Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Community: The Forever Incomplete Embryo

I'm a pretty big fan of television. Not in the way where I'm almost always watching TV (though my former roommates may say so). I'm more of a fan of TV in the way that I will find a couple shows and latch on to them with unending passion. My latest item of worship is the show Community. Last week it was announced that, despite poor rating, the show would be rewarded with a fourth season. However, that news was quickly soured when it was announced late Friday that show creator, Dan Harmon, would no longer run the show and would have little or no role in the show going forward.

To properly understand how destructive this move will be to Community you need to know more about Harmon. He is the Mike Martz of writing. He needs absolute control over everything, and if a story doesn't fit his exact specifications, it's not worth doing. This fantastic bio of Harmon gives us a peek into his mind, specifically his writing "embryos" that outline every single story-line he creates.

(WARNING: This is the part where I futilely try to sell you on Community)

No matter how small the story, it had to fit this mold. His wild obsession with the process created some fascinating television. Community gained notoriety for its themed episodes. The show has perfectly parodied westerns, zombie films, claymation, anime, Glee, Law and Order, and, most recently, 8-bit video games. And when I say they parodied these genres, I don't mean a simple one-scene homage. Community devoted entire episodes to honoring these styles. 

This, alone, isn't new for television. Some of South Park's best episodes were centered around genre parody (see: "Good Times With Weapons" or the very underrated "Lice Capades"). Family Guy and The Cleveland Show have done entire episodes recreating movies starring their own characters. But genre parody is easy for cartoons. 2D characters can easily be placed into alternate realities without breaking continuity of the show, because we see the entire cartoon environment as an alternate reality. Community, however, is telling a story with "real" people in a "real" environment. Harmon takes on the challenge of taking a very plausible situation (seven misfits in a community college) and placing them into an absurd reality (leading the school mafia of chicken-finger smugglers). It's an incredibly difficult endeavor for a live-action show, especially one airing on network television, but Harmon continually nails it. The show has become endlessly malleable...as long as it fits the embryo. 

But much like Martz, Harmon's genius doesn't come without some collateral damage. Most public among Harmon's difficulties was his "feud" with Chevy Chase. Harmon allegedly let loose a profanity-laden lambasting of Chase on set in front of his family. This resulted in Chase leaving an angry voicemail for Harmon, which Harmon carelessly played publicly during a comedy show. 

But Harmon's workplace troubles are obvious beyond personal feuds. Take this excerpt from the previously linked Wired article:
The others in the room barely look up; they’re used to these outbursts. Harmon swears he’s not difficult to work for, but being in a room with him for 15 hours a day certainly isn’t easy. He’s dismissive of some of the show’s directors, has meltdowns in the editing bay, and drinks during the day, a fact he attributes to his unusual hours. (Despite having been around Harmon while he’s drinking—and drinking with him—I’ve never seen him actually drunk.) Even Harmon’s biggest supporters acknowledge his mercurial tendencies. “It’s hard, because he’s really passionate,” Community writer Megan Ganz says. “He cares about his work in a way that he doesn’t necessarily care about other people.”
In his tumblr response to getting "fired", Harmon admits that he can't create the show he wants unless he can threaten to quit "roughly 8 times a day". It's hardly the ideal workplace for sensitive writer.

Yet, upon his departure from the show, coworkers have come out of the woodwork to support Harmon and trash NBC/Sony for the decision; calling Harmon "irreplaceable", a "genius" and "an honor to work alongside". Of course, no one is going to come out and piss on Harmon's grave, but the huge outpouring of support and the buzz around Harmon's firing clearly displayed how integral he was to the show and how much people loved him. And that makes Sony's decision all-the-more frustrating.

Losing a show I love is nothing new. I watched shows earn every critical acclaim possible, only to never garner the viewership they deserved (Arrested Development). I've seen shows I obsessed about, slowly dissolve into a horrible shell of what it used to be (The Office, It's Always Sunny...). I've seen great shows come back from cancellation only to severely disappoint (Family Guy and to a much lesser extent Futurama). I've seen brilliant shows cancelled before they reached their full potential (Andy Richter Controls The Universe) or just after a tormenting cliff-hanger (Freaks and Geeks). But no cancellation has been as agonizing as Harmon's departure

The path of Community very much follows Harmon's embryo. The first season takes on the first two pieces of the embryo, establishing each character's zone of comfort and the future desires. We learn Jeff Winger is a shamed, disbarred lawyer looking to regain his confidence and his lawyer license. Troy Barnes is a former high school athlete looking to take in the college experience. Abed Nadir is a pop-culture fiend looking to turn his strange talents into a directing career. Towards the end of the first season and into the second, the charcters are placed in unfamiliar territory and attempt to adapt to it. Jeff suddenly has feelings for people he previously considered "losers". Abed enters a community where his antisocial behavior isn't acceptable and must try to generate true feelings towards his friends. Annie finds herself with interesting, idealistic people and tries to find the benefits beyond book-smarts. Then came the third season, by far the most polarizing. This season was all about darkness and loss ("paying a heavy price" in Harmon's embryo). Pierce finally confronts his father (through Jeff) but loses him to a heart-attack. Troy finally gets to live with his best friend Abed, but tensions rise and their relationship gets permanently scarred. Jeff finally passes biology, but loses his summer. Shirley develops a serious future business plan, but loses out to Subway.

Which brings us to the final two pieces of Harmon's embryo: Returning to their familiar situation but having changed. This is why I was really pulling for a fourth, final season of Community, and why I was so excited when it was picked up (albeit for a shortened season). Harmon would be able to clean up shop, finish the story he wanted to tell and move on. But with Harmon out, there's no telling what his replacements (who haven't been involved with the show previously) will do. Harmon spent three dedicated years painting his masterpiece and now two strangers are left to interpret it. It's criminal to continue the show without Harmon; to take something that he created, nurtured and went through Hell to protect, and just hand it off to a couple of random guys to conduct Community's swan song.

But, again, I have to give Harmon credit. He did all he could to complete his embryo. The final scene of "Introduction to Finality" does it's best to fill in the missing pieces. Jeff struts confidently down the halls of Greendale having bested his former co-worker. He has gained enough self-esteem to finally seek out his missing father (whose absence had tormented him through the series). Abed gets to remain his quirky-self, but has become aware enough to admit he needs therapy and give up his "Dreamatorium" (sort of). Troy gets his friends back, but accepts his destiny of being an air-conditioning repair man. Shirley gets her sandwich shop, having learned to co-exist with not-so-subtly-racist Pierce. And perhaps the most important story-line: Starburns is alive again but sans pony-tail and top hat. 

Battleship. Doing its best to ruin everything sentimental in my life.
It makes for a very satisfying and impressive finale, but one can't help but be frustrated for the way in which Harmon left us. After building three-quarters of his embryo throughout three wonderful seasons, the last quarter is left for a 30 second montage. For that, NBC and Sony, you will never be forgiven. 

All 71 episodes of Community are available on Hulu Plus. Do yourself a favor and watch from the start.

*For all the silliness involved in Community, they often tackled very serious issues, and did so with impressive heart and sincerity.


  1. This is a great post! (I found it because of Dan's tweet). I'm also worried about season 4, but the cast and crew are so good that I'm hoping for the best.

  2. Wonderfully written. This show has so much human depth and character all embraced in geeky subculture. At times, it's actually made me tear up a little (like 2 episodes ago when Troy is saying goodbye to everyone and he whispers in Abed's ear).
    they better not F this up!

  3. Um... your link to Harmon's bio is guys playing football to "Wanted Dead or Alive." Intentional?

  4. Uh...I have no idea what you're talking about. *shifty eyes*

    Thanks for the compliments, guys. I'm hopeful for season 4 but, at the same time, not expecting much.

  5. Wonderful post, sir. I, too, was directed here through Mr. Harmon's tweet; I had to click on it when I read his reply, and saw your handle. I've enjoyed the same highs and lows as a fan of each one of the shows you referenced (literally, each one). We Lions fans certainly are a masochistic bunch. Just wanted to let you know I appreciate your take, and completely empathize with your plight. Cheers.