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posted: 12/31/2013 6:00 AM

'Community' creator returns for NBC sitcom's new season

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  • Jonathan Banks, left, joins the "Community" cast as a professor and Joel McHale heads back to school -- despite his character having graduated -- when the NBC sitcom returns on Jan. 2

      Jonathan Banks, left, joins the "Community" cast as a professor and Joel McHale heads back to school -- despite his character having graduated -- when the NBC sitcom returns on Jan. 2
    Courtesy of NBC

  • Abed (Danny Pudi) and company are back at Greendale Community College for the fifth season of NBC's "Community."

      Abed (Danny Pudi) and company are back at Greendale Community College for the fifth season of NBC's "Community."
    Courtesy of NBC

By Kate O’Hare

Love may be all you need to keep a "Community" together, but having its founder back in the house, and an Emmy or two, might also be nice. Well, one out of two ain't bad.

Anyone arriving at the Paramount soundstage in Hollywood during production of the fifth season of the NBC comedy "Community," premiering Thursday, Jan. 2, will see a large banner with a picture of an Emmy and the words, "Congratulations, 0 Emmy Nominations" above the show logo.

"We won the Critics' Choice Award," says series star Joel McHale, referring to the show's win as best comedy for 2012 in the second annual honors from the Broadcast Television Journalist Association, "which was thrilling, because it was the critics, and they really watch the show.

"I defer to just saying we are 'The Wire' of comedy."

Also, like HBO's cops-and-crooks drama, "Community" is essentially the creation of one writer. While David Simon stayed with "The Wire" for its whole run, "Community" creator Dan Harmon was fired after the end of Season 3. That left other writers to try to deconstruct his method and keep the show about a dysfunctional but lovable study group -- led by unhappy (formerly) disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger (McHale) -- at rundown Greendale Community College going. Without input from the brilliant but often erratic and unpredictable Harmon, though, the show kept its jokes but lost a chunk of its soul.

In what amounts to a TV miracle, after a season away, Harmon was brought back. As to how this all came about, Harmon says, "I don't know. I'll just credit it to following my laziness and my bliss and a universe that would approve of that kind of thing. I don't know."

Normally, when the creator of a show has, admittedly, gotten out of control, resulting in a chaotic production process, one would think the bosses would have a long list of demands to let that person ever darken the stage doors again.

"None," says Harmon of what he had to compromise or promise. "They haven't spoken to me."

But, for the benefit of those thinking of emulating Harmon's path, he suggests they instead look to Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad" (who's also a "Community" guest star this season).

"He's a great guy," says Harmon. "He gets rewarded for being great. He's very professional. He'll die with a bigger house than me. It's always better to be a wonderful professional person than it is to be a self-indulgent weirdo."

On this particular day on the set, an episode that follows up on the second-season episode "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" is in production, featuring a guest appearance by "Arrested Development" star David Cross as Hank, the estranged son of new character Professor Buzz Hickey, played by Jonathan Banks ("Wiseguy," "Breaking Bad"). They represent only a fraction of this season's guest-star roster, which includes "Arrested" creator Mitch Hurwitz, Paul Williams, Gilligan, Walton Goggins, Nathan Fillion, Robert Patrick, Paget Brewster, Rob Corddry, Brie Larson, Ben Folds and LeVar Burton.

In between screams and shouting from another part of the set -- with phrases such as "I pull a sword" and "I drink your blood; I eat your heart" being tossed around -- McHale sits down in the lounge to discuss his role in returning Harmon to the fold.
"It's like the monarchy has been restored," says McHale. "It's like the show was always in Dan's brain, and we needed Dan for the show to be. ... I will say, the scripts are some of the greatest we've ever done. I'm bragging."

As for reports that he was instrumental in convincing NBC and studio Sony to rethink Harmon's ouster, McHale says, "They knew my opinion. Everyone always talks about six seasons and a movie, so, for us to get there, we had to have the original voice back.

"So, yeah, Jim (Rash, who plays Greendale's Dean Pelton) and I took a number of meetings, and thank God it worked out."

Says Harmon of McHale, "He's a very facile politician in all the ways I'm not. He's very well-liked and well-respected and very professional and very funny and knows what he wants and goes after it. I prefer to build my bridges out of firewood and let gravity take its course.

"But if Joel decides he wants the world to be different, he'll move mountains."

To reboot the show after last season, Harmon needed to reintroduce the audience to the characters, their new situations and essential humanity. Despite having graduated, Winger is back at Greendale, and McHale couldn't be happier.

"You'll see in the first two minutes what's happened," says McHale. "It's brilliant. Even though we work crazy hours, it's so worth it.""

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