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.
Better late than never, here’s my run-down of my personal top 10 television shows of 2012. (This list was created on a weird, internal sliding scale between “best” and “favorite.”):
1. New Girl (FOX)
Around the middle of its first season, when New Girl finally figued out how to do what it had been trying to do, watching it became an almost transcendental weekly experience. What the writers (and Max Greenfield) had done for Schmidt since the beginning–reveling in his specificity–they figured out how to do with the rest of the cast. They gave Jess a platform to claim her own adorkability, to stand up and say, “I rock a lot of polka-dots.” They figured out how to work with Jake Johnson’s gift for grump, so that Nick’s prematurely old nature still fit with the rest of the ensemble. And they weirded Winston up a little more every week, showering him in bizarre anxieties and pairing him with characters that made him pop. By the time the show arrived at the Fancyman arc, the characters were well-defined enough that Jess wouldn’t get buried under the personality of an older boyfriend, and the roommates could spend most of an episode playing an incomprehensible drinking game without the show feeling shapeless.
I hope that, as New Girl goes forward, they’ll figure out how to tell more stories focused on Winston, and I’d like to see them expand the female cast a little–it was nice to see Jess’ friend Sadie return a couple of weeks ago, and my newfound non-hatred of Olivia Munn has made her a mostly welcome addition to the cast. But I am largely complaint-free when it comes to New Girl. (And honestly, any show offering the kind of chemistry that New Girl has with Nick and Jess–and it’s hitting Sam and Diane levels these days–would probably top my list. They’re electric.)
2. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Breaking Bad is the sort of tv that leaves me literally gasping for breath. It’s suspenseful, sometimes terrifying, often maddening, but it grounds itself in its most ordinary moments, letting the audience learn its characters as people, to make them that much more horrifying when they’re at their most monstrous. Breaking Bad works because it doesn’t just ask you to believe in its world, it shows you why you should. It takes a bumbling loser of a man out of a moment of desperation and, over the course of 5 seasons (though only one year in its internal time), turns him into an over-confident ruler of an already crumbling empire. It shouldn’t work, but it does, because Walter White has laid all the traps for himself, we’ve watched him do it, and he only trips them out of his own hubris.
3. Bunheads (ABC Family)
You’ve already heard me go on about my affection for Bunheads, for the warmth and charm and patter of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest creation, and I don’t have that much to add on the subject. Bunheads made this list (and made it so high) because it’s television that fills me up in the best possible way. It’s not an ooey-gooey sweetheart of a tv show (Sherman-Palladino’s creations are far too cynical for that), but it offers cultural sustenance. And surprising, delightful dance numbers.
4. Hart of Dixie (The CW)
Maybe the most appealing thing about Hart of Dixie is the way it takes the inner lives of its characters seriously, even when it doesn’t necessarily take itself all that seriously. I’ve described Hart of Dixie, again and again, as charmingly goofy, and that’s absolutely true, but it’s also got a bit of meat on its bones. The characters, particularly Zoe Hart, the confident, sex-positive, deeply flawed main character, and Wade Kinsella, who could so easily be written off as a clichéd bad boy, are richly imagined and well portrayed. The cast is talented, AND they all have CW good looks, and the town of Bluebell, though perhaps built from the wreckage of a handful of other little TV towns that came before it (it’s literally filmed on the old Stars Hollow sets), is fully realized.
Hart of Dixie, particularly in this second season, has become one of my favorite hours of the week, and while it may not be revolutionizing the television landscape, that’s worth something.
5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Recreation has done something impressive–it’s hit its fifth season without breaking stride. Most shows, at about this point, start to broaden. While Parks and Rec does occasionally wobble on the tightrope between character and caricature (usually when Eagleton is involved), it’s mostly kept its footing by refusing to fear change.
Parks was smart–it solidified its relationships early on, built them to be unbreakable, so that the show could be a workplace comedy that did not have to remain in the workplace. Sure these people all met through the Pawnee Parks department, and many of them do still work there, in some capacity, but they aren’t tied to their office. Leslie can venture into the wider world of government, Tom can set off on his own business venture again, with a little more wisdom and guidance this time, the characters can learn and grow and stretch their wings and they’ll still have a reason to spend time with each other. These aren’t people who are trapped together, waiting out their time in some office purgatory, they’re friends.
And Parks and Rec proved that repeatedly last spring with the campaign arc. It brought its characters together in a new venue, only tangentially related to the titular workplace, and told a story that resonated emotionally, without sacrificing comedy (the scene where most of the cast tries to make their way across an ice rink to a looped Gloria Estefan clip is simultaneously one of the sweetest and funniest scenes they put out in the fourth season). Season 5, meanwhile, has taken on long-distance relationships, new jobs, several storylines about various characters’ attempts to find themselves, and perhaps the best proposal I’ve ever seen on television.
6. Girls (HBO)
In my worst moments, as my worst self, I am Hannah Horvath, and her continued existence as a television character is immensely comforting.
Girls also offered up one of the most honest and authentic fights between two characters that I have ever seen on television when Hannah and Marnie “broke up.” It would have made this list just for that.
7. Mad Men (AMC)
There were times this season when Mad Men got a little too English-major-y even for me, and I’m a former English major, but the way Matthew Weiner and company built the tension across the fifth season to the point where some act of violence was inevitable was beautiful to watch, as was Roger Sterling’s discovery of LSD, Peggy’s resignation from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Sally’s quest for independence in go-go boots, and Ginsberg’s overconfidence. There were some misfires along the way–I love that Joan’s a partner, I hate the contrivance that got her there–but overall, the fifth season was a tour-de-force of storytelling.
8. Parenthood (NBC)
I’m not sure that there’s a better ensemble on television than the one that makes up Parenthood. Even when the story hits snags, as it has at various points along the way, the cast is so strong that they’ve managed to overcome anything that’s been thrown at them. Lauren Graham, Peter Krause and Mae Whitman have always been the acting powerhouses, but this season Monica Potter has shone especially bright in a cancer storyline that has mostly avoided the trite clichés (though it has still made me cry on an almost weekly basis), and Ray Romano has joined the cast to do what Ray Romano does, and well. I can already see the angry blog posts six months from now when the cast is overlooked by the Academy once again.
9. Community (NBC)
Much of the second half of Community’s third season, the half we awaited so anxiously during the unexpected mid-season hiatus that kept it off the air for a mere six months last winter (it’s now entering its eighth month in the much longer wait for season four), is a kind of hazy blur. There was a Law and Order episode, the study group got expelled from Greendale, Abed and Troy went to war with each other in a Ken Burns documentary…the details have gone fuzzy around the edges. But it’s a good sort of hazy blur, the kind you think back on fondly. I miss Community so much because I love Community so much, and I’m eagerly awaiting its return.
10. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)
The Vampire Diaries did something really gutsy at the end of its third season: it killed off the main character. Of course, Elena’s death doesn’t mean the end of Elena as a character–this show is about vampires, after all–but that didn’t make her loss any less sad. In its first three seasons, Vampire Diaries did enough to establish its characters and its mythology that when Elena woke up on a coroner’s slab in the season premiere you knew she wasn’t going to be quite the same person, and you knew she was on a path that she never wanted.
The fourth season of Vampire Diaries hasn’t been as strong as the first three were. Elena lost a lot of her agency in the transition, and when the season arc was introduced as a possible cure for vampirism it was hard not to roll my eyes. But the way the show packs in plot has always been impressive, and that’s still true. Vampire Diaries turned a questionable arc on its head in the second season–the strongest season to date–and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to do that again. And while not every episode this season has been a winner, a couple have been outstanding. “Memorial,” early on, gave the characters a chance to breathe for the first time in awhile, and offered an incredibly moving tribute to the loved ones that have been lost over the years, and the final episode of 2012, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” had one of the show’s most elegant…slaughters. If they can maintain the quality of that episode, there’s no reason to believe they won’t have an outstanding 2013.