that. First of all, it hurts too much of to think about, because our gut tells us the show will return declawed and sanitized, the easy-breezy extra-palatable sitcom that NBC seemed to want from the beginning. But that speculation would be just that, and we really don’t know enough about who’s staying and who’s going (producers, writers, cast, etc) to fully venture a guess about the Greendale landscape of Community 2.0. Second, and more importantly, we’re interested in what this says about the state of network TV.
One can’t help but think that if Community was on cable – FX, IFC, Showtime, pick one – this wouldn’t have happened. Could you imaginee HBO removing David Chase from The Sopranos? FX replacing Louie on Louie (maybe with Louie Anderson?)? AMC severing ties with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner (remember when that was rumored to be happening but then obviously didn’t because it would have completely altered the show)? No, these are things that would not happen, because these people are the creative lifeblood of their respective shows. They are, in essence, the shows themselves, and to distance these shows from their creators would be to distance the shows from their true nature and original intent. But on cable Neislen ratings aren’t the bottom line. The bottom line isn’t the bottom line. Mad Men’s audience is dwarfed by The Walking Dead‘s, but AMC keeps plugging millions of dollars into the forme, because it’s a critical darling, in addition to doing very well with advertisers (it’s interesting to note that The Walking Dead is an example of a show that did replace its showrunner and didn’t seem to miss a beat. But that can be attributed to the fact that a) the program had significant creative deficiencies, and b) although it’s on AMC, it’s more popcorn entertainment, and doesn’t lend itself to needing the kind of creative head that those other shows do). Even the most popular HBO shows don’t pull outrageous numbers, but they earn accolades and have strong fan bases. Yes, of course, the ultimate goal of any business is to make money, but clearly there’s a difference in how networks and cable prioritize quality.
Which is a long way of saying that Dan Harmon was probably the wrong guy to be running a show on NBC. Perhaps the studio could have been more open and flexible with the situation and suggested installing a kind of co-showrunner who would be more responsible for the nuts and bolts of the show, keeping a firm eye on the bottom line and dialoguing with the studio while Harmon would focus on the creative aspects of the show, on keeping Community “Community.” But, the truth is, those two positions are probably inseparable, and that kind of power sharing paradigm would be viewed as no less than a coup, doomed to fail sooner rather than later, with likely more acrimony and bad-blood then there was with this midnight execution. So, in a vacuum, NBC’s decision is understandable, if you approach it from the perspective that they viewed Harmon as someone ill-equipped to run a network production. Notice how they call it “showrunner,” which can sound closer to a factory foreman. They don’t call it showleader or showcreative soul or showheart. They want someone to run a well-oiled, efficient machine, they want someone to manage an episode factory.
Luckily for us Dan Harmon was the wrong guy for that job. Community, at least for its first three seasons was not a factory. It was a workshop, an art gallery, an amusement park , a freak show, and a dysfunctional community college. And we have Dan Harmon to thank for that.