Dan Harmon returns to save Community

From the archives: Can Harmon make the show what it was before he left?

Justin Libin/NBC/Getty Images

The sitcom Community has been cancelled, NBC announced Friday afternoon. This story, published in January, looks at creator Dan Harmon’s return to the ill-fated program for its fifth season:

It never happened before, and it may never happen again: The creator of a major network TV show was invited back a year after being fired from his own show. That’s the story behind the fifth season of Community, starting Jan. 2 on Citytv. The studio dismissed creator Dan Harmon, only to reinstate him after lobbying from fans and the show’s star, Joel McHale. Fans are waiting to find out whether Harmon’s renewed control can do another unexpected thing: turn a show around after a mediocre season. “I remember him coming into my office and saying, ‘They invited me back; what do you think I should do?’ ” says Rob Schrab, a longtime friend and collaborator of Harmon’s who has directed episodes of Community, including the upcoming season’s finale. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to go back, because if you don’t, you’re going to be wondering the rest of your life.’”

When creators leave, the show often goes on normally without them; The Walking Dead has been successful with constant showrunner changes. But Community isn’t a normal show. The producers of the previous season tried to imitate Harmon’s sentimentally ironic style and his experiments with genre parody (action movies, horror, documentary), but their work, including a puppet show and a Shawshank Redemption parody, got poor reviews. The show’s tricky balancing act, turning a sitcom about a disbarred lawyer (McHale) into an exploration of the nature of relationships and fiction, only worked for fans when Harmon did it. He’s one of the few sitcom producers to turn a show into an extension of his personality, the way drama producers like Matt Weiner (Mad Men) do.

Schrab says Harmon is “definitely more hands-on” than most sitcom creators. “I’d be shooting something, and Dan would say, ‘This is being shot wrong, you need to do it over again.’ I’ve never had that experience before. But it’s always better.”

Part of what makes Harmon so connected with his show is that he’s built a relationship with fans using social media, podcasting and public speaking. He talks about his theories of comedy, such as his idea that the basic model for good writing is a “story circle” that takes a character on a journey and back to the status quo. “Harmon has cultivated a cult of authorship that matches up perfectly with the cult audience of his show,” Canadian TV critic Myles McNutt explains. Building that cult, McNutt says, “wasn’t enough to keep him from getting fired the first time, but was enough for Sony to be desperate enough to rehire him.”

Part of Harmon’s appeal may also be that, in an era of efficient young creators such as Lena Dunham, who happily works with a showrunning partner and never causes trouble for HBO, Harmon has made himself a throwback to temperamental mavericks like Larry David. Harmon is a self-described “ninja of alcoholism,” well-known for his battles with the network and studio over the way the show was made. He’s also made comments that have gotten him in trouble, as when he compared the fourth season of Community to “being held down and watching your family get raped on a beach.” Schrab says some of the rumours are exaggerated, particularly reports that his perfectionism was too costly. “If I hear correctly, they were always on budget.” But he agrees that Harmon “can be difficult” for a network to control. “I can understand people saying Dan has a disregard for authority, but that’s because he wants to make the show as good as it possibly can be. If he hadn’t, it wouldn’t have the fan base it does now.”

The question now is whether Harmon can make the show what it was before he left. He’ll have to do it without featured player Chevy Chase, who was let go under the previous regime, and with fewer appearances by the popular character Troy, since actor Donald Glover is concentrating on the music he performs under the name Childish Gambino. Harmon could lose face if he can’t restore the show—but Schrab thinks it’s worth the risk. “He could have walked away from it, and he could have said, ‘Eff you, you fired me,’ ” Schrab says. “But the braver thing is to do what he did: go back and try to save his baby.”

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