In the contemporary age of TV fandom, the term “showrunner” has gone from industry jargon to something widely bandied about by TV consumers. In simplest terms a showrunner is just someone who’s both the head writer and the lead producer of the same television series. In practice being a showrunner seems to be an almost impossible job that requires a combination of the sensitive soul of poet with the practical business skills of a hands on manager.
The best known showrunners – Matthew Weiner, the Davids Simon, Milch, and Chase – succeed in making almost every aspect of a series reflect their unique personal vision, a sort of auteurist theory of television, but with the showrunner taking the place of what the director does in films.
The downside of this new cult of the showrunner is that identifying a series so completely with just one member of the creative team means that it’s hard for fans to accept a version of the show without that person involved. But that’s just what Community fans are going to have to do as a result of the news that creator/showrunner Dan Harmon will officially no longer be the showrunner of Commmunity.
Handling the news the way a major political firing or resignation is handled, Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show, released the news Friday evening after close of business on the East Coast. Rumors had swirled that this might happen ever since NBC announced that they were renewing the show for a most likely final 13 episodes.
I confess that I assumed this was some kind of negotiating tactic or game of chicken between Harmon and the studio, akin to a similar dance that seems to go on between Matthew Weiner and AMC in between each season of Mad Men. Weiner is apparently much better at the business part of his job than Harmon, as the rumors of his being fired always seem to be followed by announcements that he’s getting a higher salary and pretty much everything he wants for the show creatively.
There was even talk among some Community fans that if Harmon were politely relieved of his producer duties, i.e. the business/managerial aspects of his job that he doesn’t seem to be good at, and kept on simply as the head writer it might be a better fit for Harmon and for the show. No such luck though, as Harmon has made clear on his tumblr any new title he’s to be offered will be purely ceremonial and essentially powerless.
Harmon isn’t exactly being replaced by hacks. His replacements, David Guarascio and Moses Port, ran the critically acclaimed/low rated Aliens in America and worked on the critically acclaimed but more broadly popular Happy Endings. It’s quite possible that they will be able to make a good version of Community, possibly one that balances that quirky/absurd with the mainstream/accessible in the way Happy Endings does, and this is probably what Sony and NBC hope will happen, but it will not be the Dan Harmon version of the show that its hardcore fans love.
As Daniel Fienberg of HitFix points out this recent run of Community episodes “has been the most DanHarmonious of the show’s run.” Perhaps never before has a television series, network at least, been so completely an exploration of one person’s psyche. From this perspective NBC’s decisions regarding the show are hard to fathom. If they hoped that they could get rid of Harmon and replace him with showrunners who can bring Community a larger, more mainstream audience then moving the show to Friday nights makes little sense. If they simply wanted to make a final gesture to the fan community, and attempt to get the show into syndication with the final 13 episodes, then replacing Harmon doesn’t make much sense either.
There have been previous instances in which showrunners heavily identified with a particular show have been pushed aside and the show has gone on to multiple seasons after that point. Alan Sepinwall runs through many such examples in this blog post. His conclusion is not encouraging for Community fans. Essentially, he doesn’t think the show is analogous to any of the examples in which the show has gone on to success and that the vision of the show that the fan community is in love with has most likely ceased to exist with this news. Will this be the start of TV fandom’s first ever “Save our Showrunner” campaign?