This past week saw the return of Community for the first of its post-Harmon shows. If you're not a comedy nerd (everything I do, I nerd out about), the backstory is that show creator Dan Harmon was removed as showrunner for this season, and two new people were brought in to run the show. There was lots of hand-wringing by fans over this move, because people who loved the quirk of Community felt that a lot it came from Harmon, who is crazy according to everyone who works with him. Would the new showrunners bring in a laugh track, some cheap sexual tension, or otherwise blandify Community?
Well, not exactly: the showrunners and writers clearly lean into the controversy here, starting off with a laugh track that isn't for the show, but for the imaginary show that's running in Abed's mind, the kind of show that Community would never become (we fervently hope). It's the kind of joke that Harmon might have used. And yet, despite using many of the same types of Harmonic jokes, there's a tonal shift that makes the jokes stumble as they land. For instance, a "Don't ask" line gets pointlessly followed up by a pro-forma "Don't tell."
I can't blame the new showrunners wholly for this; lots of ongoing shows find themselves descending into re-use that verges on self-parody. One of my comp teachers likened this sort of thing to wanna-be basketball stars imitating Michael Jordan's tongue-moves rather than his basketball moves. Or we could switch it: if you're just going through the basic motions, you might miss the charm of the inessential.
And I was thinking about this slight disappointment when my girlfriend and I began season six of Cheers, the first season that sees Shelley Long's brittle, beautiful Diane replaced by Kirstie Alley's hard, sharp Rebecca. Many of the jokes survive the transition--Carla is mean, Woody is dumb, Sam is a womanizer--but the feeling is off. Sam's womanizing, which often carried an undercurrent of loneliness and depression, has become outward-focused as anger and meanness. It's the same sort of joke, but it's no longer as funny. And I cringe at the upcoming attempt to make Rebecca and Sam an item.
So, Community season 4 and Cheers season 6 are only starting for me, so maybe it will take a few episodes to iron out the issues, as with many a new show. But it reminds me that sometimes, the dynamic of multi-part machines likes this is not repeatable, even when the jokes are.