Friday night newsbombs are a well-known and favored sneak attack strategy, but Sony Pictures Television outdid themselves this time by announcing Dan Harmon was fired from Community before he even knew about it, though there had been rumblings in the air over the last week. The showrunner and creator’s Tumblr post in response to the situation said:
Why’d Sony want me gone? I can’t answer that because I’ve been in as much contact with them as you have. They literally haven’t called me since the season four pickup, so their reasons for replacing me are clearly none of my business.
Finding out you’ve been fired by reading a breaking news item on an entertainment site has to sting, and Harmon came out swinging. He added that despite what Sony might have said about keeping him on as a consultant, he has no real interest in continued involvement with the show, given that:
However, if I actually chose to go to the office, I wouldn’t have any power there. Nobody would have to do anything I said, ever. I would be “offering” thoughts on other people’s scripts, not allowed to rewrite them, not allowed to ask anyone else to rewrite them, not allowed to say whether a single joke was funny or go near the edit bay, etc
I can’t really blame him for not wanting to sit on the sidelines while other people have control of his baby; he was gracious enough to note that the new showrunners are good folks, just that he didn’t want to be involved with the show on those terms. Having creative control wrested from you like that, especially in such a humiliating way, is not really an indicator that the network cares intensely about your continued involvement. And that means his role as consultant would be essentially ornamental more than anything else.
Harmon has a reputation for being “hard to work with,” not uncommon for creators. He’s focused and driven and demanding, and always thinks his team can do better. There’s speculation that this working style may be behind his unceremonious ejection from the show, given that networks usually frown on cost overruns and late scripts, both of which Harmon was guilty of at times. Yet, his meticulous approach to handling the show, and his extremely hands-on method, may be what makes Community so adored by fans. The cult hit has a huge following that’s clearly drawn to something and Harmon’s obvious stamp on the work is playing a key role in the reception of the show.
It may not be a ratings king, but Community occupies a special place in the hearts of its viewers. Harmon may be down in this case, but he’s definitely not out for good; he’s got too many ideas bouncing around in his head to throw in the towel just yet and I expect we’re going to see a lot more work from him in the future.
What intrigues me about Harmon’s working style is that it’s more than just the “difficult creator” stereotype.
He’s also on the autism spectrum, as detailed in this interview with Wired last year. His very demanding, orderly, focused approach makes much more sense to me in this context, as does his agitation when his routines are disrupted and he’s forced to deviate from his working style. Harmon isn’t simply unreasonably demanding and difficult because he’s bitten by the creative bug; he’s actually compelled by fundamental differences in the wiring of his brain.
The same differences that undoubtedly contribute to his brilliance as a creator. That’s the thing with being on the spectrum. You can’t separate out the autistic and non-autistic parts of yourself into neat categories. You get a complete package, and that means you develop fixations and obsessions right along with the creative leaps that make your work stand out as quirky, experimental, and unusual. Harmon’s work isn’t typical because he’s not typical, and taking him off the team at Community could be a profound error if the network has any interest in continuing to keep the show going.
What he brings to the show can’t be replaced with just any showrunner, because Harmon’s got something unique he’s bringing to the table.
Harmon’s story intrigues me because he’s one of the very few people in Hollywood openly discussing disability and identifying with it. The representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood—as actors, creators, producers, showrunners, or anything else—is absolutely abysmal. The inclusion of people with disabilities in the writing room is especially important because that’s what results in better representation on the screen. When people actually living the experience are writing it, it shows; it shows with Abed, for example, with whom Harmon identifies in many ways.
By dismissing Harmon from the show in an incredibly abrasive and abrupt way—one bound to upset anyone but especially someone on the spectrum who enjoys order and control in his life—the network did more than say that it didn’t want Harmon involved with the show anymore. It also sent a signal to other disabled producers and creatives, a warning that if they don’t play nicely, they, too could be checking their phones after a flight and finding out they’re fired.