In “Paradigms of Human Memory,” my favorite episode of Community, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) delivers one of his signature epic speeches. For once, the epic speech isn’t resolving any outstanding problems; as Annie Edison (Alison Brie) says, “We’re not breaking up, so we don’t have to get back together.” Even so, Jeff gives his speech, concluding with “So maybe we are caught in an endless cycle of screw-ups and hurt feelings. But I choose to believe it’s just the universe’s way of molding us into some kind of supergroup.” Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) pipes in with “Like the Traveling Wilburys.” ”Yes, Troy,” says Jeff. “Like the Traveling Wilburys of pain, prepared for any insane adventure life throws our way. And I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to every one of them.”
For three seasons, Community ranked as my favorite show on television. Sure, Parks & Recreation made me laugh harder every now and then, and Game of Thrones had me as spellbound as some of the most highly regarded films in history. But both lack the magnetic quality of Community. Community is unlike any other situation comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s self referential without ever going too far. It’s about a community college that feels like another world yet somehow retains the realities of friendship and interpersonal conflict. And it’s absolutely sincere, with just as much heart as Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing, and any other show I’d put on my favorites list.
And it wouldn’t be that way without Dan Harmon, the series creator and showrunner.
On Friday, Harmon and the world found out he was being let go as showrunner. I can’t claim to understand the situation the top brass at NBC is in the thick of. But I do know this: upwards of 1,000 people on my favorite entertainment source, the Onion A.V. Club, commented on the sadness of this situation. Todd VanderWerff, who reviewed the show each week for three years, had this to say: “I’ll reiterate what I said in my [finale] review: I think Port and Guarascio [the new co-showrunners] are very talented showrunners. I’d love to see them make a show with this cast, maybe even about this scenario. But without Harmon as showrunner, I don’t know if this show will ever be what it was again.”
In “Paradigms…,” when Annie says her line regarding breakups and getting back together, she’s referring to the study group’s tendency to rely on Jeff when any conflict arises. The show would be less successful without Jeff and the performances Joel McHale turns in each season, and you could call Jeff the protagonist. But that would be unfair to Troy, Annie, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase). The cast and characters of Community are a well oiled machine; no matter whose character you enjoy most, you would be tempted to give up on the show if any of them left, because it just wouldn’t be the same.
Such is the case with Harmon’s departure.
This series is his creation, a reflection of his mad genius qualities, and no matter how good it is without him (and I can’t judge whether or not it will be), it’s not going to be the same show. Fortunately for all of us rabidly devoted fans, the season three finale felt like a perfect series finale. For Community, it’s the end of an era and most likely the beginning of one that will feel altogether different.
Though he probably won’t read this, I’ll say it anyway: thank you, Dan Harmon. Thank you, Community cast and crew, for making me laugh and cry and appreciate television as art as much as I ever have. To quote the Internet, “This is truly the darkest timeline”–but like the ever-optimistic Annie, I think everyone will eventually come out of this just fine and create something wonderful all over again.
It just might take a while.