David Guarascio and Moses Port seem like really, sincerely nice guys. Which, upon reflection, may be the problem.
See, they’ve taken over the reins of NBC’s brilliant Community — with apparently genuine reluctance, as befits their nice-guy status — from its stupidly ousted creator, Dan Harmon. And while Harmon is certainly capable of kindness, the persona he chooses to share with the public is anything but a nice guy.
In his blog posts, Tweets, and admirably frank interviews, Harmon comes across as kind of a mess: Insecure, combative, self-loathing, borderline alcoholic, and obsessed with making things his own way. But you can make the case that this heart of darkness fueled Community’s greatness.
You don’t suddenly yank your sitcom into a completely different genre — epic fantasy, action movie, heist caper, understated drama — unless you’re the kind of person with the guts to regularly say “f*** off” to the incredibly powerful suits paying your salary. The show’s first three seasons are one long, intermittent upraised middle finger to the conventions of sitcom TV, often against the express demands of a network and production company actively interested in the safest return on their investment.
And Community’s characters had all come from, and occasionally revisited, places far grimmer than your basic sitcom joke delivery vehicles. They were narcissistic liars from broken homes, chronic screwups, pathetic aging horndogs, overgrown children avidly fleeing responsibility, OCD perfectionists, powderkegs of simmering rage, and occasionally honestly, unsettlingly insane. They weren’t fawning wish-fulfillments of people we viewers would like to be; the members of the Greendale study group came from a much more real, and more damaged place. Yet they were still funny and likeable, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. Because we got to empathize with Jeff, Britta, Pierce, Abed, Shirley, Annie, and Troy at their worst, we cheered even harder when they lived up to their best.
That courage and humanism seem to have left with Harmon. The series’ fourth-season premiere, though scripted by series veteran Andy Bobrow, feels like Community Lite - the pieces are all there, but the soul is gone.
Don’t get me wrong. Community’s cast remains a murderer’s row of comic talent, especially the unstoppable humor engine that is Donald Glover. The premiere had more than a few good jokes, and a terrifically funny tango scene that went to the kind of weird, uncomfortable places in which the series specialized. Guarascio and Port seem to honestly love what Harmon did with the show, and fear the potential that it’ll slide into something lesser under their watch.
I really hope that doesn’t prove true, but based on the season premiere? Sorry, guys. You should have feared harder.
The characters all seem to have lost a dimension. They act in the same ways they acted before, but more because the plot demands it than because it fits what their character would want. They seem to have lost that crucial inner life that made them so intriguing before.
The show tosses in goofball references, but doesn’t commit to them. They’re not tied into the themes of the story, and they don’t come with the bold changes in tone and visual style that marked Harmon’s homages. Greendale’s eternally unsettling Dean Pelton throwing his own personal Hunger Games for admission to the coveted History of Ice Cream class? That could make a great episode all on its own, but here it’s just one paper-thin storyline among many — a vehicle to drive the plot, rather than an opportunity to explore something deeper.
If anything, in trying to satirize what the show might become, Port and Guarascio have actually made it happen. The premiere included a fairly excruciating animated “Greendale Babies” segment that didn’t seem to realize it was actually as awful as it was pretending to be. (Well, aside from one halfway decent Pierce joke.)
The new Community isn’t awful. Even at half strength, the top-notch cast makes it funnier than most sitcoms. I’ll keep watching in hopes that it picks up steam and regains its heart as the season goes on. The new producers and the writing team all appear to care a lot about the show, and to want to make the best version of it they can.
But without Dan Harmon and his weird, messed-up vortex of personal pain, I don’t know whether that best version will be as good as it once was.