Who is Harmontown for, exactly? If you don't know who Dan Harmon is, odds are the documentary will feel odd and unsatisfying. It's not particularly concerned with providing an explanation of Harmon's past or why he's been such a prominent public figure over the past few years. So, is it a fans-only affair? Not quite. If you're a fan of Harmon's and a regular listener of his popular podcast (also called Harmontown), then you're already familiar with everything the documentary has to offer. I guess the film is for that small group of folks in the middle – the people who know plenty about Dan Harmon's professional career but little about who he is as a person.
Harmon is best-known as the creator and showrunner of the NBC sitcom (now Yahoo sitcom) Community, a low-rated show that nonetheless boasts a fiercely devoted fanbase. Over the course of the show's first three seasons, Harmon's behavior grew increasingly erratic, and NBC ultimately decided that the man was more trouble than he was worth. They fired Harmon, gutting the soul of Community in the process (Exhibit A: the disastrous fourth season). Devastated and eager to find solace the arms of his benevolent fans, Harmon decided to take his podcast on the road for a cross-country tour. The documentary devotes the bulk of its running time to the tour, and the portrait it delivers is either damning or inspirational, depending on your perspective.
Harmon isn't much of a stand-up comedian, but he is a smart guy who has a tendency to compulsively overshare personal details. The most infamous incident of this involved Harmon playing a voicemail that Community star Chevy Chase had left on his phone, detailing the animosity that existed between the actor and the showrunner. Elsewhere, we see Harmon engaging in self-lacerating admissions of all sorts, and every so often he invites his wife onstage to regale the audience with tale's of Harmon's worst behavior (“He called me a bunch of things, including the c-word...”). More often than not, Harmon is drunk, sometimes to the point of becoming incoherent. He feels bad about letting his drinking interfere with his ability to put on a great show, but that certainly isn't enough to curb his drinking.
To this viewer, the road trip seems less like a healthy therapeutic exercise and more like Harmon's way of enabling his worst tendencies. He succumbs to self-indulgence, alcoholism and laziness (he keeps putting off working on two pilot scripts ordered by NBC and CBS – both of which could very well revive his career), and uses the live performances to remind himself that people still think he's awesome no matter what he does. Even so, by the end of tour, Harmon begins to confront a few personal issues in a serious, thoughtful way. Unsurprisingly, these are some of the film's best scenes. Plus, Harmon may have been right to shrug off the other networks: he was re-hired as Community's showrunner for the show's fifth season.
It's a pity that the genius of Dan Harmon doesn't shine through very often here. His best episodes of Community benefit from a tremendous blend of multi-layered wit and emotional depth, but most of the footage we see simply looks like disheveled guy rambling about one thing or another. There are a few brief testimonials from Harmon's various collaborators (the Community stars, Sarah Silverman, Ben Stiller, Jack Black), most of whom confirm that Harmon is both a genius and a trainwreck. Silverman tells one story about the time she was forced to fire Harmon from the writing staff of The Sarah Silverman Show. “Everything he wrote was brilliant, and I still fired him. That's how bad it was,” she sighs. Still, more often than not, the documentary goes out of its way to emphasize the positive aspects of Harmon's journey (complete with inspirational underscore).
One of those positive aspects is Harmon's encounter with a guy named Spencer, a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast who happens to be a big fan of Community. Harmon decides to invite Spencer along for the tour, and Spencer's whole life is turned around: within a matter of weeks, the guy has transformed from a shy, reclusive nerd who lives with his mother to a minor celebrity of sorts. “I've gotten a bunch of new followers on Twitter,” he beams. At his best, Dan Harmon finds ways to bring loners together and make them a little less lonely. You know: building a community.
Harmontown is a somewhat shapeless documentary, but it's not an unappealing one. There's sobering insight and genuine warmth to be found here, but you'll have to endure some aimless rabbit trails and unnecessary filler to get there. Like Harmon himself, the film is an intriguing mess.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2014