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.