Sunday, 20 May 2012

COMMUNITY: how a Harmon-less fourth season could be good, but might be bad

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Fans of beleaguered sitcom Community were overjoyed a few weeks ago when NBC announced the poorly-rated show would be returning for an abridged fourth season. But that joy turned to sorrow after the season 3 finale aired, with news Dan Harmon's contract wasn't also being renewed--meaning a fourth season will be made without its creator. How will this affect Community? It's hard to tell without seeing what his replacements do with it, but it will undoubtedly have an impact.

Below are some speculative pros and cons of a Harmon-less fourth season.


1. The brilliant cast are all back! They each know their characters inside-out, and while they obviously have to service the creative direction of new showrunners, it's hard to imagine the study group being fundamentally different. Maybe what they say and do may feel slightly "off", but I'd be surprised if these people have personality overhauls. Pierce will still be racist, Abed will still over-think matters, Annie will still be adorable, Shirley will be religious, Troy will cry a lot, etc.

2. NBC have only commissioned 13 episodes. Why is this a good thing? Well, it's less likely the show will be cancelled before completing such a short order, right? Even with its move to a "Friday night death slot". (Unless the numbers are truly catastrophic because even the die-hard fans desert the show, which I don't see happening.) And in my opinion most US comedies benefit from shorter, focused runs (see: HBO's Eastbound & Down).

3. From NBC's perspective, it's clear from insiders that Dan Harmon's talents as a "showrunner" were, well, questionable. He may be a great writer and ooze excellent ideas, but being a showrunner is more than just taking a creative lead. His ugly spat with Chevy Chase is the most public example of a management style with, um, room for improvement, but there's also gossip that the show went over-budget and wantonly ignored what NBC wanted from it. At least with season 4, for the studio and broadcaster, Community will be better managed behind-the-scenes. Not that most viewers care or notice, unless there's a sizable budget cut to come, too.

4. TV shows often thrive on change. There's a chance the show's incoming exec producers, David Guarascio and Moses Port, will invigorate Community in unexpected ways. There may be changes fans aren't happy about, enforced by NBC top brass, but there could be positives to savour. For example: I don't think Community's narrative arcs have ever been strong or consistent, and the show often got stuck making the same thematic points about the study group's dysfunctional friendship. Maybe Guarascio and Port will have more success planning proper, defined arcs? I'd love for them to acknowledge the fan's fears in the season 4 premiere, too--perhaps with meta commentary on changes of power. That may ease some tension very quickly.

5. Chevy Chase will be overjoyed to see the back of Dan Harmon, as their disagreements became public knowledge this year. Maybe this will lead to Pierce having a bigger role on the show (he did seem rather snubbed this season), and Chase being happier with the job.

6. It's worth mentioning that not everyone will notice a faceless showrunner has been fired when watching Community next season. It's easy to forget that most viewers don't read blogs, forums and Twitter about shows they enjoy. I know Community has a higher-than-average amount of viewers who are active online, but there's a chance season 4 could appeal to a silent majority of viewers who preferred the show in its early days (when it was still quirky and odd, but more grounded in reality than it later became). Yes, not everyone likes Harmon's indulgences, as crazy as that sounds. I know quite a few people who thought Community disappeared up its own backside halfway through season 2.


1. The new showrunners, David Guarascio and Moses Port, have an uninspiring track record. They wrote the sitcoms Just Shoot Me! and Aliens In America. (No, I've never heard of them either!) The highlight of their filmographies appears to be the fact they're consulting producers on ABC's current hit Happy Endings—the bullshit credit Dan Harmon will get on Community next season, ironically. Perhaps most damningly, Guarascio and Port were behind the woeful US version of The IT Crowd (that coincidentally starred Joel McHale) and infamously didn't even bother giving its creator Graham Linehan a courtesy call. So I doubt they'll be getting in touch with Dan Harmon, if only to clear any atmosphere.

2. When a show loses its creator, it loses its voice. The US TV system is less authorial than the UK one, thanks to its famous use of collective "writers rooms", but things still get filtered through the showrunner(s). And in the case of an idiosyncratic comedy like Community, it's obvious that Harmon favours the UK model and simply had writers help him achieve HIS singular vision. Sadly, it's a vision that NBC never agreed with. Community was intended to be an offbeat college comedy, not the kind of show that would produce expensive stop-motion animated episodes, include ideas like "Dreamatoriums", recurring spoofs of Doctor Who, zombie outbreaks, and out-of-control paintball tournaments. Even if season 4 proves to be good, or at least watchable, it will be different because Harmon's fingerprints won't be on it.

3. I guess the biggest negative concern is that season 4 will be a disastrous "revamp" that alienates the existing fan-base, which would spell certain doom for the show. Community's only survived because (a) it has online appeal; and (b) with this mini fourth season taking it to 84 episodes, becomes viable for lucrative syndication deals. The fans don't want the show to limp to its finish, ending with a whimper. Sure, we'd still have three great seasons to look back on, meaning the good memories will far outweigh the bad, but it would be best to go out with a bang.

5. Let's face it, US comedies have a reputation for renewing shows beyond their natural end-points, then sitting back and watching them die (see: post-Steve Carrell The Office). Usually this is because ratings are so high that a network don't want to cancel a business success, even if it's creatively exhausted. But there are times when a creative show with bad ratings is likewise driven into the ground. In this case, it looks like NBC chasing syndication money (perhaps sweetened by Sony Television cutting costs to them) is what made them renew Community instead of axe it. Given how Abed loves to give meta commentaries on life-vs-fiction, he'll probably like how Community's follow this sad "tradition".

What do you think? Can Community come back better and stronger for season 4, thanks to fresh blood and new ideas? Or did the show thrive in online circles because of Dan Harmon's vision, which has now been lost because of studio politics?