Thursday, August 30, 2012

Advanced Community Management

By Erin Jackson

The third season of Community, to borrow from the excellent episode "Remedial Chaos Theory" explored what has been "the darkest timeline yet." And every week it seemed life imitated art. There was the Chevy Chase incident, the mid-season split, creator and showrunner Dan Harmon's public post-breakup breakdown and, ultimately, his firing that added fuel to the constant cancellation rumors. And on the show there was Pierce's dad's death, the war between Troy and Abed, the murder of a yam, Glee club.... it was ugly.

I am a fan of Dan Harmon. He has an uncanny ability to pry out emotions from us, one reference or parody at a time.

But, Devil's advocate time: Dan Harmon is kinda hard to work with. He has the social skills of Abed with the sardonic self-interest of Jeff Winger. Not someone I'd particularly say was suited for leadership. In an interview with G4, Harmon stated that he was "farting around" creatively once he could see NBC becoming cancellation-happy. Which is far from charming for the higher-ups who seemed earnest in trying to bring in more viewers.

It's kind of hard for me, however, to take a network seriously after they say this: “Shows like Whitney and Up All Night were steps in the right direction and that’s why they’re back.” That was NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt defending the switch up. Ew. Especially since NBC's retooling of Up All Night seems misguided and an affront to what made it refreshing and worth renewing. And Harmon's been, well, Harmon, for years and has been turning out one of the best loved TV shows in recent memory. When cancellation rumors became more and more frequent and foreboding, fans donned goatees, twittered and flashmobbed outside NBC. And the fans loyalty is due in large part because of the core message of the show, which Harmon has said to be "People are Good and Systems are Bad. To elaborate, that Even Bad People Can be turned Good by People Whereas Nobody's Ever Been Turned Anything but Bad by a System." Harmon may not have set out to make TV studios into villains, but, when the fans who were so drawn to this message, this idea that someone made something that made me feel like an okay person even though I'm a weirdo, and now something is trying to take away this thing. And it got ugly. Because, despite this idea of the innate goodness of people, Harmon often states that he is a broken, crappy person and as such did not see fit to just gloss over all this crappiness and messiness.

If I may put on my Britta glasses and play Psych major here, many of the season's episodes mirrored what was going on behind the scenes. In "Virtual Systems Analysis" Annie re-configures Abed's Dreamatorium engine so that he considers other people before himself. In this new configuration, which bears a striking resemblance to Grey's Anatomy, Abed has been filtered out. This is Abed's idea of what others would like, but Annie is disturbed and wants things to be like they were before. There have been other episodes that dealt with the Dreamatorium and how it brings out the worst in Abed, to the extent that in the final episode he disassembled it, reconstructing it in a refrigerator box. There's only room for himself. This is neither a victory nor a defeat. So it's interesting that Dan Harmon said that scene represented his departure from the show. "I didn't know for sure I was going to [leave]," he went on "but I had a feeling I might have to." In this same AMA, he said of his firing "...I feel good bad. I feel terrible awesome. I feel proud ashamed. I feel engorged on my own starvation, I feel like the biggest con artist and sucker in the history of monsters and heroes."

The final episode was heartwarming and heartbreaking, the kind of episode I imagine Harmon would have felt comfortable calling a series finale. And, it could well be that it is its spiritual finale. I, like Harmon, sure hope that it isn't:

Don't underestimate the power of those actors playing those characters, and as I've said, we've got a lot of great writers over there. I think they were incredibly stupid to let me go but that's not the same as saying the show can't be good without me. Fingers crossed, goatees in the drawer, gun barrels out of mouths. Maybe it's the timeline where everybody wins. Regardless, don't weep for me. All that money they're going to make...a big pile of it is mine.

This third season is probably my favorite, and as Dan Harmon said "TV in all its ugliness can be a beautiful thing." I gave my TV a standing ovation after "Basic Lupine Urology" (aka the Law and Order episode) and giggled non-stop during the Ken Burns style episode. Despite all the things working against it, Community managed to be true not only to itself- its style, its humor, its character development, but also to life. It seemed that, like Abed stated in "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux", Dan Harmon's philosophy was thus: 

Will your story be yet another sad one of yet another man who just wanted to be happy or will your story acknowledge the very nature of stories and that sharing the sad ones can sometimes make them happy?

Community will continue to explore the latter in its broken, ugly, transcendental way, for three more seasons and a movie. (If not, my whole brain will be crying and I will need recs of long running British TV series—stat).

Erin Floyd Jackson has been BFFs with TV since she was a wee one when she would play TV Network Executive. She went to school to learn about how and why TV is the way it is and hopes to someday tear someone's creative vision down and re-edit it to her liking. In the meantime, she and her husband live in Huntsville, Alabama and they occasionally "blog" here ( when they are not geeking out over all the SCIENCE! in the Rocket City.

1 comment:

  1. I love love love Community and this was an excellent, fitting tribute. Bravo to you Erin and bravo to Harmon for letting us all know that it's okay to be a little "crazy town banana pants."