If you had told me two years ago that Sony would fire creator Dan Harmon from Community before the show’s fourth season, only to re-hire him for the show’s incredibly unlikely fifth season, I would have told you to stop spending so much time in the Dreamatorium. But here we are, in 2013, and Dan Harmon is once again the showrunner on Community, an incredibly low-rated show that, by any earlier standards of television metrics, would have been dead after season 2, if it even got that far.
Six seasons and a movie? No longer a pipe dream! What sort of timeline is this, anyway?
With Dan Harmon at the helm, Community evolved over its three seasons from a charming pilot into a complex, daring, innovative, utterly unique exercise in comedy AND tragedy about an emotionally fraught study group of eight misfit community college students navigating a strange point in their lives. With pop-culture references, stylistic and aesthetic flexibility and an impressive commitment to self-awareness, the show distinguished itself as a show with higher artistic ambitions than the typical sitcom. Harmon’s own personality and mental state clearly fought its way into the show on a regular basis, especially in the character of Abed (Danny Pudi).
What’s important to remember, though, is that even when Dan Harmon was in charge, Community was inconsistently brilliant. Unlike its onetime timeslot partner Parks and Recreation, which has had an arguably spotless episode-by-episode record since the beginning of its second season, the first three seasons of Community contain plenty of greatness but some misfires as well. Season 2’s “Apollo 13” parody episode, while amusing, never transcended its precarious conceit, and the first season’s insistence on pushing a Jeff and Britta “will-they-won’t-they” arc never felt organic. Season 3 boasts “Remedial Chaos Theory” (one of my two favorite episodes of any TV comedy I’ve seen thus far) and the beautiful “Introduction to Finality” (Harmon’s final episode before Sony fired him), but also the unmemorable “Studies in Modern Movement” and the downright bizarre “Contemporary Impressionists.”
Don’t read that last paragraph as me criticizing Community for trying big things and occasionally failing at them. I would take “inconsistently brilliant” over “consistently acceptable” any day of the week. I don’t regret watching the bad episodes of Community – without them, I would never have experienced the show’s first brush with excellence in “Introduction to Debate” or the statement-making awesomeness of “Modern Warfare.” I would have missed the rapid-fire hilarity in “Paradigms of Human Memory,” the bait-and-switch dramatics and Cougar Town surreality of “Critical Film Studies” and the escalating hysteria of “Cooperative Calligraphy.” Each great episode of Community is a show unto itself, a distinct piece of art.
The show’s fourth season, its first (and only?) without Harmon, tried valiantly to extend the show’s legacy, but new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port arguably took the wrong approach. Instead of distancing the show from Harmon’s singular perspective, one that other writers could only emulate on the surface, Port and Guarascio stuffed the show with new gambits (puppets! singing! Inspector Spacetime!) and complete lost control of the characters, who were virtually unrecognizable by the end of the season. Certain episodes were funny and heartwarming enough, but the show worked best when it didn’t try too hard to be weird. By that standard, the season four finale was perhaps the worst Community episode ever, a cascade of illogical story ideas and overconfident callbacks to Harmon’s universe with nary a funny joke in sight.
So now Harmon is back. I’m cautiously optimistic, I guess. I wish I could be more excited, but I don’t want to raise my expectations too high. Harmon has had a year to witness the show trampling on his creation even as it tried so hard to re-create it. I wouldn’t blame him for coming back cynical. On the other hand, he’s had a year to witness the show’s creative downturn and brainstorm ways to improve it. There’s just no way to know, and no point in speculating.
Besides, brilliance is finite. Maybe the show’s best days are permanently in the past. Harmon shepherded the first three seasons under a particular set of circumstances and with a particular frame of mind; this fifth season will be produced under an entirely different one. I don’t want to waste my energy getting excited for a return to form when it’s as likely that Harmon won’t be able to find one as it is that he will.
If the last great episode of Community was the season three finale, so be it. I’ll watch the new episodes and hope, as I do with any episode of television, that they’re worth my time. But if they’re not, I won’t cry about it. I’ll just pull out my season 2 DVD, crank up “Epidemiology” or “For a Few Paintballs More” and let the good times roll.