Point/counterpoint: Can Dan Harmon's return save 'Community'?

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The good news: Dan Harmon is probably coming back to Community! The bad news, possibly: Dan Harmon is probably coming back to Community. Will this move revive NBC’s crazy college-based show — or could it spell certain doom? Here’s how two EW writers see things.

DARREN FRANICH: I really enjoyed the first three seasons of Community. The show wasn’t perfect by any means, but what I liked about it was the total go-for-broke spirit, the sense that every episode took a concept that could’ve been gimmicky — Law & Order spoof! Spaghetti western! Alternate-universe chaos theory! — and then rapaciously attacked it from every angle

I credit that spirit entirely to Dan Harmon, who is by all accounts an insane person who pours everything of himself into his work and desperately wants to make great television. When Harmon was fired from his post as showrunner, he immediately became a sanctified Great Man Of Television, because everyone loves a martyr.

But martyrs are boring. I was worried that Harmon would spend his post-Community career playing the martyr — which, much as I love him, is basically what Conan O’Brien did post-Tonight Show. Without Harmon, Community was pretty boring too: Even when it was funny, it never felt insane the way that old Community could.

I’m excited to see what a year away from the show has done for Harmon. Maybe it’s given him some perspective. Maybe he’s crazier than ever. But Harmon is first and foremost a student of sitcoms, and Community is a sitcom about sitcoms: If nothing else, I’m intrigued to see how he’ll face the fact that most sitcoms start getting bad right around season 5.

HILLARY BUSIS: Look, I’m not going to defend post-Harmon Community. The show’s fourth season was certainly missing a certain je ne sais quoi — creativity, life, go-for-broke weirdness, whatever you want to call it. And obviously, Dan Harmon’s exit had a lot to do with that; he was the show’s auteur, a comedic Matthew Weiner figure whose own idiosyncrasies were inseparable from those of his creation.

That said, I just don’t think that Harmon’s return will be the magic wand that instantly fixes the show, let alone transforms it back into what it once was. For starters, he’ll be facing ridiculously high expectations from Community‘s obsessive fans – and when anticipation is this fervent, disappointment inevitably follows. (Exhibit A: Arrested Development, Season 4.)

But the main reason I’m lukewarm about this is because I’m worried that it’ll mark Community‘s full transformation into an obtuse, painfully meta ouroboros that would rather bask in its own cleverness than tell compelling stories or even make funny jokes. The Harmon Era wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops — season 3 episodes like “Virtual Systems Analysis” began showing cracks in Community‘s foundation by focusing on self-referential whimsy at the expense of plot or character

I loved being invited into Dan Harmon’s brain for two years — but after three, I was starting to feel like his particular brand of crazy was starting to wear thin anyway. And given that a) any series shows signs of age by season 5 and b) he’ll probably be given free rein to do whatever he wants, given his show’s tiny viewership and its devotion to Harmon as messiah, I worry that we’re in for 13 episodes that really only appeal to one person: Dan Harmon.

DARREN: Normally, I would agree with you. Believe me, I’m not in favor of resurrecting dead TV shows just because we all miss them. New Veronica Mars? Don’t care. More Party Down? The two seasons are perfect as they are. Those Deadwood TV movies? Never happening, so stop whining. Arrested Development season 4? Well…let’s leave that for another argument. (I didn’t love it…but it is brilliant in some ways, and I’m happy it exists.)

I think Community is exempt from my typical concerns, for one key reason: The show has always been about itself, and about sitcoms, television, and the whole history of pop culture. But under Harmon, the show wasn’t just a navel gazing exercise in meta-cuteness: in his feverish way, Harmon constantly struggled to connect Community‘s TV-nerd recappy brain to a raw, emotionally devastated heart. It filtered human experience through pop culture and pop culture through human experience: In your parlance, it was a double ouroboros, which looks JUST LIKE INFINITY if you think about it for a second.

It’s tough to achieve that. We know this now, because season 4 of Community overdosed on the meta and wound up looking like a bad spoof factory: The Zucker Brothers as community theater. I suspect you’re seriously overrating just how much free rein Harmon will get — no way NBC gives him Matthew Weiner money, no way — and I think you’re underrating just how much Harmon’s inveterate self-loathing will force him to struggle to top himself.

But it sounds to me like you’re saying the worst-case scenario here is Showrunner Auteurism Overload: The exceedingly rare-for-television malady when a lone creative voice gets carte blanche and creates a TV show that is an echo chamber of his/her own mind. We’re talking David Milch’s crackpot surf-messiah romp John From Cincinnati, or Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60/Newsroom duet about Aaron Sorkin saving America, or even kind of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (after he stopped trying to make it remotely palatable to a mass audience). Honestly? A 13-episode Harmonized train wreck still sounds fascinating.

And, even better for you: If the new Community is bad, people will stop worshiping Dan Harmon and elect a new TV Messiah. (I nominate Graham Yost.)

HILLARY: Eh, I don’t think you can completely blame season 4’s meta overdose on Harmon’s absence. Remember that unnecessary Apollo 13 parody in season 2 (“Basic Rocket Science”), or when Abed took that class about Who’s the Boss (also in season 2)? Long before its creator got the boot, Community‘s homages and parodies and descents into self-referential madness tended to be hit or miss — and though the hits were pretty nearly perfect (the first paintball episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the Law & Order spoof, which may be my favorite parody of anything ever), the misses really missed.

Besides, maybe my actual main concern isn’t that Harmon’s return will turn the show into something too layered to be coherent, or too self-conscious to be broadly appealing. Community gave up the pretense of seeking broad appeal long ago — way before the song that opened season 3, in which the characters smiled while sarcastically promising to “have more fun and be less weird.”

Look beyond the song’s bouncy melody and cheery lyrics, and you’ll find something else: an unmistakeable complacency, something that says, “If you don’t like what we’re doing here, that’s not our problem — it just means you’re too mainstream to get it.” Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the possibility of that attitude rearing its head that makes me worry about what’ll happen when Harmon — newly emboldened by his reinstatement, as well as a year of traveling around and recording podcasts in front of legions of adoring fans who will eat up everything he dispenses with a commemorative “HARMON RULES NBC SUCKS” spoon — comes back to the show.

The weird thing about inferiority complexes is that they often come coupled with superiority complexes. Even if Harmon is an inveterate self-loather, as you say, at least some part of him must believe NBC initially cut him loose because his genius was just too intimidating for the masses, or something; there’s certainly more than a hint of petulant smugness in the blog post he wrote after getting fired last May.

I don’t expect or want Community to be FriendsGo On tried to walk the line between those two poles last year, and it failed. I do, however, expect and want the show to be enjoyable as well as smart and twisty and weird and whatever else Harmon brings to the table — without making me feel like I’m being sneered at if I’m not buying a particular trip down the rabbit hole. Harmon is clearly brilliant… but something bad happens when artists start believing all the myths people build around them. (Two words and an initial: M. Night Shyamalan.)

Tell us, Community fans: Are you eagerly anticipating Harmon’s return, or dreading what it might do to the series’s legacy?

Read more:
‘Community’ creator Dan Harmon: ‘I’m back’ for season 5 — UPDATE
NBC fall schedule reveals big moves
PaleyFest 2013: ‘Community’ cast talks paintball, puppets, and graduation


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