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The Paley Center for Media tries to share the love, spotlighting different shows each year for its annual PaleyFest. Yet Community has become a constant presence, and returned for a fifth consecutive event — one for each season thus far — Wednesday at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Naturally, much of the talk of the panel, which preceded by an advance screening of the Season 5’s penultimate episode, “Basic Story,” set to air April 10, centered on the unlikely return of series creator Dan Harmon, who was fired after Season 3 and rehired last year.
“The fourth season was not this show,” said star Joel McHale, appearing with fellow cast members Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown and Jim Rash, as well as Harmon and returning executive producer/writer Chris McKenna. “It was like that episode of The Twilight Zone, where the guy realized he was in a zoo on another planet. That man’s brain is where it all it exists, and I didn’t think it was worth continuing if he wasn’t back.”
Still, the return, in the form it has taken place, almost didn’t happen. But Harmon and McKenna said they were unsure the other wanted, or was contractually able, to return. They settled on a plan one night at Formosa Cafe, and Harmon joked he had one condition: “Let’s absolutely do it, as long as Donald Glover’s on board.”
Harmon spoke candidly, who left Community this season after five episodes. Although it was clearly a loss, he said there was an “energy” coming from the move that had creative potential.
“We looked at the Donald situation, and met it head on,” Harmon said. “There was no weird manipulation of our own desires. It was very straightforward, in an almost refreshingly tragic way. Sometimes people go away that you don’t want to go away, and it doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, or your life worsens. It’s absolutely half of life — stuff that you don’t want happening.”
“I think it’s the perfect setup for our Search for Spock Community movie,” he added.
Pudi, one-half of the show’s beloved Troy and Abed comedy duo, was likely the cast member most affected by Glover’s exit.
“To have Donald for at least five episodes was the best, because we could at least send him off in a good way,” Pudi said. Abed has entered new territory this season — including having a girlfriend named Rachel, played by Brie Larson. “It shows that Abed can actually socially engage, and take what he learned from his relationship with Troy, and he can connect with other people.”
With no Glover or Chevy Chase (who left Community during production of Season 4), this season the series added Jonathan Banks as Greendale professor Buzz Hickey for 11 of its 13 episodes. He’s set to reprise his role as Mike Ehrmantraut on the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul!, and Harmon said he’s unsure whether he’ll be available for a potential sixth season of Community.
“We definitely didn’t want to put anybody in the position where they felt like they were being sold as a replacement for Troy or Chevy,” Harmon said. “We did want a new Baby Boomer at that table. Chris and I have always felt that dramatic actors, if you can get the right one, they’re funnier than anything.”
Harmon and McKenna’s mutual admiration was clear throughout the panel, with Harmon expressing that, “The Community that people respond to would never have existed if Chris McKenna hadn’t come in nine episodes into Season 1.” McKenna’s writing credits include fan-favorite episodes “Paradigms of Human Memory” (the fake clip show) and “Remedial Chaos Theory” (the introduction of “the darkest timeline”).
“Chris enabled me to hear myself say to someone else, ‘It’s just a TV show,’ Harmon said. “Chris wrote the first joke that I found myself in the edit bay astounded was on screen, and started laughing at.” (Abed saying, “We’ve lost our Cliff Clavin! Our George Costanza! Our Turtle … or Johnny Drama … or E. Man, that show is sloppy” in the Season 1 episode “The Art of Discourse.”)
“The only person that ever had a chance of doing a better show than I could have done, called Community, after I was a liability was the one guy who bothered to refuse the job, who deserved it more than anyone else,” Harmon continued.
“I think I was the only person who was not trying to steal his job,” McKenna joked. “That’s not true.”
Harmon may be one of the most visible TV showrunners, but Community Season 5 did its part to boost the exposure of two more: Arrested Development and Breaking Bad creators Mitch Hurwitz and Vince Gilligan, respectively, guest-starred on the show this year.
“I pictured [Hurwitz] as an 800-pound guy with a beard full of squirrels, because of how funny he is,” Harmon said. “He’s really affable. He’s a delightful, Jerry Mathers kind of imp. He’s a really gifted comedic actor.”
During the audience Q&A, the panel was asked what “inspires” them about their character — prompting Rash to reflect on the humanity of his often over-the-top character. “The Dean, while he fails so consistently, his heart is so pure for what he loves — which is this school, and some of these people. There’s something about that message — try it, fail, and get right back on the horse. and for him, get right back on Jeff if you can.”
Three episodes are left on the current season, including the already-hyped G.I. Joe homage airing next week, featuring actual G.I. Joe characters and voice actors from the original cartoon.
“It sparked as something that feels like you don’t necessarily have to be familiar with it in order to understand what the point of that mythology is, and find an emotionally resonant story in it,” Harmon said of the animated episode, which was directed by his longtime collaborator Rob Schrab, creator of Scud the Disposable Assassin. “The story itself is about age and dying.”
Of course, Community fans are forever in search of “six seasons and a movie,” and Jacobs seemed confident: “It’s happening, come on.”
“If we get a sixth season made, they owe us a movie, right?” Harmon, who slipped into a “Harvey Hollywood” overbearing exec character a couple of times during the panel, said, before digressing, “The story of the TV show Community really asks the unanswerable question, ‘Who in the television industry owes anyone anything?’ Every year it’s like, ‘all right, we’ll pick you up.'”
Other topics covered during the panel included Shirley’s flaws as put on display during the MeowMeowBeenz episode (“She’s a very flawed woman,” Brown said. “She’s found Jesus and has tried to be better, but she really isn’t.”), Britta’s wins over the season (“She was right a few times, which was really nice. And I got to be power hungry, and have mustard on my face.”), Jeff’s new role as teacher (“I think he likes telling people what to do,” McHale commented), the desire to ground Jim Rash’s Dean a bit more (other than the PayDay bar costume rap scene), possible returns of Larson and John Oliver (“If John Oliver and Brie Larson come up with contracts, let’s sign them, and get started on Season 6,” Harmon said) and the ponderance of Breaking Bad alums on Community this past year (“Aaron Paul will have to teach speed racing in Season 6,” Harmon joked).