Community: A look back at the Dan Harmon era


For fans of the superb and unabashedly off-kilter American comedy, Community, the last few days have been decidedly bittersweet.  As the show’s 3rd season drew to a close last week, it was announced not only that NBC was renewing Community for a shortened 4th season, but also that owner Sony had ignominiously fired showrunner and series creator Dan Harmon, the eccentric mastermind whose hand had guided the show from the outset, and by all accounts infused it with its unique charm and genius.  To be sure, Community has always been a polarising piece of television, – one that has been hailed by critics as the artisanal antidote to the mindlessness of the standard sitcom even as it has dodged cancellation due to its perennially low ratings on more than one occasion – and so perhaps the mere news of its renewal should be cause for celebration.  Nonetheless, Harmon’s departure undoubtedly marks the end of an era – a potential seismic shift in the show’s direction and tone – giving us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the show’s run so far.

The premise was always fairly simple.  A glib, self-centered lawyer, disbarred for faking his university degree, is forced to attend a third-rate and particularly eccentric community college.  Once there, he forms a study group with a group of wacky but endearing misfits (a hot-yet-awkward former anarchist, a pop-culture crazed savant with borderline Asperger’s, a sensitive ex-jock, a driven ingénue, a religious mother-of-two, and a cantankerous senior citizen), becoming promptly embroiled in all manner of bizarre escapades.  A seemingly tired conceit to be sure, but one that belies the underlying quirky brilliance that makes the show tick – a brilliance that’s hard to quite articulate.

Perhaps it stems from the terrifically realised characters who, due in no small part to the actors’ impressive performances, swiftly break away from their apparent archetypes to become nuanced, flawed, and wholly relatable individuals.  Perhaps it’s the razor-sharp writing, capable not only of crafting situations of sidesplitting hilarity, but also more serious emotional beats, and able to slide between the two organically.  Or perhaps it’s the show’s most salient qualities: its self-referential, meta nature that allows it to winkingly dissect popular culture and its own place in it, and its genre-bending willingness to explore tropes directly by staging some of the most ambitious and remarkable concept episodes seen in television (how many such shows have had an entire episode styled as a film noir pastiche or rendered entirely in claymation!).  Whatever the reasons (and it’s surely a combination of all of the above), suffice to say this has been a simply wonderful show: zany, heartwarming, and positively brimming with creativity.  

And while we can only hope that the new showrunners will be sensible enough to preserve its winning formula and maintain its essence and quality, we can at least take comfort in the knowledge that, even if it all goes wrong next year, we’ll always have three seasons of Harmon’s Community – like bottles of lightning on a shelf – to cherish and enjoy.

Gavin Elias


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