Saturday, May 19, 2012

Well, There Goes the "Community"

Oh, the studios can be so unkind. Yesterday, about an hour after I posted my final thoughts on the third season of "Community," it was announced that Sony had removed series creator Dan Harmon from the showrunner position. He'll be replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port, who previously worked on "Happy Endings," "Aliens in America" and "Just Shoot Me." Harmon will be kept on in the limited capacity of executive consultant, a position which Harmon clarified this morning amounts to absolutely no creative control or input. This comes on the heels of the show's executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan signing with 20th Century Fox TV. To top it off Chris McKenna, who wrote some of the show's best episodes like "Paradigms of Human Memory" and "Remedial Chaos Theory," and vital directors Joe and Anthony Russo are also gone.

Moving "Community" to a Friday night, 8:30PM time slot following "Whitney" was bad enough, but at least I could see the logic. After three seasons and seventy-one episodes, it's clear that "Community" is a niche show, too smart and too unconventional to attract more than a small audience, but it's an audience that loves it. Harmon was rumored to be demanding, difficult to work with, and often just plain unpleasant, as the feud with Chevy Chase brought to light, but he fought for the show creatively. He's the one responsible for the consistently high level of quality and originality. Removing Harmon all but guarantees that "Community" will never be the same. We've seen it happen time and again, with shows like "The West Wing" and "Gilmore Girls." Once the original creators depart, sharks are jumped shortly thereafter.

However, this is exactly what Sony and NBC want. This is their last-ditch effort to help the low-rated "Community" shed some of its oddity and find a bigger audience. That's really the saddest part of all this. In order for "Community" to be a ratings success on network television, it has to become more palatable to the masses, which probably means being forced to compromise, to pander, and go for the easier jokes instead of the glorious heights of absurdity that it regularly reached. The only way to save "Community" may be to dumb it down, and that is simply too high a price to pay for six seasons and a movie. Personally, after seeing the third season end on such a high note, it might be best to just let "Community" end. "Arrested Development" had a similarly short-lived but celebrated run, and the show lives on undiminished as a cult favorite.

Moreover, I suspect that NBC's tactics are going to backfire. With the show stuck on Fridays and most potential viewers having made up their minds about it already, it's hard to figure how "Community" is going to pick up that broader mainstream audience. And there's the considerable risk that "Community's" hardcore group of fans, who would be willing to follow "Community" to Fridays, are going to be alienated by the changes. Remember, a lot of people who may not count in the ratings numbers are watching episodes online and buying the DVD sets.

It has been widely speculated that "Community" only got a fourth season so that enough episodes could be produced to sell the show in syndication. NBC could have just let the show continue with Harmon through a final half-season and seen it end on its own terms. They did that this season with the similarly low-rated fan favorite "Chuck." Right now I'm really ticked off that this possibility has been taken away from the fans of the show, who have supported and cheered on "Community" through tough times. It was such a relief to hear that NBC had renewed the show, but now it turns out the cake is a lie, and we've all been duped. Can you blame me for feeling bitter?

I've seen several reaction pieces already this morning, urging patience, trying to make the best of a bad situation. I'm sorry, but no matter how I look at this, we're getting a terrible deal. Nearly all the key behind-the-scenes creative talent is gone. The ambitious, metatextual, experimental, yes-you-can-do-that-on-television spirit of "Community" is going with them, because it's clear that this is not what NBC and Sony want. I wish the new guys luck, but whatever they come up with will be a different show, a placeholder, an understudy.

As far as I'm concerned right now, "Community" got three great seasons and ended before its time.

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