A Moral Crisis for 'Community' Fans: Should We Keep Watching This Show?

Network execs fired the creator of the fiercely beloved NBC series and replaced him with a team of conventional-sitcom showrunners. Would supporting the new season be a betrayal?

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Community may quite possibly have the most passionate fan base in TV history. But now, its devotees face a surprisingly tough moral dilemma: Whether or not they should keep watching the show.

The surreal-yet-sincere NBC sitcom—ostensibly about a community college study group, but really a musing on human interaction via increasingly inspired storytelling devices— returns tonight for its fourth season premiere, following a longer-than-initially-expected break. One day after the last new episode of the show aired this past May, series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon announced that he had been abruptly fired by production studio Sony Pictures Television, with sitcom vets David Guarascio and Moses Port named as replacements.

This news came after a series of moves that had already tested the considerable optimism of the show's fans, who were just starting to get over the leaked voice mail-strewn feud between Harmon and cast member Chevy Chase. NBC renewed Community, but with a truncated order of 13 episodes; moved it to the "Friday Night Death slot;" and paired it on the schedule with Whitney, exactly the type of business-as-usual TV comedy that the show's audience likes to see subverted. The news that Harmon—whose distinct sensibilities defined the idiosyncratic nature of the series—was out, and guys who worked on Just Shoot Me were in, cemented the notion that the entire renewal was a "Monkey's Paw"-esque example of "be careful what you wish for."

Now, the new episodes are here, and Community diehards face a tricky choice. Watching the new season is effectively endorsing a hostile corporate creative takeover of what many believed to be the cleverest show on network TV. But sitting it out would mean abandoning the characters and storylines that fans adore. It'd also mean prejudging a season that actually could, despite the bad blood, end up being pretty good.

Community wasn't created by executives, or a revival of an intellectual property that had been sitting around NBC: It's an original concept with Dan Harmon wired into its DNA. The show was inspired by his own experiences with a community-college study group, and its humor, experimentation, and compassion are all reflections of Harmon himself—as seen in any of his outside output, from short film site "Channel 101" to his Tumblr blogs.

Watching the new season is effectively endorsing a hostile corporate creative takeover. But judging before viewing doesn't seem true to the show's underdog spirit.

The reasons for Harmon's firing haven't been specifically spelled out—he has a reputation of being difficult to work with, and the show has never been much of a ratings performer, even given the diminished expectations of NBC—but it's all ambiguous and backstage-y enough to further upset his supporters. Last July, The Hollywood Reporter quoted NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt as saying, "Every so often it's time to make a change with a showrunner... Sometimes you want to freshen a show."

No one involved in the series—even Chase—seemed happy about the news, with cast and crew members making their Harmon appreciation known on Twitter. His dismissal led to several of his close associates declaring that they'd also no longer be involved in the show, like Dino Stamatopoulos, who played Starburns and was a writer and consulting producer, and Rob Schrab, Harmon's frequent collaborator who directed last season's Law & Order homage "Basic Lupine Urology." No matter what shape the new Community season takes, it won't be the same show as it was under Harmon. It's just not possible, and it's clear that NBC and Sony don't want it to be.

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Albert Ching is a staff writer for Newsarama, where he covers the comic book industry.

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