I don’t have any interest in meeting Dan Harmon. That’s not to say that I don’t think he’s brilliant, that I haven’t both laughed at and been brought to tears by his work on Community, that I don’t have a profound respect for the worlds he can build with his mind, for the way he can put 7 people around a table and, with not much more than words, tell a very funny and very moving story in a medium that often relies as heavily on what you can see as it does what you can hear, but I don’t want to sit down and have a cup of coffee (or, probably more appropriately, a beer) with him.
It’s not that I think Harmon would be rude: whatever the well-documented problems he’s had with Sony, NBC and Chevy Chase, he has a decent track record for engaging, probably over-engaging, with his fans, and, much like the central character on Community, he’s never been shy about his desire to be liked by others. He toured the country with his podcast last year, creating opportunities for fans of his work to see him in person, to say hi and shake his hand, and even though he keeps putting his foot in his mouth, he hasn’t let that stop him from putting out episodes of Harmontown, or from Tweeting, or, when he’s made a particularly egregious error and needs to apologize, from Tumbling (even if it maybe should). Lots of people love him, love going to see him, love getting to meet him. And I genuinely believe that, more than anything, he wants to be a good person, a benevolent creator, and that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Unfortunately, he just can’t seem to stop.
Stories are not their storytellers, but some stories are more reliant of the particular minds of their storytellers than others.
No matter how hard they tried, Community was not Community last year without Harmon at the helm, and this year, now that NBC has hired him back, it unquestionably is. Last season the show felt like a shadow of itself. The episodes arrived in the approximate shape of Communitys past, stuffed with call-back gags and homages and big name guest stars, many of the names attached to episodes were familiar, the actors gave strong performances, there were good jokes and there were even a couple of good episodes–the puppet episode, in particular, felt almost like it could have come out of the show’s third season–but it never connected. It felt like an admirable effort from people who were never going to get it quite right.
But in the first four episodes of this post-post-Harmon era, the show has found its voice again. The events of last season were quickly dispatched with a single line about a “gas leak year.” Pierce (Chase), always the most difficult character to like, but also one of Community’s best sources of conflict, has left the show entirely. There’s little question that Chase’s leaving was the best thing for everyone involved, but rather than just letting him go quietly into the night, Harmon has chosen to make Pierce’s departure mean something, first by bringing him into the premiere, “Repilot,” for an unannounced (even to most of the cast) cameo, and then by killing him offscreen, so that the terms of his will could rule over the fourth episode and set up this year’s other big cast-member departure.
“Cooperative Polygraphy” was an excellent episode of television. It’s no easy feat to put seven people at a table for 22 minutes and be funny, let alone touching, but Community has done it before, in “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” most notably. More than that, though, the episode gave the show the opportunity to address the fact that, while Pierce had always been a problem, stirring up trouble amongst his friends and engineering conflict like an elaborate game of dominoes, he did have a place in the study group, and he did love his friends. The moment where, as the executor of Pierce’s will, Walton Goggins’ questions turned from secret-spilling, drama-baiting missives to heartfelt farewells brought tears to my eyes. He wasn’t saying anything we hadn’t heard from Pierce before: that he respected Shirley, that Annie was his favorite, that, in many ways, he loved Troy as a son, but it was coming all at once and, in true Pierce fashion, in the wake of his destruction.
It felt like a gracious way to mourn Pierce without betraying the character.
Pierce’s death also gave the show a way to write out Donald Glover’s Troy.
We’ve known since sometime last summer that Glover would be leaving Community after five episodes, but the way that he would be written out was unclear. Troy and Danny Pudi’s Abed have been a unit since very early in the series, and while Harmon was starting to explore what Troy might look like without Abed at the end of season three, it was hard to see how or why one would leave without the other.
But the terms of Pierce’s will require Troy to take a solo trip around the world (in a boat that’s winkingly named the Childish Tycoon, certainly a reference to the fact that Glover raps under the name Childish Gambino, despite his insistence that he’s not leaving the show for his music career). It’s a contractual demand for Troy and Abed to grow up, one of them off screen and one of them on, and “Cooperative Polygraphy” feels like a promise that the show knows what it’s doing, and that it can handle the consequences of Troy’s departure.
Growing up seems to be the big theme of this season in a lot of ways. Jeff (Joel McHale) has taken on some real resposibility by agreeing to teach at Greendale, and it turns out he doesn’t hate the job–he’s even pretty good at it. Jeff has been the study group’s defacto leader since the pilot, but he’s never championed their educations. Seeing him take on that role feels like a big step forward for the character.
Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is, in some ways, back where she was when the series began, newly single and trying to start over at Greendale, but this time around she has to take responsibility for her own part in her separation, and to face the fact that her husband has taken custody of their children (as well as her DVR). Shirley has always been self-righteous about her morality, but this season seems committed to holding her responsible for her own choices.
And Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is taking her somewhat misguided dream to become a therapist a step further. When, in the past, Britta’s attempts at “therapizing” have worked out it has often been in spite of her efforts, but it will be nice to see her make some advancement in her field of choice…or switch to a nice, safe English major.
Perhaps the biggest sign of growth, though, is the fact that Annie (Alison Brie) gets to wear pants, now! She’s often, especially last season, felt like a character that got trapped in a small quadrant of her identity: the ingenue with a thing for Jeff. But season 5 has pulled her out of that almost immediately. Her first big plot of the season was with Jeff, yes, but it put them in conflict, let Annie take back her long-absent agency, and had her dressed, finally, like a stylish young professional, rather than a teenage girl.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Annie’s old wardrobe, but it often felt like a visual representation of her inability to grow as a character. It’s not that Annie’s not dressing like herself anymore, just that she’s dressing like herself at 23 or 24, not 19. She wears crisp button-downs and blazers instead of cardigans, and tailored pants instead of a-line skirts. She dresses like the pharmaceutical rep she became after graduating from Greendale.
The refrain of Community fans (as well as the cast and crew) since season three has been “Six Season and a Movie,” but there was a time last season when that didn’t seem like something worth wishing for. Without Dan Harmon, the show wasn’t living up to its potential, and then, when NBC and Sony made the unprecedented and kind of bonkers decision to bring him back for season 5, we didn’t know if the show could match our expectations.
But against the odds, Community is a great show once more, and it stands a good chance of coming back for that wished for and prayed for and hashtagged for sixth season (NBC renewed Parks and Recreation for another season yesterday. It’s pretty clear that they want to hang onto the beloved if poorly rated properties they already have, since they’ve really struggled to create new ones). In a great time for TV comedies (New Girl, Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Trophy Wife all come to mind, as well as the funny if incredibly messy The Mindy Project), Community still stands out because it knows so well how to forge an emotional connection with its audience.
Dan Harmon may not be someone I want to meet, but I’ll happily keep letting his work into my life, week after week. Harmon doesn’t lack a heart, but I think he expresses it far better through the filter of his fiction than in his own voice. So I won’t be refollowing him on Twitter, or listening to Harmontown, or seeking him out at ATX Fest, if he makes that trip again this year, but I will keep watching Community, so long as he’s the one writing it.