thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Dan Harmon’s Last Stand: On Community

In Television on May 19, 2012 at 9:36 am

Sarah T.

“Introduction to Finality” wasn’t the last episode of Community, but as of yesterday it became showrunner Dan Harmon’s final outing. Vulture reports that Sony Pictures Television is replacing Harmon with Happy Endings writers David Guarascio and Moses Port.

Happy Endings is a funny show, and I’m sure Guarascio and Port are quite talented. But, at least at first, the choice to grant the low-rated but much-beloved Community another season yet oust Harmon seems to be a real head-scratcher. After all, pretty much everybody agrees that Harmon is the soul of the show. As Harmon himself writes in responding to the news: “I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘it has to be like this or I quit’ roughly 8 times a day.”

Without Harmon, there are no adorable 8-bit videogame character and claymation specials. There’s no episode-long parody of Heart of Darkness, no epic paintball games, no magical trampolines, no multiple timelines. Basically, without him the show gets a lot less weird, which is both why Community fans are up in arms over his dismissal and (probably) why network executives fired him in the first place. As long as Community was unpredictable, self-referential, and sometimes inscrutable, it was never going to gain a very large audience. Speaking as a fan of unpredictable self-referential inscrutable shows, it’s kind of amazing that Community and Harmon have even lasted as long as they did.

As disappointed as I am over Harmon’s forced departure, I’m now especially grateful for “Introduction to Finality,” which concluded the show’s third season. The episode would have worked just as well as a series finale, and in light of Harmon’s exit I’ll go ahead and think of it that way.

“Introduction to Finality” finds the Greendale Seven struggling to cope with change (Troy and Abed) and confronting their own self-interest (Jeff, Pierce, and Shirley). Having sacrificed his freedom to the air conditioning repairman school in order to save his friends, Troy misses Abed desperately. But while he might rather be playing Inspector Spacetime, his fate seems to lie in assuming the mantle of the “truest repairman,” a fixer of cooling devices and leader of (repair)men.

Meanwhile, Abed misses his best friend so much that he’s sunken into a depression. In his gloomy state, he can’t muster up the energy to resist Evil Abed. Evil Abed hails “from the Britta of timelines, where everything is the worst,” and he’s out to make this timeline just as devoid of joy and hope as his own—starting by cutting off Jeff’s arm.

So while both friends are unhappy, their responses underscore the differences in how they respond to change. Troy’s willing to operate within the codes and behaviors of his new environment, right down to challenging a rival to a battle in the Sun Room (a savage part of air conditioner repairman history).

Abed isn’t so adaptable. Like Harmon, he’s a bit of a control freak. Both have taken the community college and the Greendale Seven and created a world of their own. Any intrusion upon that world, whether from network executives or from the iron-fisted demands of the air conditioning school, causes extreme internal upheaval. Evil Abed is a way for Abed to take back some control, even if it comes at a huge cost. As Evil Abed explains, “When the world gets bad enough, the good go crazy. But the smart… they go bad.”

Meanwhile, Pierce and Shirley are fighting over the ownership title to their sandwich shop. Jeff is so caught up in his ultimate goal—get out of Greendale and get back to being a lawyer—that he can’t be bothered to help them sort it out. While he does eventually consent to getting involved, he’s still mostly concerned about getting out of the (pretend) courtroom in time for his final. And when a slimy former colleague threatens his career unless he throws the case, the timeline appears to be getting dark indeed.

But Community has always had a big, soft heart beneath its meta-commentary and hat tricks. (In fact, it sometimes seems to rely a little too heavily on lessons that sound like they could have fallen from the lips of Danny Tanner on Full House.) This week, however, the friendship speech was pitch-perfect, an antidote to the “every-man-for-himself” ethic that people somehow, still, believe constitutes a moral philosophy. Jeff rises to make his closing argument and says,

“Guys like me, they’ll tell you there’s no right or wrong, there’s no real truths. And as long as we believe that, guys like me can never lose. Because the truth is, I’m lying when I say there is no truth. The truth is, the pathetically, stupidly obvious inconvenient truth is, helping only ourselves is bad and helping each other is good. It’s that easy [. . .] You just stop thinking about what’s good for you and start thinking about what’s good for someone else. And with one move, you can change the whole game.”

Helping only ourselves is bad and helping each other is good. It is that easy, and that simple. But that doesn’t mean those words don’t need to be shouted from the rooftops—particularly in our late capitalism era, which rewards selfishness and cynicism with billions of dollars and the power that goes hand-in-hand with money, and creates the kind of mindset that leads an audience to cheer at the prospect of leaving an uninsured man to die.

But the purpose of Jeff’s speech isn’t so much to remind people of that one stupidly obvious truth as it is to put the power to help people–and resist the call of heedless self-interest–back in his own hands, and in everyone’s. That’s why Abed, listening to his speech, can pop Evil Abed with a poke of his finger, turn off the bone saw, and come sit down by his friend Annie. It’s why Pierce can fire his lawyer and renounce the case against Shirley, and why Shirley told Jeff it was okay to throw the case in the first place. It’s why Troy fixes his opponent’s air conditioner in the Sun Room. It’s why Britta tried to talk to Evil Abed even when he was scaring her and making her remember a traumatic dinosaur costume, and why Annie is Annie (Annie always wants to help). And it’s why people really love Harmon’s creation—not because the show is hilarious and clever, though it is, but because it fundamentally buys into the dream of a community.

The Greendale Seven don’t have the things Americans are supposed to aspire to: perfect nuclear families, stable jobs, dream houses and multiple cars, steady incomes and 401(k)s. Shirley has a husband and children, and Pierce has a lot of cash, but for the most part the group is unmoored. Everybody in it has messed up in one way or another; everyone’s felt like a failure; everyone’s really, really weird. But Harmon invented a place where misfits, drop-outs, losers, oddballs, liars, slackers, and rebels could belong. In Community, nothing really matters as long as the study group stays together. They’re each other’s safe harbors, and they’re far more dependable than a nice house in the suburbs could ever be.

As the theme song kicks in during the final moments of “Introduction to Finality,” the study group walks down the hall in wing formation. It’s a shot straight out of The West Wing or Buffy, only rather than stopping nuclear war or bringing down the vampire king, they’re still wondering what the hell cellular mitosis is. Their storylines aren’t exactly wrapped, but a montage shows us that everyone is where they need to be. Pierce and Shirley finally get their sandwich shop; Jeff passes biology. Chang is living in an air vent and spying on a community college rival. Starburns is alive and well, wearing a blond wig and reading up on “The Science of Death Faking.” And Annie and Abed are taking down the Dreamatorium to make way for a new roommate. (On a sidenote, I wasn’t sure if Troy was getting his own room or if Britta was moving in; thoughts?) As Harmon’s alter-ego, Abed’s gesture is both generous and bittersweet. He’s making room for others, even if that means giving up his personal creative laboratory. But the final shot shows us that Abed has found a way to preserve the Dreamatorium after all. He slips into a cardboard box in the corner of his room, just big enough to hold him and his imagination.

  1. Dan Harmon irks me with his public statements about how he couldn’t deliver scripts on time and threw tantrums all the time about leaving the show. It smacks of “I am above the minutiae, for I am the God Creator”. He had an amazing job, and if he couldn’t handle aspects of it, he should have learned the skills or asked the help he needed instead of seeming to take pride in being a ‘control freak’. His working methods hurt the show and he deserved to be demoted. When a female show runner behaves in an egotistical manner, she gets slammed. Feminists shouldn’t be applauding Dan Harmon and worshipping at his feet when he’s behaved like a spoilt brat (and may continue to do so).

    • Hi there, thanks for your take! Of course you’re right that Harmon’s caused the network some headaches, though I’d disagree that his behavior hurt the show in terms of the final product (what the audience sees onscreen). And I do get that network execs need reliable people heading up their shows. But I also think that creative people in general are often very difficult, but that sometimes the end result is worth putting up with. Granted, I wasn’t onset, and I don’t know all the details involved with his dismissal. What I’m saying mostly boils down to this: Harmon created a great, unusual show, and his absence will have an impact on Community and its fans.

      I do agree that if a female showrunner had behaved this way, she wouldn’t have gotten the leeway Harmon did. I think that speaks to the sexism that’s entrenched in the entertainment industry — but I don’t blame Harmon for that sexism. It seems to me that it’s a problem that goes far beyond him.

  2. Hi Sarah, you’re welcome and thanks for your very civil response. FWIW, I will note that I have watched every episode of Community, some multiple times, and am enough of a fan to name my favourite episode (Mixology Certification, by a nose).

    Of course, I wasn’t on set either, and my observation that his behaviour has hurt the show is based on the assumption that it can’t have been a pleasant place to work and my own subjective feeling that the show has lost a lot of the joy and sparkle that it had earlier in its run. For me, there have still been a lot of wonderful moments in the third season when the actors are given the material to work with, but it has been a case of diminishing returns. I don’t know how much Dan Harmon is responsible for any/all of that, but for me there has been a shift towards cleverness for its own sake and a slight contempt for the audience that feels characteristic of his public persona. To me, the performances seemed almost phoned in at times and I wonder how much of that is down to equally creative people in the cast and crew being thrown off their game by whatever pressures they happened to be under on set.

    At the moment I’m writing my PhD on what it means to be a writer, which means that I have something of a bug up my ass about classifying artists, writers and other so-called creative types as special and not subject to the rules of social conduct lesser mortals have to submit to. I think it’s probably true that all people sometimes can be difficult – and mileage will vary on whether or not the end result is worth putting up with. What I do know is that in responsible positions when people are getting paid to do a certain job, there is a line that can’t be crossed.

    I also wonder whether tributes that may serve to fuel Dan Harmon’s obvious self-pity and megalomania are particularly helpful to him. That might sound condescending, but he opens himself up to it every time he speaks out and comes across as petty, immature and condescending himself. The guy has admitted he often has ‘inappropriate emotional reactions to things’ – and I don’t think the way to respond to someone like that is to position them as somehow above criticism and let them off the hook with the alibi of creative genius. Thanks again for responding – it goes to the heart of what I’m interested in in terms of gender and authorship, and it always helps to engage in civilised discussion!

    Sorry for the tl:dr-ness…

  3. Just read this: and thought I would share another (somewhat similar but a little bit different) take on Harmon’s firing.

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