Sunday, March 08, 2015
Why is Dan Harmon interesting? The fact that I'd even need to ask this question is probably proof that the documentary Harmontown isn't for me, but the film's curious combination of soul-baring and self-promotion does hold some power to fascinate. Harmon sits comfortably at the corner of network television and what I think is called "nerd culture", best known as the creator and on-again/off-again showrunner of Community. We find him here at a turning point, just fired after the third season of Community and using his new podcast "Harmontown" as an outlet for his frustrations. Harmon takes his podcast on the road just as deadlines loom for pilot scripts with CBS and Fox that offer the chance at a professional rebirth.
Harmontown is sauced with testimonials from Harmon's friends and colleagues, including Community cast members and Sarah Silverman. Silverman attests to Harmon's talents but recounts how she fired a not yet well-known Harmon from her own show. The story is the template for how we're supposed to view Harmon to this point: as an uncommonly funny writer who through a combination of Hollywood's bad taste and his own temperament can only gain the shakiest of footholds. Harmon views the tour as a chance to clear the air and commune with his fans, with the live podcasts (a lumbering affair involving Harmon's monologues and a rolling Dungeons & Dragons game) working to restore Harmon's sense of himself.
I have not watched Community since its earliest episodes and all I can remember is the unfortunate use of the word "lesbian" as a punch line. The arc of Harmon's career - which also includes the legendary unaired TV pilot Heat Vision & Jack - is of no interest to me. As an artist Harmon is a sort of shaggy Riggan Thompson, a niche figure working to stay relevant who is enabled by everyone around him. I much prefer his rebranding as a sort of Garrison Keillor of nerds, even when Harmon drinks too much and seems indifferent to his patient girlfriend. There is a genuine kindness underneath the insecurity; Harmon brings an audience member on tour as Dungeonmaster and is all too happy to interact with fans after (and sometimes during) his shows. If Harmon's popularity is a mystery to me it's because I've never seen myself in a television show the way that his fans do, but by the end of Harmontown there's no question where the real Community can be found.