The no-win situation facing NBC’s ‘Community’

Perhaps the only person who was surprised by the termination of “Community” showrunner and creator Dan Harmon last Friday was Dan Harmon. Community

“Why’d Sony want me gone?” he wonders aloud on his personal Tumblr. “I can’t answer that because I’ve been in as much contact with them as you have.”

Well, then everything makes sense now. He apparently had no knowledge about the concerns NBC and Sony Pictures Television harbored about the increasingly oddball humor narrowing the audience for the series. Nor was he cognizant of misgivings regarding his leadership style, which became public fodder last month when a feud with cast member Chevy Chase was unearthed in embarrasing detail.

We may never know whether it was creative misdirection or managerial inadequacy or both that led Sony to replace Harmon with veteran producers Moses Port and David Guarascio. Nor will we ever know whether the recent rash of producer departures from “Community” was a demonstration of allegiance to Harmon or a vote of no confidence in the future of the show.

But this much is clear: This won’t end well.

While there’s plenty of TV shows that survive and even thrive when the original showrunners are replaced, this isn’t a typical instance.  That’s because whether you love or hate “Community,” the creative voice that Harmon supplied to the series is deeply, undeniably idiosyncratic. Yet that’s really more of an insult than a compliment because in marching in such lockstep to the beat of his own drummer, Harmon has likely robbed “Community” of the broader audience that could have prevented its current existential crisis in the first place.

“Community” now finds itself in the TV equivalent of a medically induced coma: a 13-episode order on a Friday-night time slot with “Whitney” as its lead-in. And in the unlikely event that the new producers do manage to engineer a ratings renaissance, the best that could be hoped for is “Community” being pushed around from one competitive time slot to the next, where it can be a tackling dummy for hotter shows on other networks.

If there’s any hope in rejuvenating “Community,” the trick may be in not veering too far or quickly from the tone of the three prior seasons, problematic as it was. Too drastic an adjustment will scare off the base the series attracted in the first place.

“Community” is famous–infamous, really–for a rabid cult following as fervent as it is tiny, and therein lies the problem. When the intensity of the fan base is disproportionate to their numbers, a series becomes beholden to a population too small to sustain the qualities they’ve come to appreciate. Changing those qualities even slightly to court broader appeal threatens to alienate the diehard few.

And yet that’s exactly what Port/Guarascio must do, which makes this a no-win situation. They will make a martyr out Harmon, whose importance to the series will be romanticized no matter how essential he actually was. They are going to revolt against the new regime because that is what cult followings do to anything that smacks of creative interference from the “suits.” It’s hard to believe “Community” fans haven’t already launched some clever campaign demanding the rehiring of Harmon, likemailing Harmon-icas by the thousands to 30 Rockefeller Center.

A good way to engineer some gamechanging, well, change, without it seeming inorganic is to bring in a major new character with name-brand recognition that will bring a whole new segment of fans in curious to see what impact the actor would have, similar to how Ashton Kutcher gave “Two and a Half Men” a jolt last season. What not to do is the kind of half-assed half-measure that was John Goodman’s casting this past season, awkwardly wedging in someone for a sprinkling of seemingly random episodes with marginal impact on the storylines.

I say this as a fan of the show, though in the context of “Community,” fan is a poor choice of words. I caught “Community” fever last season only to become increasingly disenchanted by how hit-or-miss it became in 2011-12. What few episodes worked only seemed all the more frustrating given the infrequency of the show’s former brilliance. What’s worse, the inadequacy seemed driven by a tone that can only be described as defiantly weird, a flopsweaty self-consciousness that screamed in too many scenes, ‘Look how much effort we’re expending trying to flout the conventions of TV storytelling!”

Ultimately, the ugly truth is the new “Community” caretakers have to risk alienating the fan base to give the series broader appeal. As for Harmon, fear not for him; he is too talented not to work again. But if his agent is smart, he or she will point him in the direction of cable, where finding a niche audience isn’t considered a sin.

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