Grantland’s Alex Pappademas recently hit the road with Dan Harmon, his girlfriend Erin McGathy, and various and sundry other people as they put on Harmontown, Harmon’s podcast, as a live national tour. Depending on the level of attention you’ve been paying to Harmon’s life and person outside his role as the creator of Community, reading the resulting chronicle of the trip will be either a profoundly dispiriting experience, or a reaffirmation of things you already knew. But the part of it I found perhaps most disconcerting was a long rant Harmon goes on about television that Pappademas reproduces in order to give readers a sense of “what it’s like to talk to Harmon, who’s one of the most exhaustingly brilliant people I’ve ever had a conversation with.” Harmon apparently said:
When 30 Rock lands on the cover of Rolling Stone, when any television show is lionized for being “smart,” someone’s laughing all the way to the bank — some company, it used to be General Electric, but now it’s Comcast. That there’s a difference between any of this shit is the greatest joke that television ever told. I mean, as the creator of Community, I’m telling you: It’s all garbage. And the idea that my garbage, y’know, needed a better time slot or deserved an Emmy or didn’t deserve an Emmy, the idea that it was better or worse than 30 Rock or Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks and all that shit — you only have to take a couple steps back before you realize that you’re looking at a bunch of goddamn baby food made out of corn syrup. It’s just a big blob of fucking garbage. The medium is dispensed to people who can’t feed back, can’t change it, who only get it in 20-minute chunks interrupted by commercials, and you’re watching either really well-written jokes or so-so-written jokes or terribly written jokes, but you’re just watching jokes written by a bunch of people who all have one thing in common: They’re not allowed to say whatever they’re thinking! They’re not allowed. You’re definitely not getting truth; you’re getting lies.
Now, so why does this concept of “meta” and smart TV and snobbery — like, why does it offend people? Why can’t you just say, “I don’t like that show; it’s not my cup of tea. I prefer this show”? Because we’re programmed to hate ourselves for being stupid. We are told that the goal is to be smart, and to differentiate between good and bad, and then we are told, from left to right, what is good and bad, and then we are told to go at each other’s throats. And that’s why, if a television show like Community has an element to it where someone says, “This feels a lot like a television show,” you can’t just ignore that — you can’t just take it or leave it. You have to violently — like, it’s a political issue. It’s like, you gotta fight it; you gotta hate it.
If you’re a critic, you have to write your 90-page review of it that takes longer to read than it does to watch the episode, prattling endlessly in this pseudo-intellectual way, filling the next tier down’s head with this language that they can use to talk about the show over coffee. The conversation we’re not having is: “Hey, there’s 250 million of us watching an average of six hours a day of a one-way transmission that only ever tells us that we are all animals and that we should buy Cottonell.” That’s the one conversation no one is having, not a single one of us. Well, I mean, there are a couple people having it; they’re on street corners covered in tattoos with their dicks pierced, and they’re holding signs saying, “Honk if you want to burn down the White House.” Those people are not marketable; we put them in the same drawer as homeless people; they’re weird characters, putting flyers on your windshield and walking around barefoot and freaking out about the fact that this Orwellian nightmare is happening, and we’re all inside having these debates about whether or not liking 30 Rock makes us smart or stupid.
Now, I say everything that follows as someone who believes even more than the average, 90-page-review-writing, critic that television matters, that movies matter, hell, that Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series of romance novels is a delightful and important critique of the genre while also still being a successful example of it. So Dan Harmon can feel free to ignore as much of this as he chooses. But in my defense, I’m also someone who wrote a long meditation on NCIS and Americans’ relationship to government, so I’m not sure I’m guilty of trying to sort out whether I’m smart based on my love of both Anthony DiNozzo and Chris Traeger.
But beyond the questions of my investment in a system Harmon thinks is nonsense, and of Harmon’s own self-regard and how it pairs with his self-hatred—which was a striking element of this piece even for someone who suffers from substantial self-image dysmorphia—this…was not quite the visionary statement I expected? For all that it’s absolutely true that all television that is broadcast on cable or networks is produced in a corporate environment, to say that “It’s just a big blob of fucking garbage” is the equivalent of arguing that there’s no substantive difference beween the Democratic and Republican parties. It may be true that there isn’t as much variation as we’d like in the offerings available to us. But the corporate money that’s gone into our politics has actually homogenized the party system much more than the corporate money invested in television development has ever homogenized content—and the differences between the parties remain easily discernable. To stick with the comparison, there genuinely is a difference between the smarmy cynicism of House of Cards‘ garage-murdering, sex-having, amoral power brokers, and the optimism of Parks and Recreation‘s argument that local government can genuinely make life better.
And for all that television’s a one-way medium, it’s not alone—and it has more capacity to adapt over time than either novels or movies. Girls is to television as Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be is to novels, an almost pathologically open dispatch from a young woman’s perspective. While Heti’s novel will only ever be what it is, Girls has actually gotten substantially stranger in its second season, and more willing to test the limitations of our affections for its characters, whether Hannah’s upping the self-regard factor, or Jessa’s being called out as the golddigger that she is, even as the show expects us to continue to sympathize with her. Parks and Recreation actually got more optimistic about government, and more committed to showing its main character as competent and engagingly strange, after its first season, the opposite direction from the one you’d expect a corporately-controlled product to travel. The Wire may be the Great American Novel, but it also switched settings and main characters, growing and changing in a way a movie or novel never could have done.
And thanks to social media, something a lot of television writers and showrunners have embraced with a vengeance, viewers have more ability than ever before to talk back to the people who are creating their shows, even if all they have to offer is a deeply felt conviction that Troy and Britta are the One True Pairing. If anything, I think a lot of people making television right now are actually grappling with the extent to which their relationships with fans can stay open and engaged and remain manageable for them. I can see where a world in which Harmon finds himself arguing with me about diversity in television on Twitter might not be exactly what he’s looking for. But for people who previously didn’t have access to the people who were making television, I think there’s something striking and democratic about this moment in television production. People have extra incentives to watch closely and to form strong opinions when they have the sense they might actually get heard.
Whether they get heard by the corporate puppet-masters who gave Harmon enough money to run a seminar on the theory of television is a different question—as is what fans would actually ask for if they got that chance. And it raises an issue that Harmon may have gotten to in his conversation with Pappademas, but that he doesn’t quite articulate in this block quote. It seems to me—and I could be wrong—that what he’s suggesting is the need for a more radical critique of both what’s put on television and our impulse to watch it, and maybe even to produce it. On the former, I think there’s an argument to be made that the critique of what’s on is already taking place, in the form of a lot of intelligent web television—and that some of that critique is being adopted by broadcast itself. Lena Dunham and Issa Rae both got deals to develop television shows in part on the strength of weirdly compelling, if imperfect, web television. Jane Espenson, who has a well-established network television career, went to the web both to fund and distribute Husbands, her marriage equality comedy, which has very conventional sitcom arcing and joke density, but portrays a gay male couple as both more romantic and more sexual than would fly in network primetime. If Harmon thinks we should all smash our sets and iPads and wander into the wilderness to tell each other archetypal stories drawn from the Golden Bough, I’m afraid I am unable to provide him much in the way of solace. But I think the rest of us should be excited to watch this sector emerge, and hopefully to colonize television.
The question of why we watch, and why Harmon and others make television, is harder to answer, although it’s worth checking out the Naim June Paik exhibit currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which I’ll write about later this week, if you want to think about television on that broader level. Once again, I think he’s being a little Ralph Naderish in insisting that people who make television are “not allowed to say whatever they’re thinking! They’re not allowed. You’re definitely not getting truth; you’re getting lies.” Even before getting to questions of corporate control, it’s an inherent part of the writers’ room structure that television is written collaboratively and that no one gets to do what they want all of the time. And it’s absolutely true that there are almost no circumstances in which even those collective writers’ rooms get to say precisely what they think, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard David Simon complain about major compromises he had to make while creating The Wire, one of the most radical critiques of capitalism and the police to ever appear in popular entertainment. But I do think there are a lot of people who are working in television because they get to say some of what they want some of the time, and the opportunity to do that to millions of people actually is incredibly exciting.
For Harmon, this balance of reach and amount of what he gets to say, may not seem worthwhile, which is, of course, his prerogative—there are some non-profits out there who could probably use a full-time volunteer. But I don’t know that his relative unhappiness is proof positive that creative professions are useless, soul-sucking wastes of time. Or maybe when Harmon isn’t talking to a journalist over beers in a heightened environment, he’s more sanguine about his chosen profession. Because it’s true that while you might not be able to use the masters tools to tear down the master’s house, you can employ them to build a damn fine pillow fort.