Dan Harmon’s Firing and the Future of Network Television

So while we were all off having a nice weekend (longer for some of us than others here in Chicago; thanks, NATO!), NBC and Sony essentially used Michael Scott from The Office’s filing system to let us know that Dan Harmon would not return as Community showrunner.

But alas for them, it’s 2012, and even a press release tossed into a dumpster at 6:30 p.m. on a summer Friday is going to see the light of day.

Predictably, given Community’s rabid and irritable fan base, the news of Harmon’s ouster did not go well, particularly once Harmon revealed Sony had never even contacted him to discuss contract renewal. From a public relations perspective, NBC and Sony couldn’t have handled this worse. They raised the Community community’s hopes by renewing the show, then crushed them by firing the guy responsible for the show’s voice.

The situation’s been well covered, from Alan Sepinwall analyzing how other shows have fared after the departure of a powerful showrunner to Tim Goodman spotlighting the stupidity of NBC. I certainly agree with the consensus (or at least the consensus among Community fans and critics I respect): booting Harmon is an imbecilic move that will alienate a sizable chunk of the show’s devoted viewers and rob the series of its uniqueness and soul.

But I’m also interested in what this means for network television as an ongoing concern.

I think Harmon’s firing is a flashpoint that will change the way we think about network TV.

Community was the last remaining truly daring show to achieve moderate success on a major American network. Yes, I know its ratings were small — but not that much smaller than 30 Rock, which is considered a success, and it made enough money for the studio and the network to last 3+ seasons.

NBC is left with Parks & Recreation, a wonderful show but one that can’t be considered revolutionary, and 30 Rock, which remains passable but has mostly worn out its welcome. Fox still airs Fringe, which some would argue is audacious in its own way but which seems to me like a fairly standard sci-fi show with all of its alternate universe tropes. ABC and CBS have…um…Mike & Molly?

There are two separate points here: there are only (at best) two or three decent shows left on network television and all, and there zero shows that break new ground.

Network television has always been a breeding ground for the safe, the copycats and the inoffensive, but there’s also always been room for the occasional creative burst. Think of M*A*S*H, Taxi, Homicide, Arrested Development, 24, The Simpsons, Get a Life, Moonlighting, and dozens more series that redefined what a weekly television series could be. Even just a few years ago, prospects seemed bright for networks, with Lost in its heyday and rival nets scrambling to be as genre-bending as that show.

Now, networks seem content to let cable be the home for anything other than the absolute safest of programming. With viewership and revenues declining, the four networks are responding not by trying to air the best shows they can, but by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Are you a moron who likes to watch people fall down and sexually harass attractive women? Then network TV is for you!

The Harmon incident is important to this story because it centers around the crux of network television’s decline. For years, NBC and Sony have harangued Harmon to make Community more accessible — whatever that means. They’ve wanted him to tone down the weirdness, the satire, the serialization in favor of more standard sitcom fare. Essentially, they’ve wanted Community to stop being Community. Harmon refused (and was also, by all accounts, generally a dick to a lot of people), and now he’s gone.

So Sony and the peacock will get what they want this fall: a watered-down, empty-headed, standardized version of the show. Jeff and Annie will almost certainly hook up. Pierce will fall down a lot. And no one will watch, because if people wanted to watch that kind of show, they’d watch 2 Broke Girls.

Networks are making their stand for survival, and who do they want in the trenches with them? Reality shows, singing competitions, and the blandest sitcoms and procedurals imaginable. By ignoring the kinds of shows that build devoted followings, in whatever sizes, networks may be prolonging their demise but they’re also almost certainly ensuring it.

Cable networks like AMC, HBO, FX, and Showtime grant showrunners like Harmon much more creative freedom. Cable executives seem to understand for that a series to achieve true greatness, it needs to represent a singular voice, not a collection of Hollywood lifers, touch-up screenwriters, and focus group notes. Those channels are pursuing greatness in an effort to tie their brands to that greatness and build cache, ad dollars and subscribers that way. Broadcast networks are content with dull-eyed viewers looking up from their iPhones every couple of minutes to see if Sofia Vergara is on screen or if Steven Tyler is going to say something wacky. In mediocrity, they expect salvation. Instead of making bold moves to try to change the way viewers perceive them, networks are retreating to the entertainment equivalent of day-old meatloaf.

I have no faith that ground-breaking network series are on the horizon. Some may try to claim shows like Awake or Don’t Trust the B____ in Apt. 23 are envelope pushers, but they’re standard programs dressed up in slightly esoteric clothing.

It sucks that Community has been gutted. It sucks more that we’re approaching the end of a momentous era in American history — a time when freely broadcast programming over the airwaves made a cultural impact and could reasonably pass for art.

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Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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