Dan Harmon’s Harmontown is the eponymous title lent to the podcast recorded in front of a live studio audience at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, CA, a feature length documentary detailing the exploits of taking that very show on the road, as well as the epitome of Harmon’s life and work on American television, detailing his exploits over the past twenty plus years as a comedy writer. Most notably, the documentary, written and directed by Neil Berkley, focuses on the unexpected success of his NBC-turned-VOD situation comedy Community, which just this past Wednesday had its sixth season premier online at Yahoo! Screen. The show has become something of a cult classic since its premier on network television in 2009, and has been a continuing source of inventive goodwill in the realm of just-shy-of-mainstream comedy programming, while serving as a self-referential barometer of geek and nerd culture ever since.
Within the professional world of broadcast television, however, Harmon is not a name that connotes quiet as much optimistic positivity. The exuberance held for Harmon in Harmontown stems from an undying legion of fans, who have taken to calling themselves Harmenians, whose identification with the playful deconstructions of popular television and film tropes doesn’t quiet translate to the world of bureaucratic formality. Community’s success undoubtedly stems from dissatisfaction for the mainstream held by Harmon, and implicitly felt by his fans and viewers, the show’s lighthearted joviality shading in what is without a doubt one of the most volatile sit-com’s to be broadcast on NBC since Seinfeld.
But unlike Jerry Seinfeld’s nihilistic detachment from genuine affection, Harmon is a nerd full of love, as Berkley’s documentary finds the eponymous, megalomaniacal protagonist proclaiming by film’s end. Harmon’s engagement with lampoon and parody is thusly born out of a love for the types of genre fiction, nerd culture, and Dungeons & Dragons role-playing that his show simultaneously satirizes. More popular programs broadcast on NBC, such as The Office and 30 Rock, are quick to deride and belittle their situation bound characters; their respective engagement with office space antagonism and executive level buffoonery is supersaturated with social posturing and crude slapstick. In contrast, Community is a show that thrives on getting at the very heart of the cultural vices it means to criticize, implicating the viewer through the engagement of its satire in communally shared bad behavior. In refusing to separate himself from the shenanigans depicted on screen, Harmon summarily makes Harmenians of us all, idiosyncratic alumni of his Greendale Community College.
Much of the love for Community comes in its self-aware humor, the characters making subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the fact that they are characters on a television show in a constant state of flux, both from a creative stand point, as well as in regards to the future state of the show’s very existence. Over the years, Community has been cancelled, put on extended periods of hiatus, and had its creator, Dan Harmon, fired for the duration of the entire fourth season, a dark period in the show’s history that has since been acknowledged through the meta-fiction that has become a staple of the show’s multiple narrative arc’s, episode-to-episode, and season-to-season. With NBC officially dropping the beloved comedy from its roster at the end of its fifth season last year, and potentially refusing the show’s prophesied six-seasons-and-a-movie inside joke, its astounding that the show is still breathing. Community’s heart beats to the pulse of an audience decidedly of a different era than that of the dinosaurs currently in charge of NBC’s prime time line-up; the show is a ludicrously post-modern, effusively evolving facet of popular entertainment, surpassing television as a Luddite medium incapable of supporting its own inherently incompatible value.
Like Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development, a show not entirely dissimilarly cancelled after three seasons by Fox in 2006, before being granted new life and a fourth season in 2013 by Netflix, the culturally pervasive quality of Harmon’s likewise beloved comedy is not without its shortcomings. Where some may see characters entirely like themselves in Community’s island of misfit toys, its situational comedy populated by actual people forced to come to terms with the existentially mundane tropes of the culturally pervasive sit-com, others may no doubt find the show’s meta-fiction fawningly self-inclusive. Perhaps one of the aspects most sorely missing from Berkley’s documentary is the level to which Harmontown can be synonymous with self-congratulation. In Community’s unequivocal adoration for those able to cite and decipher the show’s many film and television references, it must therefore exclude viewers unfamiliar with the stereotypes and clichés at the heart of the show’s multi-layered satire unilaterally; we might not all be human beings after all, despite the purported unisexual, racially ambiguous, and comprehensively inclusive implications of Greendale’s mascot.
There are arguments to be made for Community’s stubborn pride in its eclectic tastes, its eccentricities so ubiquitously overused that it has become a feat in and of itself to follow the various convolutions of plot, generated both from within the fictive narrative, as well as those turns of fate predicated by various cast members terminating their contracts with the show to pursue other projects. At this point in the series, it would be well neigh impossible to explain what is going on at the beginning of its sixth season. The show’s persistent allusions to both living and deceased characters, of which some are merely subsidiary characters, and a further fraction of whom have since become integral to the very self-referential nature of the show’s plot, can be frustratingly nonconformist; Community decidedly has more in common with the BBC’s sci-fi soap opera Doctor Who than Seinfeld, a fact which its characters would no doubt find highly amusing, and for which they would give themselves a self-referential pat on the back.
So why watch Community, given its self-involved ego, its navel gazing brand of humor, and its labyrinthine contours of plot and narrative tropes? According to Neil Berkley’s film, Harmontown is a place populated by anyone who self-defines themselves as a nerd, their unambiguous love for the show making up for Community’s passionate disregard for the mainstream TV viewing audience. Standing on top of all of this is Dan Harmon, depicted in Berkley’s film as something of a genius, albeit a deeply troubled one. Harmon’s emotional insecurities and seeming dependence on the pharmaceutical effects of alcohol prove detrimental to both personal and professional relationships in Harmontown, costing him the ability to accept fame and success, at least at the cost of self-censorship, while opening him up to terminations of contract, and tension with colleagues on the very show that has ironically won him so much love.
But Harmon’s personally felt shortcomings as an individual are also what make Community win out despite itself. At Greendale Community College, it doesn’t matter if you were disbarred for never acquiring a law degree, or you never follow through on any of your stated political and philosophical stances, or you’re unable to relate to other people due to an addictive dependency on the emotional resolution and catharsis afforded solely by film and television narrative tropes. In Harmontown, everyone is accepted, differences are encouraged, and vices are shared, making the show’s persistent sincerity a shining example of what sit-com’s can be, even if it’s a nonconformist sentiment held in the hearts of nerds full of love.
Featured Image: Community, NBC