Fighter Jets and the Mad Hatter Theory: How NBC's "Community" Died
A comment I see tossed around a lot is the speculation: would you really know the difference, if you didn't know that Harmon was gone? If these episodes were dropped in the middle of other seasons, would you really notice? Yes. In the same way that I would dislike the taste of a shit sandwich on its own merits and not just because I'm biased because the originating anus belonged to a dog that bit me.
I wrote an article a year ago in the wake of the firing of Dan Harmon about the moral wrongness of taking the show away from him. That the guy at the center was effectively the author, and to take it away from him was simply wrong, regardless of whether he deserved to keep his job, or what the legal niceties of ownership were. It was Harmon's creation. It should not have continued without him. It was not conceptually any different to me than taking A Song of Ice and Fire away from George RR Martin and handing it off to a different author.
There were a lot of comments on the article, and other articles written, that television series are collaborative efforts. That while Harmon may have conceived of the Greendale Six, those actors play some role in creating who those characters end up being. Not to mention the miscellaneous list of creative contributors: the costume designers, composers, set designers, and an entire myriad of others who I leave off simply because of my sheer ignorance of how television shows work under the hood. This is true I will concede, but only up to a point.
What we're seeing in this season of "Community" is how much of a difference removing the creative spark at the center of an enterprise can make. Some shows can get by. I bailed on "West Wing" after Sorkin's departure for exactly these reasons. The characters were no longer the same characters. They looked the same, talked the same, but somehow were only puppets of who they had been a few months earlier on the other side of a cliff hanger. Taking Sorkin's fire out of that furnace left it a shell of its previous self. But even so, that show survived in its diminished form because it had a more solid base that could maintain some semblance of stability. It could carry on the facsimile on the strength of a fantastic cast and writers scrambling to get up to speed.
"Community" is a different beast because what made it great was the fact that it teetered on the very edge of being a disaster even when it was clicking on all cylinders. A show that takes place in an 8-bit video game should not work. A show that revolves entirely around a paint ball war should not work. A show that takes place entirely in a fake 1980s space simulator should not work. A zombie apocalypse at the community college Halloween party should not work. Not to mention the fact that a single show with all of these elements and others equally absurd should not work in the slightest.
It reminds me of descriptions I've read about an F-16, of all things. A normal airplane has basic properties of aerodynamics that allow it to glide to some degree if the controls and engine die. An F-16 cannot. It exists in a state of constant disequilibrium, maintained by minute and constant adjustments to the thrust and pitch and yaw and other airplane things I don't understand, all overseen by the flight computers. If the computer dies, the plane loses all semblance of level flight. That's the price that particular aircraft pays for being so far on the other side of the envelope.
"Community" was the F-16 of television shows. It flew so well exactly because it was at all times on the edge of spinning catastrophically out of control. This takes nothing away from the actors or other creative contributors to the show, any more than the fact that an F-16 being unable to fly without its computer is saying that the pilot doesn't matter.
And so what we see now is a series in which the same or similar notes are played over and over again in a desperate attempt to recapture the Harmon equilibrium. Let's throw songs at it! And puppets are nutty! Shirley say something Christian! Abed say something pop cultural! Gimmicks for the Dean! What these showrunners don't see is that when a series is built on sustaining an unstable equilibrium, then new ideas are constantly needed, new inputs to stay one step ahead of the detonation of the show. The old ideas will never work. The old refrain that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results? Well in a television series built on insanity, the inversion of that rule applies: doing the same thing will never yield the same results again. Call it the Mad Hatter principle of insanely brilliant television.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.
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