The Perils of ‘Community’ Development

The sitcom Community has become a cult-classic, but creator Dan Harmon’s ouster should be a warning not to pursue control at the cost of relationship.

Few sitcoms have reinvented the genre like NBC’s Community. Featuring sharp writing and an ensemble of talented actors, Community is widely considered to be the most innovative, daring comedy on television. On its face, it’s about seven community college students of various personalities and walks of life as they navigate their futures and attempt to preserve the friendships they developed as members of a de facto study group.

But more fundamentally, Community is about television. Creator Dan Harmon infused the show with a metaphysical, self-aware sensibility that takes the standard cliches and tropes in television and gleefully distorts and subverts them. Not only is fictional Greendale Community College full of memorable characters that collectively and palpably depict the zany milieu of the postmodern college aesthetic, but Harmon and his writing staff have, over the last two seasons, injected a healthy dose of parody and satire. What has resulted is a gleeful, adventurous romp of a show that tackles a variety of genres and formats from week to week — from science fiction to spaghetti westerns to musicals, documentaries, heist films, and everything in between.

Community is a wildly unpredictable lark of a show, like nothing else on television.

Which is why so many fans were dismayed at the news that Dan Harmon was ousted from the show.

Low ratings are the obvious culprit. Critics say its layers of humor and genre-bending made it difficult for Community to attract new viewers, and I can see their point. (My sister once tuned in during an episode styled as a Ken Burns PBS documentary, and was totally lost.)

But low ratings don’t tell the whole story. During May sweeps, Community dominated headlines because of a spat between Harmon and cast member Chevy Chase, a feud exacerbated when Harmon leaked an angry voicemail from Chase to the press. The public fallout, reminiscent of last year’s epic Charlie-Sheen-Chuck-Lorre meltdown, embarrassed everyone involved and served to further cement Dan Harmon’s reputation as a caustic, vindictive control freak.

Lest you think I’m being too harsh, Harmon admitted as much in a blog post:

I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘it has to be like this or I quit’ roughly 8 times a day.

Classic Dan Harmon. While it’s undeniable that his hands-on, iconoclastic style gave the show its distinctive voice, it’s equally clear that it also led to his downfall. As such, there’s a terrible irony in the creator of a show called “Community” being given the boot because he couldn’t work well with others.

Frankly, if the management at Sony thought that Harmon was no longer worth the headache, they should’ve just canceled the show. Instead, they tried to have it both ways — saving face by giving their little cult-classic show another chance, while getting rid of the critical element that made it so special in the first place. And if Harmon’s telling the truth, they squandered whatever small chance might have existed for Harmon to collaborate with the new guys by failing to give him the basic courtesy of notifying him directly of the change.

What we’ve got here is – say it with me – a failure to communicate.

This is one of the reasons why we need more Christ followers in Hollywood – to demonstrate that there’s a better way. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul laid out a blueprint:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Philippians 2:1-4 (NIV)

Here we can see that it’s not enough to just dig in and leverage your way to success. In the kingdom of heaven, success is measured by how well you live out your call to love God and others. In practical terms, it requires better relationship management.

Part of the reason why I really identify with Harmon is because of his self-identification with Aspergers Syndrome, which he discovered in attempt to more deeply research one of his characters. As someone who also has a deep convictions that sometimes result in emotionally inappropriate ways, I am keenly thankful for the people in my life who have adjusted to me, and helped me adjust to them, so that we could continue in functional relationship. This, to me, is the essence of effective personal community development, something that other creative types would be wise to embrace.

Because in the end, community is so much bigger than the fate of some sitcom. But even the people who make sitcoms need to learn to work well together.

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