TV preview: Altoona native prepares 'Community' for what may be its final season
Altoona native Moses Port faced an unenviable task last summer: Stepping into the shoes of Dan Harmon, fan-adored showrunner of NBC's "Community" (8 tonight, WPXI).
When NBC and Sony parted ways with Mr. Harmon, creator of "Community," Mr. Port and writing/producing partner David Guarascio were asked to take over for what may be the show's final season.
Last May NBC renewed "Community" for a shortened, 13-episode fourth season and slotted the comedy in an inhospitable Friday night time period. In the fall NBC changed its mind, delaying the show's return and moving it back to Thursday night as part of the network's traditional comedy block.
Mr. Port and Mr. Guarascio had spent eight months developing a pilot that was not picked up and days later executives from Sony, the production company that makes "Community," asked them to take the reins of Mr. Harmon's creation. Mr. Port said his first reaction to being asked was, why is Dan Harmon not doing this?
"As fans of the show, which we were, you want him there," he said. "Our heads were spinning from thinking about something else in general. At first we said 'No,' a couple times just in the sense that do you really want to step into this guy's shoes and also you feel like he cast a very large shadow. We asked, 'What's the win-win of this? People won't like it as much and we'll be blamed for it.' "
Ultimately, the writing team signed on.
"It's very rare to get the opportunity to play in this sandbox, to have these characters and an unbelievable collection of actors. Also, we never really wanted to make a decision based on fear, which is easy to do."
Stepping into an established, cult TV show also is different from creating your own series. Mr. Port and Mr. Guarascio previously wrote for ABC's "Happy Endings" and NBC's "Just Shoot Me," and they created the short-lived but well-reviewed CW comedy "Aliens in America," about a Muslim exchange student from Pakistan.
"Anytime you come into something, the creative part of you feels like, how do you make that your own?" Mr. Port said. "In this case, we were very much determined to carry on the tradition Dan had started."
Mr. Port said the new team traded a few emails with Mr. Harmon, who carries an executive consultant title on the new season (a contractual obligation) but was not involved in writing any of it.
"I think he felt he didn't want to be partially involved," Mr. Port said. "He wanted it to be a clean break."
Mr. Port estimates about half the show's 14 writers are returnees from previous seasons of "Community," including the writers of the new season's first two episodes. Putting the veterans on early episodes was by design.
"This show has a very unusual relationship with its audience," Mr. Port said. "It's very intimate and personal and the fans know the [writing] staff. [The writers are] on Twitter and [fans have] a direct line of communication. We wanted the first names that appeared to be familiar to them to make it as smooth a transition as possible."
Before writing started on the new season, Mr. Port and Mr. Guarascio met with the returning writers to "talk through their anxieties and fears."
"We wanted to assure them that it wasn't us coming in and saying, 'This is the way things are going to be done.' We wanted 'Community' to be 'Community,' " he said. "We were open to the fact that we'd be learning as we go and relying on the writers who were returning. They'd been in this world a while and we were going to lean on them heavily. And we opened a creative dialogue with the cast as well."
Although many observers expect this will be the final season of "Community," Mr. Port said the writers built the season to function regardless of a renewal or cancellation. The characters refer to this as their final year of college but Mr. Port said if "Community" is renewed for a fifth season, they have a plan and Greendale Community College will not go away.
"Should this be the final year, we want it to be able to serve that purpose," Mr. Port said. "But we're not approaching it like it is the final year. We open up possibilities for future seasons."
One change that's in store should "Community" get renewed: Chevy Chase, who plays Pierce, has quit the show. He'll have a presence in 12 of the 13 episodes (appearing in 11, voicing a puppet in another one), including the season finale.
"We weren't there for previous seasons, so I can't speak to all of what happened beforehand, but working with him this season he seemed reenergized and he did really well," Mr. Port said. "There are things in this season so you'll understand what will have happened to him."
With "Community" facing a murky future, Mr. Port said the season finale is designed to operate as a potential series finale.
"It offers closure with possibilities," he said. "That was the needle we had to thread."
Mr. Port, a 1987 graduate of Altoona Area High School, attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1991.
"After college my mother convinced me to break into show business by moving to Pittsburgh," he said, noting that he stayed for only three months. He waited tables and tended bar at Tessaro's in Bloomfield and worked for a few days as a production assistant on a Tony Danza TV movie. "Ultimately, I told my mother if I want to break into Hollywood, I'd have to move to Los Angeles, with all deference to George Romero."
Mr. Port's parents -- Stephen and Phyllis -- still live in Altoona, and he tries to make it to at least one Steelers game a season in Pittsburgh, bringing his son along with him.
Mr. Port's brother, Joe, also writes for TV, most recently on NBC's "1600 Penn." Joe Port and writing partner Joe Wiseman have a pilot at NBC for fall, "Joe, Joe and Jane" about a children's book author caught in a tug-of-war between his wife and his co-author/best friend.
For Moses Port, ratings for "Community" may well determine his next step. If the show stages a ratings comeback and gets renewed -- admittedly a long shot -- he said he and Mr. Guarascio intend to stick with it.
"We're excited about all the episodes," he said. "It's a shame we don't do the Netflix model where you can get the whole season at once. We're excited about so many different episodes; we wish everybody could sample them. We just hope people are patient with the anachronistic network model and watch week-to-week."
First Published February 7, 2013 12:00 am