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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Exit Dan Harmon

Art and commerce have always been uneasy allies, with commerce simultaneously enabling art to reach a larger audience and restricting its creativity to that narrow band which will appeal to a broad enough slice of the population. Which is why the refrain you will probably hear most about Dan Harmon being forced out as showrunner of Community is that, “it sucks, but it makes sense from a business standpoint.” But does it, really?

Television is perhaps the artform most directly reliant on its commercial prospects, so much so that it you will still find many people who insist television isn’t art at all. It’s just a way to get people to watch commercials. And because the production of a television show necessitates a lot more expense than other forms (you can’t make a TV show with a canvas and paint) the men and women with visions of making art on television are hamstrung when it comes to pleasing the people with their hands on the purse-strings.

Community is not a very highly-rated show, and on any other network this lack of an audience would have meant cancellation after a season or so at best. NBC’s decision to keep the show on the air is less a commendable commitment to quality than a panic-move by a network so incapable of establishing prime-time hits that any new show might fare just as poorly or worse. At least Community got some good notices in the press.

NBC recently renewed the show for a shortened fourth season, but Sony, which produces the show, wants more. Their business model depends upon shows like Community reaching syndication, a feat that usually requires 88 episodes. Sony wants the show to go beyond the next 13 episodes, and they don’t believe that Harmon can achieve that goal. Aside from that, Harmon is a notoriously prickly person, and his cost overruns and off-stage drama can’t have endeared him to his corporate overlords.

But the part where the logic breaks down is this: How will Harmon’s departure help the show, from any persepective?

Creatively the best possible result is that new men-in-charge David Guarascio and Moses Port are able to maintain a status quo that proves suitable to the cult audience that adores the show. Far more likely is a slow exodus of devoted viewers as the new episodes fail to live up to the lofty standards of what came before. No other show has pulled off the types of stunts that Community has, so why should anyone believe that anyone but Dan Harmon can do it?

From a business standpoint, Sony’s desire to attract new viewers is misguided at best. Three seasons in, the type of broad audience Sony seeks is unlikely to give Community a chance, whether or not Guarascio and Port abandon the complex continuity and make the show more like every other sitcom on TV. How many non-fans of the show are even likely to be aware of any change at Community?

The last thing I’ll say about this situation is a rather common complaint of mine, but it gets no less true with repetition. The ratings numbers that are reported in the news media are little more than a lie agreed upon. The truth is that no one knows for sure how many people are watching a given episode of television. The networks are just terrified of any improvement in the system because it is probable that any change will show just how little penetration all those expensive advertisements actually make. Right now automakers, movie studios, snack companies and the like are paying for an audience that they only think is watching. Community may not be watched extensively among the few thousand (seriously, have you ever met one?) Nielsen viewers, but it is obviously a show with a passionate, actively involved fanbase. That is the legacy of Dan Harmon, and something that will be exceedingly difficult to replicate.

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