Real talk for a second. I’m currently in the throes of writing a thesis so I can graduate college with a big shiny medal or something. (No, actually I’m writing it because it’s academically fulfilling and therefore I like doing it. But shiny medals are cool too.) My thesis, in extremely broad terms, is connecting the works of science fiction — literature, paintings of the night sky corresponding to actual night skies, alchemy — to that of science fact. The idea originated from my own ruminations on the scientific method. The scientific method is a pretty useful tool. But at the end of the day, it’s just a tool. It was made by humans in order to be used by humans to reach for (possibly inhuman) knowledge.
In the same vein, Dan Harmon’s famous plot circle (which is described in detail here) is a pretty useful tool for telling stories, mostly because the pieces are just different labels for the same kind of plot-related breakdowns people have been doing for years, and almost all of them are related to Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. But that breakdown is still just a tool, a mechanism for telling stories (in this case on the quick-and-dirty, since Harmon was talking about making five-minute pilots for Channel 101) that is instinctively rooted in the human unconsciousness.
That’s key to understanding the cognitive dissonance when watching the Community season four premiere “History 101.” Ink has been spilled again and again about how the show won’t be the same without Harmon, and it’s true, but not necessarily for the story or character reasons that have been cited. “History 101” is about on par with the other premiere episodes of Community, which is to say that it’s good at returning us to Greendale while also establishing character arcs for the semester/year. Jeff retains protagonist status, but he hasn’t lost anything from his excellent revelation in “Introduction to Finality.” Britta and Troy are dating, which is already presenting some unique opportunities. Abed adjusts to the idea of change, because he’s Abed-as-meta-commentator nodding to the audience and saying, “we know it’s gonna be different, but you don’t have to be too afraid.” Annie is preparing to go into forensics. The world is as it should be.
So what is the missing piece? It’s not Dan Harmon’s storytelling; the circle works no matter who’s using it because circles don’t have feelings. It’s Harmon’s personality. The Dan Harmon who would have late-night revelations and text them to whoever was nearest. The Dan Harmon who pushed against NBC again and again, fighting to do a paintball episode or a Dungeons & Dragons episode. The Dan Harmon whose personality was so big even Chevy Chase couldn’t take it anymore.
That’s what’s missing. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Harmon had a particularly misanthropic viewpoint, a sort of Gregory-House-come-to-life about him that powered the darker hours of the show. So far, having only seen “History 101,” I don’t think losing that particular brand of darkness will be bad for the show. Moses Port and David Guarascio obviously share a love for the show and are committed to keeping it as-is. The flip-side of Harmon’s misanthropy was a profound optimism, a love of life that could only be powered by an equally committed love of death, literal and metaphorical. That’s a harder beast to slay, especially given the devoted fan base that surrounds Community every waking hour.
I’m perfectly willing to be wrong. Cory Barker once told me that I have a way of spinning negatives into positives, and maybe I’m doing that for this scenario too. But nothing about “History 101” suggested that Community was about to throw itself off the train tracks and into the bog of NBC’s failures (a bog that’s at least a decade thick, HEY-O). I choose to take that as a good sign.