Dan Harmon: anti-nihilism, post-modernism and pop culture escapism
Welcome to your weekly dose of film and television analysis from Sight Unsound. Today we ask, just who on earth is Dan Harmon?
Yes, he’s the creator of the critically acclaimed shows Community & Rick and Morty, but there’s so much more to the showrunner whose themes of postmodernism, anti-nihilism, hope, fear and escape run deeply throughout his work.
For those of you who haven’t seen Harmon’s two most high profile successes, Rick and Morty is a reimagining of Back to The Future if Doc Brown were an alcoholic and Marty McFly were a little “slow.” Mad scientist Rick takes his grandson Morty (and other members of the show’s family) on adventures across the multiverse.
Community is set in Greendale Community College where the Greendale Six find ways to get themselves in, and then out, of trouble each week using their collective and complimentary skillsets.
But who is the man behind the writing? Let’s find out in this week’s Sight Unsound…
And for those of you prefer a long-read, here’s a transcript of the video essay…
There’s been a lot written about how Harmon is a nihilist. Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless, which is often associated with extreme pessimism and radical scepticism that condemns the very notion of existence. A true nihilist believes in nothing, has no loyalty and no purpose, other than, perhaps, to destroy. Although much of Harmon’s work points towards a nihilistic view of the world, it could be argued that Harmon finds value in one thing across his work: friendship and ‘family’. Each of our characters has a single subconscious drive: to look after one another and offer support and camaraderie within their community.
In Community we have several contradictions that point towards a base meaninglessness. We have a lawyer who doesn’t practice law, an activist who is inactive, a jock who doesn’t play sports, a Spanish teacher who can barely speak Spanish, and a study group who are ultimately terrified of graduation (the sole purpose they have for attending college in the first place).
Nihilism seems to be present within Rick and Morty too. In one episode our characters literally die, but even that doesn’t seem to matter because of the countless multiverses where they didn’t, or the one where Hitler cured cancer. The Meeseeks want nothing more than to die after fulfilling the single arbitrary purpose they were created for, and when they are unable to do so resent their creator. And Rick seems to have an acute understanding of the meaningless of life, which he regularly shares with us and the other characters.
Despite their differences, conflicts and self-awareness that they attend a college that will leave them with a meaningless degree, we always see the Greendale Six supporting one another, and frequently their friendship is the only thing which helps them and sometimes – as in ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ where they assist another student Neil – others to navigate the hardships of life. Even the theme song ‘At Least It Was Here’ by The 88 makes a nod to this key theme:
“I can’t count the reasons I should stay. One by one they all just fall away… but I love you more than words can say.”
The group in Community always find solace in one another – they are the losers trying to find their way in this scary world and they may butt heads on occasion, but they always resolve their conundrums through finding that they need the support of the group and that their current differences are only trivial ones. It’s ultimately the real relationship that they’ve built up over time which matters to them. Harmon also explores what it means to have a meaningful relationship with others within the Rick and Morty episode ‘Total Rickall’ where our characters learn that their only real friends are the ones that they’re able to share both good and bad memories with.
Although there is often a MacGuffin which sets Rick and Morty off on the week’s adventure, the real arc of the piece is Rick getting to spend time with one of his grandkids. Through this Rick is able to explore who he is and grow as a person. The times where we see Rick at his happiest are when he is able to simply enjoy the company of either Morty or Summer as they engage in a banal activity such as vegetating on the couch watching TV.
During the first season Rick develops a catchphrase, “Wubba lubba dub dub.” Which Bird Person reveals on his home planet translates to, “I am in great pain, please help me.” The only time he doesn’t utter it is during the ending of final episode of season one, ‘Ricksy Business’ where he has spent most of the episode cleaning up after a house party or watching movies with Morty and Summer. In this Harmon is an anti-nihilist, possibly even hinting towards an idea of ‘Sonder’, coined by John Koenig. This is a realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as our own, a life that we are involved in and have a responsibility to assist in supporting them realise their own ambitions, routines, worries and even help them craft their own story. An idea totally at odds with nihilist thinking.
As Morty says to his sister Summer:
“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everyone’s going to die. Come watch TV?”
For Harmon, we find meaning not in purpose, but in the relationships we have.
Both Community and Rick and Morty are staples in the post-modern cannon of work. They frequently reference other texts, reach beyond the forth wall, or entirely deconstruct what we are watching and why we are watching it. Harmon uses this to revere the medium that he is working in, praising the work of others and celebrating what it is to be a creator.
Although the family of characters in Community are at the forefront of the narrative, they are examined through the show’s real subject: mass media, especially the conceits, tropes and conventions of TV and film. The show frequently pastiches various other genres of film and TV: the western, the action film, the sci-fi adventure, the buddy film, the documentary, the morning show, the horror film, the crime thriller and the high school musical.
Also, over in Rick and Morty, during ‘Rixty Minutes’ we and introduced to interdimensional cable allowing our protagonists, and us, to watch infinite TV channels from across the multiverse. Despite having access to a whole host of other planets’ programming we discover that the tropes we have on earth are still being used across space and time. Furthermore, in ‘Meeseeks and Destroy’ Harmon explores the very ideas behind narrative structure itself and deconstructs the plot points of the heroes’ journey, what it is to be an antagonist and even what it is to be a hero. As Roland Barthes states:
“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single meaning, but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.”
In this, Community and Rick and Morty demands from us more than anything to acknowledge the artificiality of what we are doing. Why do we sit in front of our televisions, watching wisecracking young men and women hanging out together, week after week? More specifically, why is television the way that it is? The shows are an interrogation, episode by episode, of the unspoken clichés of the medium, decimating the world of TV even as it builds its own fortresses of dazzlingly self-aware sitcom magic.
So who is Dan Harmon?
Creators have for years placed themselves within their work. Harmon is no exception and we can see his inner-demons surface in the characters of Abed and Rick.
With Abed, Harmon explores his own relationship with the creative forces at work within his mind. Harmon has previously professed to identify with Abed the most out of all the characters within the show, and it is hard not to see this when Abed seems to celebrate popular culture as much as Harmon does.
What is interesting is that the study group seems to always be bending to the whims of Abed, accommodating even the most irrational requests that he has – even at one point becoming Claymation to support one of his delusions.
The Dreamatorium that we are introduced to in ‘Virtual Systems Analysis’ is the physical manifestation of all of Abed’s whims. In the episode Annie invades this space and tries to force Abed to empathise more with the rest of the study group, attacking the very heart of Harmon and Abed’s power: their creative process of formulating ideas.
We discover that the Dreamatorium exists as a way for Abed to combat the fear of being alone and the inability he fears he has of being able to relate to his peers. The reason that Harmon potentially feels that his own creative work exists. After Abed opens up to Annie about this, she is able to have a genuine conversation with him; reassuring him that these are emotions that everyone has and he is not alone in this struggle. This, possibly, is Harmon exploring his own feelings of fear, guilt and anxiety.
The stronger reference comes to us in Rick. In ‘Auto Erotic Assimilation’ Rick is given his own TV show by an old flame called Unity, which he then insists is cancelled and un-cancelled moments later. This rather obvious nod places Rick and Harmon together, but it’s what happens after which is of greater interest. Rick realises that the relationship he has with Unity will never work and returns to Earth depressed, where he attempts to kill himself, only being saved because he is too drunk to hold his head up and into the machine which will reduce him to ash. Despite this momentous action for Rick, life continues as normal around him as he lies slumped on the desk.
After watching Harmontown, the documentary about Harmon’s podcast tour around the US, it is hard not to see some parallels between these moments and Harmon’s own self destructive behaviour, fears and regrets, which director Neil Berkely explores with him in the film.
Harmon’s work teaches us so much both as creators and audiences. As creators we must be willing to explore some of the darker recesses of our minds and be truthful when we represent our fears and desires in our work. As an audience we learn to find support within a community and take time to give it back. We should take pleasure in the absurdities of life and avoid the real world at all costs, because it’s far more interesting and exciting to go off and have adventures with close friends, family members or in your own head.
So what do you guys think? Who is Dan Harmon? What’s next for the showrunner? And can you find any other themes within his work? Leave us any thoughts you have below and don’t forget you can like and subscribe for more Sight Unsound.
Next week: Bojack Horseman’s silent episode.