Community and Dan Harmon’s Imploding Author Function
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
May 19, 2012 – 10:00
The television-obsessed corner of the Internets is burning up with discussion of Friday’s late TV news: Sony ousted Dan Harmon as Community showrunner. There are many good accounts to check out if you want the industrial details and critical analysis, like from Vulture‘s Joe Adalian, HitFix‘s Alan Sepinwall, and Macleans‘s Jaime Weinman. I want to offer a bit more academically inclined take on the news, building on my work on television’s “inferred author function” that I recently posted to my Complex TV book site, a chapter that uses Harmon as one of the main examples. (As always, please read & comment on the site!)
In my chapter, I suggest that literary authorship is built on a model of origination, where an author is known primarily as the origin of ideas and source of creativity – I think much of the popular notion of television authorship is still tied to this idea, where the credited writer and/or known creator is hailed as having come up with all of the ideas we see and hear within the show. This is the underlying assumption when we talk about Community capturing Harmon’s vision or voice, which I’ve read frequently in the past few hours. But for television, origination is only one of the functions of a showrunner – as the term implies, running a show is more central to the job than originating it. Television is authorship by responsibility (making the final decisions for everything) and management (leading what amounts to a multi-million dollar corporation). And by Harmon’s own admission, he was a pretty crappy manager (for some insight, listen to the Nerdist Writers Panel with Harmon and his now-former 2nd-in-command Chris McKenna).
Now I’m willing to believe that Sony needed to replace Harmon as the showrunner for a number of reasons. Sony’s goal is to accumulate episodes, as the more they get, the more likely they can sell them all into syndication, and that’s where profit is made for television production companies. I’m sure in negotiating with NBC to get another 13 episodes for a fourth season, they lowered their license fee, and thus cannot face the budget overruns that a sloppy showrunner causes. Weinman suggests that Sony might be trying to make the show more conventional by ousting Harmon, but I think more than anything, they’re probably just aiming for efficiency and consistency to smooth the path to more episodes being ordered and being able to afford those that have already been scheduled for next season.
So unlike most fans on Twitter and comment sections, I’m fine with Sony saying that they need different leadership – but the way both Sony and NBC handled it was a complete mess. Harmon explains his side here, and I have no reason to doubt his claims that he was treated with such distance and disdain. Last week when rumors broke that Harmon might not be back, I tweeted that finding a managing showrunner who could take over day-to-day operations from Harmon, allowing him to focus on what he’s best at (writing and working with writers), could be a net win for the show. (McKenna would have been a logical choice, although Sony might have seen him as too tight with Harmon – and McKenna did announce he won’t be back shortly after the news about Harmon broke. Some fans online were speculating Megan Ganz, but that’s ridiculous, given that she’s only ever working on Community and only for two years – Sony wanted “seasoned hands,” not new blood.) Maybe things were so bad behind the scenes that Sony could not imagine working with him at all, but based on what we know, they didn’t even try to find a way to keep Harmon writing but not managing the show. Sony seemed to completely ignore the fact that probably more than any other show on the air right now, Community fans know and care about who the showrunner is (aside from programs like Louie or Curb Your Enthusiasm where the showrunner is the star, of course). Harmon has 118,000 followers on Twitter, and that’s a significant part of the show’s core viewership, and his interviews are highly trafficked on the major online TV sites.
While I’m sure Harmon’s voice/vision will be missed by many, I think that aspect is easier to overcome than his authorial function – the diehard Community fans will all know he’s gone, and the fourth season will be tainted to the point that many will be searching for reasons to dislike it. In my chapter, I suggest that viewers infer the role of an author in consuming a narrative, especially when its someone as actively vocal as Harmon; this unceremonious firing fuels our assumption that Community is ultimately Harmon’s vision and poisons our attitude toward the new showrunners before they even start. But by Sony neglecting to try to work with Harmon toward this goal (as far as we know), they have effectively created a series with a giant void in the author function – when we watch, we’ll be searching for what is missing via Harmon’s departure, rather than trying to look at what is there. Things can change over the summer, but I doubt that if the show ends up being good under the new regime, the core fanbase would be willing to admit that they still like it out of allegiance to their image of Harmon as author.
Shows like Community work for the industry by creating small but highly engaged fanbases, and they can leverage that engagement to create buzz, ancillary sales like DVDs, and hopefully longer-term syndication or crossmedia deals (see Arrested Development for an example). But the downside of engagement is that fans will actually know and care about insider industry business, and when such business is tied to showrunners with a highly public persona like Harmon, this can implode in highly damaging ways. Who knows what effect this will have on Community‘s ratings or future orders, but I’m sure the fans will now be far less motivated to create a groundswell to boost ratings for next season, as it will feel like a betrayal to Harmon whom they view as the “heart of Community.” In short, you can replace a showrunner, but it’s much harder to replace an author.