Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Inside Community's Surprise Return

(By Michael Schneider, TVGuide.com, Dec 24, 2013)

NBC couldn't kill Community, even if it tried — and it definitely tried. But lengthy hiatuses and unusual scheduling (including Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes airing last spring) wouldn't destroy it. A controversial decision to replace creator Dan Harmon as showrunner last season couldn't slay it. Even all that Twitter chatter about "six seasons and a movie" didn't jinx it."Community is like a Twinkie," says Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley, perhaps the sweetest of the community-college study-group members who form the show's heart. "The shelf life of this show has defied odds."
The comedy doesn't get big ratings or tons of awards: A banner outside Stage 31 on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood, where it's filmed, reads, "congratulations — 0 emmy nominations!" But Community boasts plenty of critical acclaim and one of the most fervent fan bases in television.  Not only is that loyal audience part of the reason the show is back on Jan. 2 for a surprise fifth season, but it's also why — in an unprecedented move — Harmon was brought back to run the show (with fellow executive producer Chris McKenna, also returning from exile).  "A lot of us did not expect to get a fifth season," says Alison Brie, who plays innocent Annie. "By now we're so used to having the rug pulled up from under us."

Joel McHale, who stars as disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger, was instrumental in lobbying NBC and Sony (which produces Community) to bring back Harmon. "The show was in Dan's head," McHale says. "I think it can really only come from him."  The studio and network, which had clashed with Harmon over budgetary and creative issues, dropped him from the show in May 2012 while ordering a fourth season. "Nobody has had a conversation about what happened," Harmon says, "or why it unhappened."  He was replaced by Moses Port and David Guarascio (Just Shoot Me), who were apparently brought on to make Community more accessible. The duo had to be convinced to take the job, knowing it was a thankless endeavor. Many critics, who initially worried that the two might take the edge off Community, later took them to task for trying to emulate Harmon's voice.  "There was a whiteboard in the writers' room that had about 10 ideas we never got around to because they posed too difficult a creative challenge," Harmon says. "I was blown away to see [my replacements] were going down that list: doing an Inspector Spacetime convention; having Winger reconcile with his dad; the Pierce haunted house. It was a creative agenda I thought was the reason I got fired."
When Harmon was finally asked back, he felt he had no choice but to return. "If I did go back, the worst thing that could happen is a bad season of television," he says. "If I didn't go back, the worst thing that could happen is a lifetime of questions. I would have been miserable."  But in returning to Community, Harmon had to "not let the studio, network and the outside world get to me. I let it drive me crazy, and I let it inhibit the quality of my work," he says. "I knew coming into Season 5 that we were already off the schedule, and I had to wake up every morning at peace with the idea that no one might ever see what we were doing. It had to be about the craftsmanship. It had to be about making 13 episodes of television that I would love."

Although he's critical of how Port and Guarascio handled the show, Harmon admits he's grateful they didn't dramatically change the show's mythology, making it relatively easy to regroup from the two biggest changes at the end of Season 4: Winger graduating, which was in line with Harmon's plan, and haughty millionaire Pierce (Chevy Chase) leaving, a function of the actor wanting out.  Chase expressed much displeasure in the media about Community and the direction of his character. "You've read the 300 or 400 articles," McHale says. "The articles say he didn't like the writing and didn't like the show and didn't watch it and didn't want to be here. And now he's not."
In the season premiere (airing Thursday, Jan. 2 at 8/7c), it's months later, and the members of the group have moved on with their lives outside Greendale Community College. But when Winger comes up with a scheme to reunite the gang, they're willing to play along — despite Jeff's questionable motives. Making a subtle reference to Season 4, the characters joke of a "yearlong gas leak" that made them all act a bit differently.  With a clean slate, Harmon says he, McKenna and the writers decided to write an opener that fulfills the same function as a brand-new pilot. The episode, titled "Repilot," even contains callbacks to Community's first episode. "We needed to get back to basics," Harmon says, "and we needed to tell a satisfying story about someone coming back to community college, having not been in it."

McHale approves of the new direction. "It's all really rich and great," he says. "The scripts are so good. No matter what happens with the episodes, I know we're making good TV." His character eventually takes a job teaching at the school, which Harmon admits he had said Jeff would never do. "[It] seems like a jump-the-shark [moment]," he says, "so we needed to give him a reason to do it that resonated and allowed people to respect Jeff."  Danny Pudi, who plays socially awkward Abed, says the show has been energized: "It's been nice to go back to some of the things that we were exploring when the show began." Says Gillian Jacobs, who plays the flighty Britta, "We're still ambitious, we're still going for broke, but the heart of the show is really there, and the characters feel grounded."
Harmon has stressed the importance of spending more time on character development, which is why the first few episodes of Season 5 are not larger than life, like Community's famous paintball installments. And some ideas — like Abed's favorite TV show, Inspector Spacetime — were so overused last year that Harmon decided to retire them.  "I came into Season 5 gun-shy," Harmon says. "My mantra every morning was, 'Keep your feet on the ground and make sure each episode is understandable.'"  The much larger- and more painful- issue Harmon and McKenna faced was figuring out how to deal with the exit of Donald Glover, who plays Abed's best friend, Troy. The actor decided to depart at midseason to focus on other projects, including his hip-hop alter ego, Childish Gambino.  "I just watched the episode where Troy leaves, and it's heartbreaking," Harmon says. "It's a real Kleenex-boxer. I wrote it, I was there when they shot it, I'm editing it and I'm not even looking at a completed version, and my eyes were running like a faucet."


Dan Harmon Reveals How Community Pulled Off This Week's Surprise Cameo
(By Michael Schneider, TV Guide, Jan 3, 2014)
The return of Community executive producer Dan Harmon to the series he created — and then was fired from — was a shock enough. But fans of the show were in for another surprise Thursday night, as another exiled Community member made a brief return: Former co-star Chevy Chase.  In the Season 5 premiere, Chase's cantankerous Pierce Hawthorne shows up as a hologram in order to talk some sense into Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), who has tricked his pals into helping him take down Greendale Community College. The run-in with Pierce triggers a change of heart in Winger, who ultimately decides to help save Greendale from within as a new professor.  Chase famously departed Community at the end of Season 4 after expressing his unhappiness with the show, having once even called his participation a "big mistake." But Chase has also discussed his fondness of the show's cast, and although he and Harmon have had well-publicized run-ins, both the actor and producer have also said reports of a feud have been overblown.

Harmon tells TV Guide Magazine that he wanted to bring Chase back in a cameo, but that Chase's exit agreement with Sony Pictures Television, which produces Community, prevented the actor from actually setting foot on stage. That's why Harmon came up with the idea of bringing Pierce back as a hologram.  "It was a question of, how do you include somebody that people want to see again that has actually been contractually bound not to be on set?" Harmon says. "We definitely needed something to turn Jeff as he was walking away with the power to end Greendale and end everything in his hand. It seemed appropriate that this would be a moment that Pierce, when he was still on the show, would have been a help. It was certainly the role he fulfilled in the original pilot. He was the first turning point in Jeff becoming a part of that family."
Harmon says he became determined to bring back Pierce in order to block Jeff's path. "I started with that image in my head of a blue Obi-Wan ghost of Chevy Chase. Why would that happen? How is that possible? And then you realize that Pierce is a millionaire and he has a history with the campus. So we thought, 'Maybe this is a way around this contract thing, the terms of his departure with the studio. Maybe we can get around that by shooting him separately in a goliath stage with Chevy-proof walls."  Sony gave its blessing, and Community shot Chase on a different stage with a motion control camera.

Asked if things were cool between him and Chase, Harmon calls the comedian "hilarious and one of a kind and a consummate soloist. He's somebody who, like me, doesn't deal well with people telling him what to do. Nobody appreciated that more than me and nobody had to deal with that more than me."  Harmon points out that he has worked with Chase longer than any TV other producer has worked with the Saturday Night Live alum. "We were very similar. And we still joke around on the phone with each other. People see in interviews him saying bad stuff about the show, but I just laugh and he always laughs."
News of a feud really took off after Harmon played some of Chase's angry voice mail messages at a comedy show. But Harmon says Chase "laughed during the whole voice mail thing. The part of the nice thing about these personalities and his part and my part is they come with relatively thick, resilient skin.  "He left that voice mail in a passionate mode and I played it for people in a passionate mode. The bigger picture is two guys who really, desperately know that they are nothing without people laughing at them. [We] really respect and appreciate each other for that fact."  The question remains, why was there wording in Chevy's exit that barred him from returning to the Community stage? Is that unusual that he can't even return to visit? "You'd have to talk to lawyers about that, I don't know," Harmon says. "That's what I was told, that it was a legal thing, it's a contract thing. I wasn't here when he left, so I don't know how that works. Talk to the suits, they love doing interviews, right?"


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