Yesterday was the first episode of Community after showrunner Dan Harmon got fired. It was okay, although I’m slightly worried about what’s coming next. It’s difficult to appreciate the episode on its own merits, when you’re aware of all the behind-the-scenes changes, and start to consider every detail within that context.
I’ve been wondering about how series have handled departures of showrunners/ writers, and it seems to me that there are often two problems. The first is when the characters are no longer as nuanced as before. Sometimes it’s just a sense that something’s missing. Even conscious efforts to replicate what made something successful aren’t going to succeed all the time, because the appeal of a character is often difficult to analyze in precise detail.
The other problem is that the new writers are sometimes afraid of doing anything new. So it’s just variations of what we’ve seen before. Even if they manage to replicate the existing appeal of the characters, they lack the constant innovation of their predecessors. This would be a sitcom that keeps doing the old gags, with occasional updates and new references. The latest episode might be an example, with a riff on hipster glasses being passe and The Hunger Games films.
I suspect that they’re going to be a lot of comparisons to Community and The West Wing, an acclaimed program that suffered after the departure of Aaron Sorkin in Season 4. The next season was the weakest, as the new writers were duplicating Sorkin’s work, without the wit. It became an interesting and uniformly worthwhile series once again early in the sixth season as the old cast began to share the spotlight with a few new characters: presidential contenders played by Jimmy Smit and Alan Alda. In that case, the concept allowed for the new material, as most presidential administrations do deal with the period when they become lame ducks, and the focus shifts to the election.
Community doesn’t have an obvious method of introducing new blood to the series. The college setting isn’t likely to last for much longer, although that would provide NBC an excuse to just cancel the series, when the four-year arc has come to an end and the series had just enough episodes to become valuable in syndication.