As most Community fans heard over the weekend, showrunner Dan Harmon has been unceremoniously fired from the show he created.
Cue massive fan outrage.
The showrunner is the closest thing to an auteur that exists in the TV world. While some showrunners are more like behind-the-scenes managers than unique creative voices, the ones who do exert strong creative control — and Dan Harmon unquestionably falls into that category — are inextricably tied with their shows in many fans' minds, especially in the Internet era. Grey's Anatomy and Shonda Rhimes, Glee and Ryan Murphy — for better or worse, it's hard to imagine the show without that single authorial voice behind it.
So what happens when that creative voice leaves? Is it possible for a show to keep going? We've taken a look back at five classic cases of a strong, creative showrunners leaving their roles. And the results were … well, mixed, at best.
The West Wing: There are few showrunners as distinct as Aaron Sorkin. He wrote nearly every episode of The West Wing's first four seasons, and his unique snappy dialogue, quirky sense of humor, and strongly held political beliefs were an essential part of the show's DNA. He left after Season 4. The show lasted another three seasons without him, but it was never the same.
Gilmore Girls: Amy Sherman-Palladino left Gilmore Girls after Season 6, and a little bit of the Stars Hollow magic left with her. Season 7 wasn't a disaster — and, if we're being honest, the show hadn't been at its best even before Amy left — but her specific feel for the ins-and-outs of the Gilmore Girls world was noticeably missing.
Moonlighting: Aw yeah, we're getting old school up in here. Moonlighting, the romantic dramedy that first made Bruce Willis a star, was the clear brainchild of Glenn Gordon Caron. But while his writing was innovative, his managerial skills were a disaster. Sometimes episodes just plain did not get done on time. He left during the last season and a half and the result was … not good.
M*A*S*H: Let's not be all doom and gloom. M*A*S*H ran for eleven seasons, with a major shift in the creative driving force happening around Season 5, with the culmative loss of a number of actors, head writer Larry Gelbart, and executive producer Gene Reynolds.The show's tone definitely became darker, but few would argue that it wasn't still a high-quality show.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Another hopeful example, though also not as extreme a case. Joss Whedon never fully left Buffy, but in Season 6 Marti Noxon took over as showrunner so Joss could focus on other projects (most notably, Firefly). The show also switched channels, from The WB to UPN, and there was a notable change in tone. Buffy fans will argue bitterly over whether this change was good. Many fans chose to believe the show ended after Season 5, but others think Season 6 is the best of the lot.
So, can Community be more like M*A*S*H or Buffy than The West Wing or Moonlighting — different, but still good, at least to some viewers? Maybe. But the more realistic hope is that it's a Gilmore Girls situation: Not as good, but a palatable way to go out gracefully.
It's hard to imagine the show without Dan, but the cast and other writers are talented and know these characters inside and out. We're pretty sure Community will never reach the same creative heights it did under Dan's mad vision, but we hold out hope that it will retain some of the quirky spark that made us fall in love well before Abed first made a mob movie out of a chicken finger shortage.
Rebecca Martin is an editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter @BeccaMartin47.
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