When Dan Harmon was dismissed as showrunner of his NBC sitcom Community at the conclusion of its third season, much of the show’s writing staff followed suit, leaving the abbreviated fourth season with several new writers. However, one of those novice scripters was hardly an unfamiliar presence: Jim Rash, who has played the morally and sexually ambiguous Dean Pelton throughout the show’s run, pens this week’s episode, “Basic Human Anatomy.” It’s not a case of an actor with an itch to try something new; Rash is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (he shared the Best Adapted Screenplay statue for The Descendants with his writing partner Nat Faxon and director Alexander Payne) and, now, filmmaker (he and Faxon’s directorial debut, The Way, Way Back sold for big bucks at Sundance). But this was his first time writing for the show that made him a familiar face.
“I guess the discussion to possibly write was actually before this season,” Rash said, in a recent conference call. “It just sort of came up in talks sort of during our hiatus. And they just were curious if I had any interest. And I absolutely did — if it worked out and there was a slot. So they end up having this sort of open area where they were looking for another episode. So I went up and ended up pitching a couple of different ideas, and then we obviously landed on the one that we did.”
The idea they worked up centers on the old body-switching premise, as seen in films from the ‘70s (the original Freaky Friday), ‘80s (Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again), ‘00s (the Freaky Friday remake), and now (The Change-Up, 17 Again). But, as with any episode of Community, that’s just the hook; there has to be more. I asked Rash about what he thinks makes for a great episode of the show — and how he tried to capture that quality in his episode.
“My favorite episodes of Community are the ones that really do balance something that’s, in a way, heightened and absurd,” he explained. “It’s Community‘s version of what can happen. And Dan’s created a world where these things can happen. You know, where we can have these paintball episodes. And we can go to ‘space,’ you know, in our own real context. But yet there is always a way of moving the characters forward. There was always a nugget — at the very least — that gave us some insight into one of them or pushed an emotional journey for them forward.
“So I guess for me, long story short would be that a Community episode had to have a balance of the heart and the absurd.”
That balance has proven tricky to maintain in this fourth, Harmon-less season, and fan reactions have certainly been mixed; some say it’s still a blast, some say it has morphed into another (but still wonderful) kind of show, some find Community 2.0 a betrayal of the series and its characters. If, say, The Big Bang Theory’s fans were suddenly divided over its quality, that show’s staff might not care (or even notice). But this is a show that has always had a highly engaged relationship with its very vocal fans. I asked Rash how the people on the show were dealing with this now-complicated relationship.
“I think we all knew going into it that… inherently, no matter what, it was going to be different, because we also knew that in a small sense, each year was different,” Rash told me. “Going into this, we knew that we obviously had a bunch of new writers, plus some writers who had been with us for at least a couple of seasons. And so it really was a learning curve. And that it’s going to be, and we knew it was going to be. I think for us it was sort of the pressure to be able to be a little bit more vocal sometimes, like ‘I’m not quite sure that my character or that character… feels right.’ And they were always open to this dialogue as we sort of went along that learning curve
“And I do think the show has to — hopefully in another season — go forward and continue to sort of just find its slightly different thing if that’s what it’s going to be. But my hope would be, that learning curve keeps going in the direction of understanding completely the show… I think… as we got more into the season, more things started to click and understand.”
Jim Rash’s Community episode, “Basic Human Anatomy,” airs tomorrow night on NBC.