The Community Brouhaha

by Jaime Weinman

So, what to make of tonight’s big TV news (the TV equivalent of one of those political Friday evening news dumps) that Sony has arranged to replace Dan Harmon as the showrunner of Community? (Update: Harmon confirms it: “They [Sony TV] literally haven’t called me since the season four pickup, so their reasons for replacing me are clearly none of my business.”) This is going to be big news, and much of what there is to say has already been said elsewhere, but let me try and fill in a few points that I haven’t seen mentioned very much as yet.

First, the studio has obviously not handled this situation well; they haven’t, as the saying goes in the political world, “messaged” it properly. Shows replace their showrunners all the time, or relieve the creator of the showrunning duties. And sometimes it’s actually necessary. You hear stories all the time about how someone is officially running a show, but isn’t really running it, because the star won’t work with him or whatever – as long as someone is in charge, the public doesn’t really notice. (A more official version of this phenomenon occurs when the creator is doing several shows at once, or just can’t commit to running the show on a day-to-day basis. Some writers might never even meet him, but he’s still in charge.) To put it brutally, if the studio decides someone needs to be removed from office, it’s their job to fool us into thinking nothing has changed.

But that might have been impossible with this show. With most shows, the creator is basically replaceable. That doesn’t mean the show will be as good without him or her. It just means that if the show has any following at all, most of the viewers don’t care about who’s running it; they just care about the characters and the story and that the show continues to be good. If the show ceases to be good, people will be angry whether or not the creator is still there. If the show is still good, even if it’s a little different due to the new people, the viewers will be happy. (Frank Darabont’s messy removal from The Walking Dead made zero impact on the show’s ratings.) You take Happy Endings, since Sony is re-assigning producers from that show to Community: exactly who is running that show is sometimes difficult to determine (like many shows with young, inexperienced creators, it exists in a power-sharing arrangement between the creator and the more experienced producers), and if they started over with a new team of producers, it wouldn’t matter to most people as long as it continued to be funny.

But Community belongs to a small category of shows where the fans aren’t just tuning in for the characters and stories (though obviously, they do like the characters and stories); they’re watching for the creator’s specific point of view. The wild unevenness and mood swings of the show, the huge shifts in tone and the feeling that everything is filtered through one very specific sensibility, is part of what has made it so passionately loved by its fans. Most comedies, including good ones, are a bit filtered through a lot of different sensibilities: there are so many writers and so much rewriting that the creator’s point of view is visible only in very broad strokes. But Community is one of those shows that cultivates the feeling of one man talking directly to his fans, using the resources of a major network budget.

That makes it very difficult to duplicate. New writers could even duplicate an Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley show without those guys, because their styles are strong but at least somewhat predictable – if you pitch a story, you can sort of imagine what those guys would have to say about it, even if you couldn’t say it as well. But Community is more like Louie, where the selling point is that you can’t predict what will be on the creator’s mind this week. Or South Park. It’s impossible to say that no one other than Trey Parker could write a good South Park; what we do know is that the show would seem pointless without that one quirky point of view at the centre. Other shows are imaginable without their creators, and some might be as good or better, but this is more like Moonlighting, a network show that was famously poorly run (the first duty of any TV producer is to deliver episodes on time) but where the show simply had no reason to exist without the creator’s final rewrites on almost every episode.

Oddly enough, I think making Community a very idiosyncratic, personal, swing-for-the-fences show was a good business decision, though I doubt the studio sees it that way, and I doubt “good business decision” is one of the things going through Dan Harmon’s mind. Sony and NBC have always acted like Community was this close to being a mainstream hit. I get the impression sometimes that they think it could have been a mainstream hit if it had been more normal and focused more on the way things really are at a community college or something. But I suspect that they’re wrong, and that shows like this – quirky single-camera ensemble comedies – are hardly ever mainstream hits (The Office and Modern Family, being mock-documentaries, are almost in a separate category) or if they are, they burn out fast, the way My Name Is Earl did.

So Community probably is more successful as a cult show than it would have been any other way. As a down-to-earth, relatable, “mainstream” comedy, Community would have met exactly the same fate as all the other single-camera ensemble comedies that tried to reach the viewers who actually want Friends on Thursday (and who are now watching The Big Bang Theory). It would have been Outsourced or Perfect Couples or any number of single-camera shows that NBC mistook for mass-appeal shows. As a very personal statement, aimed at a small but very young and engaged audience, Community lasted at least 85 episodes, a hit by most standards, and got the studio some money when the rerun rights were sold to cable. From a business point of view, it seems like it would make more sense for studios to stop expecting this type of show to be a huge mainstream hit, and embrace the possibilities of all the money it can make as a cult show.

One further thing about Sony’s mishandling of the situation: I wonder if there’s some extra urgency to the whole thing because Sony so badly needs to keep the show on the air as long as possible. The studio has suffered a lot of high-profile flops lately (like Pan Am, which had everything the studio needed to be a big international moneymaker, if it hadn’t bombed in the States). Right now its longest-running comedies are Community and Rules of Engagement, which is currently stalled at 87 episodes and wasn’t on its network’s schedule; Sony is still trying to convince the network to pick it up. From our point of view, Community is a cult-favourite comedy whose fans see it as inseparable from the creator’s specific vision. From the studio’s point of view, it may look more like one of their few potential moneymakers.

You can’t blame a studio for wanting to make a show run more smoothly – the whole point of a show, especially a broadcast network show, is to have a system for producing lots of episodes on time and on budget. It just seems like they’re getting themselves in an awful lot of hot water, getting themselves an awful lot of bad publicity, to bring this system to a show that isn’t really set up to work that way. For some shows, it makes sense, maybe for most shows; Mad Men would never be as good without Matt Weiner, but if the studio had been unable to make a deal with him, it would have made sense (business sense, I mean, not artistic sense) to hire a new producer and carry on. But with a show that’s so completely on the bubble, kept alive by the passionate sense of connection its fans have to the specific, irreplaceable viewpoint of its creator? There aren’t many shows like that, and it seems like Sony is carrying on as if this were some other type of show.




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The Community Brouhaha

  1. BS.

    Community is the heir to Arrested Development, without Dan Harmon..

    Wow, just wow. They booted him. Harmon seems batsh!t crazy, but so is the show. Great read Jamie..

    ..Waits for Alan’s views

  2. So Happy Endings David Guarascio and Moses Port will take over..

    …I did not mind Happy Endings. But it was week compared to Community. Whatever, Community is nothing but Chuck status now.

    After a great few season NBC will kill it even tho they will keep it on the air…

  3. Let’s try this again(Now I remember why this site sucks) ..

    So David Guarascio and Moses Port of Happy Endings will take over. Did not mind Happy Endings.

    But NBC has put Community on Chuck status. After a couple good season it will kill it some how some way..

  4. I am surprised you made no mention of NBC’s role in this. Or more accurately, their absence.

    Sony are effectively in the bulk business, they just want episodes they can sell beyond the deal with NBC. Dan Harmon is so fundamental to what Community is that removing him will probably kill the show, although it is Sony’s prerogative to think otherwise. Presumably they are thinking that by making a more mainstream-friendly show it will prolong its existence.
    But from the network perspective, in moving the show to Friday it seems that NBC’s position is that the show has its small but loyal audience and that will not change. And if that loyalty sticks with it then those numbers that look poor for a Thursday will look good on a Friday. NBC bolster a part of their schedule, and the show gets a chance to live longer.
    The problem is the two are now working with incompatible strategies.
    Had the show remained on a Thursday, with its famed largest viewership of the week, then there was a large mainstream audience to attract. But on a Friday it will struggle to find that. As does every other show. And that is not to mention that it will now have to fight for that with ABC who have a competing comedy block that is unashamedly aiming for mass appeal.

    In addition, Community had a mini-relaunch when it returned from its hiatus this spring. A promotion push and a mainstream friendly episode where aired and the rating showed a big increase. Only to not return the following week. Is there really any basis to expect a different result this time?

    NBC’s strategy needs Harmon. Maybe not as showrunner, but to be providing the voice of the show. Lose that, and those who will boycott the show out of loyalty, and they are left with a rating measured in a fraction and a hope that Community becomes a groundbreaking show that makes people who never watch TV on a Friday change their habits. Just out of their own interest they should have been more active in working with Sony and Harmon to find a way to keep them together.

    I can understand, if disagree, with Sony’s assumed belief of making Community more accessible in order to extended its life. I cannot understand NBCs utter indifference to Sony diminishing the value the show apparently holds for them by alienating its core audience.

    • I agree. By moving it to Friday, NBC didn’t seem to be killing Community but rather moving it to a night where its less-than-stellar numbers would be more acceptable. (Side note: It’s actually pretty nice to see all of the networks showing more of an interest in Friday programming next year. For the past few years, it’s looked like the night was *this close* to getting essentially abandoned the way Saturday night has. I’m glad they haven’t.) I’m sure they were counting on the show at least retaining its devoted core audience. But with this much-publicized departure of Harmon (coupled with the less-publicized-but-still-significant departures of exec producers Garrett Donovan and Neil Goldman), Community may be a very different show in the fall, and I wonder how many fans will ditch it over the summer out of loyalty to Harmon and/or fear the new, Harmon and Donovan/Goldman-less version will stink. I hope the fans at least give the show a chance in the fall; I’m planning to.

    • Agreed.

  5. Dan Harmon is very creative and brilliant. While he has crafted a great show, nobody can deny that he is also terrible at negotiating with the network, a loose cannon (publishing the Harmon-Chase feud was really stupid), and a poor manager of people. Shows change their show-runner all the time – it’s a demanding job, that few can keep up indefinitely. Indeed, this happened to MASH and Cheers, both of which went on to have a long life.

    Maybe the show will lose its special-ness without Harmon, but I think (in part because of Harmon’s hard work) there is a good sense of what the show is really about that runs across the production crew. We may be able to get a show of similar quality, that also doesn’t face the perpetual axe from NBC because the new show-runners can succeed at some of the things Harmon didn’t do well.

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