Column: Does Dan Harmon Hate Television?
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 17, 2013 23:02
In the last week, television writer and show runner Dan Harmon said a few particularly head-scratching things on his Harmontown live podcast tour. On television, Harmon said it’s just a “bunch of goddamn baby food made out of corn syrup,” continuing to say “the medium is dispensed to people who can’t feed back—can’t change it.” Anyone who doesn’t know who Harmon was would see quotes such as these as angry rants from a cynical TV hater. But Harmon’s past, present, and future all revolve around television, which makes his angry, critical words on the medium all the more confusing.
In the industry itself, Harmon was seen as a smart, innovative writer and creator. The show for which he is best is Community, a comedy series on NBC that Harmon created and ran from 2009 until 2012. The show follows the lives of adult misfits at a community college who befriend each other after forming a study group. Community quickly became known for its quality joke-telling, its multi-shaded characters, and later, for its willingness to experiment with form every week. The show has done parodies of entire film genres and has created animated episodes.
Harmon, as the series show runner, was undoubtedly the creative mastermind of Community. He would often talk in interviews of where his ideas for the series’ more outlandish episodes came from. Just a few weeks ago, Harmon went into detail at a television convention about how he had wished to do an entire episode of the show that poses the question: who is Nicholas Cage?
Unfortunately, he will never get to make the episode. Dan Harmon was fired from Community by NBC last spring. The network replaced him with new show runners David Guarascio and Moses Port. The reason for Harmon’s firing is widely believed to have stemmed from the show’s sliding ratings and from conflicts with the heads of NBC, and with one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase. Essentially, Community’s terrible ratings mandated a creative shift into broader subject matter in efforts to attract a wider audience for the show.
Since the firing, Harmon has refused to work on the show in any kind of creative capacity. He is currently creating a show for Adult Swim that will air in late 2013. Throughout his time on Community, and even in the year following his firing, Harmon has always seemed eager to share his thoughts on the show. He talks of the show’s characters as if they’re real people that he creates. He has talked of writing the characters with depth, experimenting with the show’s narrative and giving each character emotional arcs. So, why would a man who seems to care deeply for television resort to calling it “a big blob of f—g garbage?”
A possible answer might lie in his complaint of how “the medium is dispensed to people who can’t feed back.” This quote implicitly references how television audiences mostly have to sit back and let the networks take varying levels of control over their favorite shows. Shows can be cancelled at the drop of a hat if the ratings are poor, the show’s tone can shift if the network isn’t happy with its current feel, and if a network wants to fire the creator of a show, like Harmon, it is free to do so. Even though Community fans, including prominent television critics, have been vocal in their support for the show, they ultimately have no power to decide whether or not NBC will pull the plug eventually. All signs are beginning to point to a Community cancellation, in fact, after the show’s abysmal ratings this week, for the second episode of its fourth season.
Maybe the cause of Harmon’s rant lies in its last line, in which he says of TV show runners: “They’re not allowed to say whatever they’re thinking … You’re definitely not getting the truth—you’re getting lies.” Harmon has made comments in a similar vein to this in previous years. As a true television auteur, Harmon tried to take Community to darker and more risky places that NBC didn’t want it to go to. In the end, shows on network television only have so much freedom. With this in mind, it seems that the real targets of Harmon’s anger is television networks, and not the television shows themselves. Looking at the skydiving ratings of Community, it remains unclear whether control of television shows should lie with one or two artists or with an entire network.
Editor’s Note: A version of this column was originally written by the author for EN55001.