We’re now three episodes deep into the post-Dan Harmon era of Community, and it seems like the theme of most of the online critical reaction is that the show “just isn’t the same.” Without Harmon, whatever je ne sais quoi the show had that made it special is now gone.
But what also seems to permeate reviews of the show is that people can’t quite define what the missing ingredient is. “It’s not a terrible show. But it’s missing that unharmonious Harmon-ian spark of madness, that smiling volatility that made the show exciting (for fans) even when a line or scene or whole episode wasn’t quite working,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture, as if he was searching for how to describe what he was seeing. The A.V. Club’s own Todd VanDerWerff spent his review of the season-four première telling readers his doubts about the show, coming to the conclusion that, “This is Community, yes, but it’s a version missing the most crucial element to keeping an audience that loves a TV show in love with that TV show: its soul.”
It feels like these reviews are trying but failing to grasp exactly why the show has been so disappointing this season, and why it seems to have taken a banal turn from its wacky Harmon heyday. And that’s because no network comedy has been more intertwined with its showrunner than Community has been with Harmon.
As the first three seasons of the show took the Greendale study group into crazier and crazier territory, Harmon’s profile grew, mainly through the wordy interviews he gave to the media (including me), most notably the 2011 Wired article that showed him at his circle-making, day-drinking, OCD-having, twisted-genius finest. The cult of Harmon became so cemented that, in a recent Grantland article, Alex Pappademas spent 9,200 words (not including footnotes) showing how Harmon’s fans worship at his feet wherever he goes to do his podcast, hanging onto every word like he’s the second coming of Shakespeare, Woody Allen, and Larry David combined.
But if the person running Community hadn’t been Harmon, would the disappointment over the show’s new season be so great? Sure, the show has changed. But, in its fourth year, it’s aging just like most other sitcoms that have gotten this far. It’s gotten comfortable with its characters and has started going back to comedy wells that have become increasingly shallow. Plots get recycled. Characters change, sometimes not for the better. Jokes fall flatter.
People could have said the same thing about the fifth season of an all-time classic, M*A*S*H. It seemed like the show ’70s sitcom fans knew and loved, but something about it was off. Not bad, but off. The dialogue didn’t have the same zip; the characters were drawn more sharply and with less subtle characteristics. But at some point during that season, the show rediscovered itself, continuing for six more seasons as if nothing ever happened.
But something big did happen; the legendary Larry Gelbart—who adapted the movie version into a series with snappy, crackling dialogue and surprising depth—handed the reins of the show to Ken Levine and David Isaacs. The show changed because a man with unique writing abilities was not overseeing the scripts anymore, and it was inevitable that the new scripts would reflect Levine and Isaacs’ particular writing skill set and style. And during the three seasons they ran the show, M*A*S*H aired some classic episodes that are still cited as influential by today’s batch of showrunners.
Why was there no hue and cry, at least not to the degree we’re seeing now with Community? Because no one outside of the industry really knew who the showrunner of a series was back then. That’s still true today for the most part, despite the ascendance of TV auteurs like Harmon, David Milch, Aaron Sorkin, David Chase, Matt Weiner, Bill Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and others; outside of media folks like me and the obsessive TV fans that read our stuff—I mean “obsessive” in a good way, of course—people have no idea who runs most shows.
In most cases, the average fan really doesn’t need that information. As Levine pointed out when Harmon was fired last spring, showrunners are fired or leave all the time. Most people have no idea that the change happened because they don’t have their eyes glued to Deadline or The Hollywood Reporter or even The A.V. Club, looking for industry news. Cougar Town fans who haven’t been following the trades, reading EW.com religiously, or following Lawrence or Kevin Biegel on Twitter likely have no idea that the co-creators have ceded everyday control to Ric Swartzlander. In fact, any change in the show’s tone might be chalked up to its move to TBS and that network’s looser content rules. During the seasons that Paul Lieberstein was the primary showrunner of The Office instead of Greg Daniels, the show declined in quality in the eyes of critics and fans, but most chalked it up to the show getting old and running out of stories to tell, not the lack of Daniels’ “vision.” Bill Prady, who is as out-front and social-media aware as any showrunner in the business, gave up day-to-day control of The Big Bang Theory this year and barely anyone noticed.
In many ways, Dan Harmon was the personification of Community, much more than Joel McHale or any of the cast has been. It seems unfair that critics and fans don’t seem to be giving new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port more than a few episodes to get the show back on its feet. For all we know, the show will never recover from Harmon’s departure. But, just as the three episodes that have aired so far this season have been hit-or-miss, the rending of garments over Harmon makes it easy to forget that a lot of his final season was also up-and-down; the show was already showing signs of age before three seasons were on the books. It’s a pretty safe bet that, if Dan Harmon weren’t Dan Harmon, people would be giving season four of Community a much wider critical berth.
Editor’s note: Joel originated the idea for this in a Facebook post, which elicited this response from Dan Harmon: “I guess this is more perceived than actual, but reading this makes me feel like you, Joel, want someone to tell you that your departures are noticeable. It's not an uncommon wish, which, when expressed honestly enough, can actually grant itself, because people like to be told how others are feeling more than they like being told how to feel. It's a subtle difference with obvious results.”