When Community Is A Commodity

Published on May 25th, 2012 in: Comedy, Media, The Internets, TV |

By Less Lee Moore

A couple of weeks ago, Community fans rejoiced when the ratings-challenged show was renewed for a fourth—albeit truncated—season, but the relief was tempered with concern, as by May 17, it was still not confirmed whether showrunner and creator Dan Harmon would be returning.

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On May 18, Deadline reported that David Guarascio and Moses Port would be the new showrunners. It was disappointing for fans of the show, admittedly a group of people more aware of and invested in the behind-the-scenes goings-on than your average TV viewer.

Vulture’s Josef Adalian provided a great overview of the specifics of the situation:’

Sony Pictures Television, which produces the series with Universal Television, has closed a deal with Happy Endings writers David Guarascio and Moses Port to join Community as showrunners and exec producers. The deal comes less than a week after Vulture broke the news that Harmon hadn’t been signed on for season four and that no negotiations between him and Sony had taken place. Vulture hears that now that Sony made its deal with Guarascio and Port, it plans to ask Harmon to remain involved as a writer and consultant—but not as the person in charge of the show. (He’s expected to remain a “consulting producer” no matter what). Given Sony’s decision to make a deal for Harmon’s replacement without telling Harmon directly, it seems a longshot that Harmon will agree to a diminished role. This is a very dark timeline, but for people familiar with the situation, it is not at all a surprising development.

Soon after, Dan Harmon updated his Tumblr blog, describing some corrections to “a couple points of spin” that were reported in the media, and ending his post with, “Mom, Happy Mother’s Day. I got fired. Yes, Mom. AGAIN.”

Of course, the “Dan Harmon got fired” meme spread through the Twitterverse (Greendale-verse?) almost immediately. Yet as Twitch’s Peter Martin noted, “Now, the flip side of Harmon’s creative abilities are the questions about his management abilities. And then there’s the not-so-little matter of his leaking voice mail message from Chevy Chase and their ongoing feud.” Twitch founder Todd Brown posted in the comments that this situation “became inevitable—and, in my opinion—absolutely necessary the moment Harmon played that phone call recording of Chase and mocked him in public.”

If you didn’t already know: Community cast member Chevy Chase left a furious, foul-mouthed tirade on Dan Harmon’s voice mail a few weeks ago, which Harmon then promptly shared with the world, or at least the Internet (aren’t they the same thing?). Chase looked like an asshole, but what about Harmon? Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva provided some details:

Accounts of the feud have leaked online, including on social news website Reddit. The chronology of the events, corroborated to me by multiple sources, involves Chase walking off the set of the show on the last day of shooting last month without filming one of his scenes, which reportedly was to close out the season finale. Then at the wrap party, Harmon got up and gave a “Fuck you, Chevy” speech in front of Chase and his wife and daughter, and encouraged the crew to join him in saying “fuck you” to the actor. Chase left immediately and later left Harmon a profane-laden voice message, a portion of which found its way to the Web after Harmon played it in front of other people.

So were we dealing with one asshole or two? The funny thing about assholes . . . When Christian Bale freaked out at a crew member on the set of Terminator: Salvation and the recording was shared with the Internet, he got a lot of heat (some people still haven’t “forgiven” him). Yet within a week, he went onto Southern California radio station KROQ’s Kevin and Bean show to apologize.

Of course it didn’t help that around the same time of the on set tirade, Bale was also arrested for assault the day after The Dark Knight‘s London premiere. (It should be noted that in legal terms “assault” can be verbal and that arresting someone before questioning is standard procedure in UK law.) He was eventually released and nothing more was heard about it, except for his family insisting it was a private matter.

Then there’s Charlie Sheen, fired from Two and A Half Men in 2011 after a lot of public ranting about CBS, Warner Bros., and the show creator Chuck Lorre. Sheen Meltdown 2011 continued for quite some time, but Two and a Half Men managed to continue without Sheen (replaced by Ashton Kutcher) and Sheen ended up getting a new series on FX (Anger Management premieres this June) that he says serves as an “apology” for Sheen Meltdown 2011. Okay, whatever. In the “okay whatever WHATEVER” file, Lorre claims he was never feuding with Sheen.

Yet, unlike Christian Bale, Charlie Sheen’s atrocious behavior extends far beyond Meltdown 2011, going back as far as 1990 and including the shooting of a fiancé in the arm, multiple assault charges, alcohol and drug abuse, rehab, more rehab, and restraining orders.

Suddenly Harmon vs. Chase seems a lot tamer. As Twitch writer Ben Umstead notes in the comments to Martin’s article:

This kind of stuff happens in the industry everyday, and it has forever (relatively speaking); it’s just that we, Joe Public know about it now because of . . . well places like this site. Consider that the majority of folks didn’t even know what a showrunner was ten years back.

(By the way, here’s the definition of “showrunner.”)

As for the “everyday” qualities of such incidents, Mitchell Hundred brings up a good point in the comments to an article about the Community debacle from TV comedy writer Ken Levine. “And maybe [Harmon] was tough to work with. Many artists are. As long as they produce good art, I don’t really care about it one way or the other.” Granted, there is difficult and then there is Charlie Sheen, but more on that in a minute.

Levine’s article was referenced in “A Showrunner’s Take on the Dan Harmon Sh*tcanning,” a post on Warming Glow by Pajiba Editor-in-chief Dustin Rowles. That article was then linked in a Pajiba “Think Piece” on May 23 by Steven Lloyd Wilson (do try and keep up).

Levine’s article was referenced because Levine himself is a showrunner (M*A*S*H). But, as he states in his article, “First I should mention that I don’t know Dan Harmon, nor have I personally had any involvement with the show.” Yet, he manages to create an 842-word (I counted) article on something based on “what I’ve heard second hand.” Showrunner or not, does any of what Levine says matter if he doesn’t even know Harmon? After all if showrunners were interchangeable no one would be upset about Harmon’s dismissal in the first place.

Levine does have one good point, however. “It’s always easier to fire writers than actors. People do notice when their favorite star has been replaced by Ashton Kutcher.”

Which brings us back to Sheen Meltdown 2011 as well as its prequels and sequels. Which prompts Rowles to add the following parenthetical notation: “Which tells you how off-the-charts psycho Charlie Sheen had to be to get canned from TWO AND A HALF MEN.”

There is a difference between Two and a Half Men, a show with an “unruly” lead that was still “America’s most-watched sitcom” and Community, a show with an “unruly” showrunner and an “unruly” cast member that barely pulled in a third of those ratings.

T. AKA Ricky Raw asks in the comments on Levine’s article, “Is there any proof [Harmon’s] an a-hole to his staffers outside of the Chevy Chase incident. I want to have better evidence of how difficult he is before condemning him as a problem personality.” You know, Ricky Raw, that’s a good question, especially when Levine ends his post with this vaguely ominous comment: “And I’m very sorry he got fired, if for no other reason than it must make Chevy Chase really happy. That really pisses me off. ”

Thankfully, someone named rzgruber establishes that Chase wanted to be in the show from the beginning and, by Harmon’s own admission, is still on speaking terms with him. Harmon tweeted on May 21, “He’s not [happy]. He left me a 70th and very funny voicemail last night. We basically liked each other. We’re just both babies.”

So was the whole Harmon vs. Chase smackdown just blown out of proportion? Maybe Harmon was just too difficult from the POV of NBC and Sony. Or maybe, as commenter James remarks, “I don’t know why Mr. Levine is assuming Dan Harmon was fired for being a jerk (and therefore deserved it in a way for not being nicer to execs) and not because they want to make the show more accessible/more on-budget so it can get a back half order and hit the syndication goal more easily.”

Yes, according to TV Guide, “Sony is said to be looking at ways to broaden Community and attempt to extend the show’s life on NBC.” TV Line took this one word—broaden—and turned it into a full headline: “Community Shake-Up: Dan Harmon Replaced as Showrunner – To ‘Broaden’ the Show’s Appeal?”

This seems to have been overlooked by a lot of online articles, but not Vulture or Twitch, where Peter Martin observed:

“Still, I’m disturbed by the news, especially because reports indicate that Sony and NBC are making the change, not only because they’re tired of dealing with Harmon, but because they want a show with broader appeal that could conceivably last beyond the 13 episodes of Season 4 and thus get closer to the quantity of episodes needed to more easily sell as a syndication package.”

This is when the idea that TV shows are less about creativity and more about a moneymaking commodity rears its long-awaited and unwelcome head. Here’s where Wilson’s “Think Piece” truly earns its title:

But there’s a difference between artists who forge a business out of their art and businesses that happens to sell art. The former make artistic decisions tempered by business reality, the latter make business decisions tempered by artistic concerns.

Sony showed precisely where their concerns lie in a memo to Community cast members that was leaked on The Hollywood Reporter yesterday. It instructs them how to respond to questions about the situation. To call it insulting and crass would be a kindness. I realize that all businesses do this sort of thing as part of damage control, but damn, it is insulting and crass.

Sony seems to not only be admitting that they did something stupid but also forgetting that they are dealing with actors, who are used to pretending and putting on a face for the public. Joel McHale allegedly “sputtered and stammered” on talk shows when asked about the situation; I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing, fully aware he’d get asked those questions. Looking uncomfortable in front of the press is a good way to indicate how upset you are about a situation. Or maybe he was just upset; now there’s a novel idea.

I can’t help but think how I would feel if Community was my baby and someone adopted it from me against my will. Or if that child was returned to me as a changeling. I know that Community isn’t just Dan Harmon, but a real community effort, with a slew of talented writers and actors. But if Community is robbed of its creator’s vision, will it even be the same show? I guess in the end that is what Sony is counting on.

2 Responses to “When Community Is A Commodity”

  1. Maureen:
    May 26th, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    This is very interesting. (I can see why it generated a “think piece!”) It’s been my experience that when original show runners who conceived of a show depart, they do end up with a different show with pretty significant departures from the original characters. Of course, the examples I’m thinking of were both dramas and running longer at the time of the departures, so I guess we’ll see what happens with Community.

  2. Popshifter:
    May 28th, 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for reading and commenting! The other shows that seem to get discussed in relation to the Community situation are Moonlighting (I remember when it went off the rails but was too young to know about the behind-the-scenes drama with showrunners) and Gilmore Girls (I remember when Sherman-Palladino left but wasn’t a consistent enough viewer that I noticed a huge change).


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