By Isaac Butler
UPDATE: Hey all. Apparently, this post has recently gotten linked to at TV W/o Pity and a couple of other places including Dan Harmon's twitter feed, and so I just wanted to say that while I standby this piece as it captures how I felt about all of this in May of 2012, I feel very differently now than I did then.
I've recently been rewatchign the entire show from the beginning in big marathony gulps and I find that my feelings about have changed in pretty big ways from the more complicated feelings I discuss below to unabashed adulation. Obivously, I loved the show in May when I wrote this, but my feelings about it were complicated. They are less so now.
I want to write more about it and my changing feelings when I've finished the rewatch (I'm halfway through season 2 right now). So while I'm in a different place w/r/t everything I discuss below, I still felt this way then and hope you enjoy or find some meaning in it.
Here's the original post:
I was on my way to a funeral when I found out that Dan Harmon got fired. My wife’s Uncle, dead of heart failure, fifty-one years old. Calling this “sad” seems like the grossest violation of the English language, and of the demand I place on my students that they use specific words. Rather than come up with some kind of metaphor, let me just say that he was going to start a new job after a lengthy, recession-induced unemployment less than a week after he died. His life had just started looking up, and then it was taken away from him.
Dan Harmon was fired as the show runner on Community, the ambitious, expensive, low-rated show he created just after that show received a last minute reprieve and fourth season. I don’t imagine there’s a single person reading this who doesn’t already know that. Increasingly here in the United States, shows are identified with their creators who, in the artier end of the spectrum, stay on and oversee the programs they’ve created. The Wire is David Simon. The Sopranos is David Chase. Mad Men is Matt Weiner. Even The Killing, which is an adaptation of another TV show, is heavily identified with Veena Sud, its adapter and show runner.
Over the weekend, I got to watch and participate in two different grieving processes, and found them to be almost exactly the same. One happened in person, the other over twitter and blogs. One was religious, one was secular. But the emotional content was the same. Dan Harmon being fired was a kind of death, a man being cut down in his prime and people mourned it as such. At the same time, Uncle Bill’s death was a disruption in the planned narrative of our lives, provoking the kind of rage and grief people—including myself—hurled at NBC and Sony.
If this sounds callous, it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to highlight how absurd our anger over a wealthy television writer being paid to do nothing for a year is. Even Harmon himself recognized this, tweeting out a reminder to his followers (and let’s just put a pin on that word followers shall we?) that he bought a house with his Community earnings and we shouldn’t feel bad for him.
But feel bad for him we do. Or at least I do. Even if—and this is the confession I feel strangest about making—I think Community should probably have ended, and that the third season was routinely kind of a drag to watch. And now I notice that all of the language I was about to use here—idioms like “life support” or “putting it down”—refer us back to treating this show as a living thing, and not just a living thing, a person, and not just a person but a friend.
Dan Harmon also encouraged this. Anne Moore wrote earlier in the fandom issue that part of the problem with being a fan is that creators are ultimately unavailable, can never know our names. This is untrue for Harmon, who named an off-screen character after a troll on twitter and took the phrase “streets ahead”—originally used to insult him by a random viewer online—and made it briefly into Pierce Hawthorne’s catchphrase. The season finale this year ended with a full-out homage to The Wire… and then a twitter hashtag for fans. Harmon’s loveably TMI blog posts were like mini-feasts between shows. While Community was written by a cadre of writers, as an audience watching it, it felt like all of one sensibility, even when each episode was radically different from the last.
Community was the most ambitious show on television during Dan Harmon’s reign. He seemed determined to see just how many ways he could stretch the fundamental concept of the show, how many different genres they could attempt, how many different complicated running gags they could pull off, how many different ways they could get the Greendale Seven into trouble. In this way, Community was very much like The Simpsons during its golden age of seasons 3-9. Every week we tuned in not knowing what to expect, and they gave us everything from quite dark straightforward realism to two bogus clips episodes.
The part of this that’s hard to write is this next paragraph. For it seems that the main thing that sets Community and Golden Age Simpsons apart is that the latter was consistently brilliant and the former had one truly amazing season (that would be 2) with two uneven seasons bookending it. This should not be hard to write. Hell, this shouldn’t even be necessary to write. But in the wake of the show’s brief mid-season cancellation, the overestimation of Community took off to the point where it now feels, well, like speaking ill of the dead.
But Community, particularly in Season 3, had serious problems. Jim Rash and Ken Jeong were almost never funny, and they got less so as the characters' importance to the show's story grew. The depiction of the Dean was often tinged with a kind of latent homophobia that completely poisoned the third season’s mean-spirited Christmas episode. Many of the shows this season—including the heist episode in this week’s 3-ep burn off—were impressive without being particularly funny. And in the third season, the characters started losing the nuance they had gained in the second, with Shirley and Annie reduced to vocal tics and Troy becoming more dumb than endearingly innocent.
In the midst of this, the season still pulled off two stone classics (Remedial Chaos Theory and Curriculum Unavailable) and had a run of episodes towards the end that reduced me to tears. Because the truth of the matter is—notice how easy it is to slip into Jeff’s cadences—that Community really was something special, flaws and all, and both its positives and negatives were part of it speaking with one voice, and that voice was Harmon’s.
And so yes, it feels like speaking ill of the dead to say that perhaps the show was bogging down, that perhaps they’d said all they had come to say, perhaps three seasons, one pretty good, one brilliant and one mixed-to-meh were enough.
We don’t like to see things end. Relationships, people, television shows. We want to keep them around indefinitely. But does anyone actually think Six Seasons And A Movie would be good for Community as a work of art? That it wouldn’t just become a series of twitter-generated shibboleths, retreads of past genre parodies and Troy-Abed bromance ?
Soon we’ll get to see if keeping a television show on well past its prime is a good idea when Arrested Development returns. Like Community, AD was a fan-beloved, low-rated, absurdly ambitious half hour comedy. And like Community, it hit its stride with a near perfect second season only to collapse in its third. Arrested Development’s third season is even weaker than Community’s, sporting only one good episode (for the record, that’d be S.O.B.’s). I am, to put it mildly, skeptical of the show’s return.
The question I have always had is why we demand more quantity from the things that we love and why we are so unwilling to speak critically—or accept others speaking critically—of them. Why I feel actually slightly scared saying that Community wasn’t that good this season, and that fan and critical discourse around it had a kind of CLAP LOUDER quality to it. Or that I’m not looking forward to a new season of Arrested Development and might not even watch it.
It seems to me that death—and our fear of it—and mortality—and our desire to conquer it—is at work here. We form relationships with the art we love that mimic our human relationships, particularly when there’s a strong creator behind the work who we can form a quasi-relationship with as well. As with our loved ones, we don’t want this thing to die. And as in the US healthcare system, we come to prize quantity of years over quality of life.
As I’ve just relearned this weekend, saying goodbye when there’s no possibility of another hello is amongst the most difficult things we humans do. We have to learn how to do it over and over again, and we almost never get it right. We idolize people and turn them into saints. We invent elaborate mythologies to protect our hearts. Having no one to blame but the Universe, we blame we each other. This is what it is to be human, to get most things at least somewhat wrong most of the time and to keep going.
Most of all, when something we love dies, we find ourselves wishing for more time, as if time were the problem. As if more were the solution, the always for everything American solution for problems. More. Just give me more. If I just had more this would all be okay.
In Uncle Bill’s case, that’s true. He was in his early fifties. Seemingly healthy until he abruptly wasn’t. Loved by his family and neighbors and friends. About to start a new job. More really would be a good solution in his case. I’d love to have some more. Some more odd jokes over e-mail. Some more arguments about politics. Some more geeking out about his favorite guitarists.
To give one example: An e-mail debate broke out amongst Anne’s family members about who their favorite Sherlock Holmes was. Who is your favorite Holmes? Was it Basil Rathbone? Benedict Cumberbatch? Peter Cushing? Robert Downey Junior? Bill replied with an e-mail titled “here’s my favorite Holmes” with a picture of Katie Holmes. A lame joke, perhaps, but as we told it and retold it, it got funnier and funnier.
I look at the Dan Harmon era of Community—and most other shows that have been cancelled—and it feels monstrous to mourn in the same way. To ask for More. More time. To equate this thing, this show, this collection of stories with a person. It feels completely out of balance with a healthy attitude towards the world. Of course, Community knew that, and in giving us Abed, explored that idea over and over again.
I know it’s neither healthy nor mature, and yet I can’t stop doing it. This kind of love is, it seems, hardwired into me. I want to have disdain for fans. I really do. But—as is often the case in these matters—that’s because I recognize myself in them. The impulses they celebrate are ones I’m ashamed of, but we still both possess them. And so I’m left crying at a funeral, and then crying the next day when I watch the show’s season finale, and mixing them both up in my head so that perhaps it’s Uncle Bill that got fired and Dan Harmon who died suddenly and then unraveling these associations and thinking myself a monster for even having them in the first place.