Someone asked me about Dan Harmon’s coming return to Community and what I thought this would mean for television showrunners. I don’t know that it’s possible to make predictions, for two reasons: this almost never happens, at least in this kind of TV, and the circumstances are probably impossible to replicate.
I don’t know if it’s happened in soaps, reality shows, talk shows, or the many other forms of TV where producers are just as important as they are anywhere else. But in the fields of half-hour comedy and one-hour drama, it’s hard to think of examples of someone being fired and then brought back. Sometimes a show will ask producers to come back: Frasier brought its former showrunners Chris Lloyd and Joe Keenan back for the final season after a few disappointing seasons, and they turned in a greatly improved last season. But they left of their own accord; so did most producers who come back.
Of course there might be cases where someone got fired and we didn’t know about it, since producers and studios alike are rarely anxious to publicize that someone got kicked off the show. It’s a little more common knowledge now when someone is forced out – see Smash, Revenge – but it’s still not something most showrunners are anxious to announce; Harmon was an exception. So there may be people who were fired and then came back, only they weren’t officially fired.
The closest analogue to this Community situation was on another show around the time it went really meta: Dallas. Leonard Katzman was the producer, which meant more or less what “showrunner” means today, and he left early in the ninth season because of conflicts with the executive producer, Phil Capice. That was the season when Bobby was dead, you will recall. Anyway, Katzman spent most of that season having no involvement with the series but carrying the same “consultant” credit that was given to Harmon, and is often given as a contractual token. Near the end of the long season, he was asked back. Katzman accepted, and to show his contempt for everything that had happened without him, elected to make the entire season a dream. (Officially, this was done so the Bobby character could come back from the dead, but everyone knows a soap has many other options for bringing a character back from the dead.) I don’t expect Community to make the fourth season a dream, and even making fun of the idea of doing so would tread into “Simpsons did it” territory. But if the Dallas thing happened today, Katzman would certainly be on Twitter providing extra details of why he left and why he came back.
As to why the circumstances of Community are so unique, here’s what it took for this to happen:
- A show that is just successful enough to be renewed, but not successful enough to please either the network or the studio.
- A showrunner who is considered a liability by the network and studio, and maybe even by some of the writers (since most of the complaints centred around marathon writing sessions and last-minute delivery of scripts), but not by most of the cast.
- The showrunner is let go, but does not find a new job in the intervening year.
- The new showrunners do well enough with the show to keep it alive for another year, but not well enough to please the cast or make them absolutely indispensable to the network and studio.
- When the showrunner job opens up again, the star goes to bat for the former showrunner, and he happens to have a certain amount of clout at the network because he hosts another show on one of their cable channels.
- The show is not expected, unless a number of other flukey things happen, to run beyond the next 13 episodes, by which time it will have enough episodes to sell into syndication. So the studio doesn’t really have to care what happens this season, as long as all 13 episodes get made.
- The network has canceled most of its shows but kept this one around (along with Parks & Recreation) because of syndication money, prestige, and the need to have something to schedule in uncompetitive time periods. So the network is no longer concerned with trying to make a cult show into a hit; it just wants the 13 episodes.
All these things together produced this result. Take away one of them and it would change. For example, if the show did better under the new showrunners, Harmon would not be back. If it did worse than before, it would have been canceled. He was invited back because the new showrunners, Guarascio and Port, kept it doing (adjusting for lower overall ratings every year) pretty much exactly the same as before.
Since it was more or less as popular as before, I don’t know how much Guarascio and Port hurt the franchise; of the episodes I saw, some were funny, others not so funny. (And one of the not-so-funny ones at least won points for doing a Hogan’s Heroes riff, which may actually be the most retro reference the show has ever done.) And they did do the job Harmon might not have done if he had stayed around for the fourth season, which is to bring the show in in such a way that the network was willing to give it a fifth season. But the big fans of the show who watched every fourth-season episode mostly felt something big was missing, and this restoration is aimed at winning the goodwill of the big fans. Maybe you could think of the network and studio as George Steinbrenner and Dan Harmon as Billy Martin, the manager who gets hired, fired, and hired again. This would make the fourth-season guys Bob Lemon or Yogi Berra or one of those other guys who runs the team in the interim when Billy is cooling off, but I don’t want to stretch baseball analogies too far.