To really understand Community, don’t turn to its most popular episodes, like paintball action-homage “Modern Warfare” or the diverging-timelines hilarity of “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
Watch “Intermediate Documentary Redux.” In this third-season episode, the
Greendale Community College Dean Pelton wants to update a dated TV advertisement
for the college. But over the course of weeks, the scope of the commercial
grows, the budget spirals out-of-control, and the dean becomes a tyrannical auteur,
unhinged from reality, obsessed with a vision that can never truly be realized.
Eventually, he drives away every one who believed in him.
That, of course, is a the story of Community. Read through the AV Club’s second-season post-mortem with Community creator, writer, showrunner and, by many accounts, unhinged tyrant Dan Harmon. See the parallels. See the obsession and the passion that goes into creating what could have been just a half-hour of laffs. See the seeds of perfectionism leading to self-destruction.
Harmon was fired from his own show last spring. Granted, there are plenty of signs he should have been. The show never excelled in the ratings. The show regularly went over budget. It burned through talented writers. Harmon clashed visibly with the network brass. He managed to somehow be seen as a big of a jerk as Chevy Chase. When he broke up with his girlfriend, he shared his very raw feelings with the entire internet via Tumblr. Tumblr!
In cop-show terms: He was a loose cannon, but dammit, he got results.
It’s easy to explain Community’s awesomeness in terms of genre parodies: There was the zombie episode, the video game episode, the space episode, the musical episode, and mafia, Law and Order, and Christmas claymation parodies. “Intermediate Documentary Redux” was, after all a parody of the Hearts of Darkness documentary about the troubled Apocalypse Now production.
But in the best of these, ambition, not parody, is the driving force. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of a showrunner cracking a whip, calling for yet another rewrite, demanding stronger character beats. My favorite episode focuses on a game of Dungeons and Dragons, something NBC was skeptical about. Yet, it also happens to be one of the most tightly scripted half-hours I’ve ever seen. Every moment counts — drives the plot forward, establishes emotional character beats, establishes stakes, or delivers a set piece. It had clearly gone through countless drafts from multiple writers in that pursuit of perfection.
Harmon isn’t necessarily a comedic genius. But here’s one of life’s little awesome secrets: Even if you’re not the most talented, you can brute-force brilliance through obsession and ambition.
To be clear, he wasn’t responsible for all the best parts of
Community. That would be taking too much away from the other writers on
staff, and from the producers and network executives that reined in his worst
impulses. Harmon wasn’t the only staffer to leave Community after Season Three.
But judging from early reviews, there’s a hollowness to tonight’s premiere.
That could be because the new showrunners are less like Harmon and Dean Pelton, and more like the trustees reviewing Dean Pelton’s salvaged, just serviceable final product at the end of “Intermediate Documentary Redux.”
“It's good,” the trustee says. “You know what, better than good. Good enough.”