Dan Harmon—creator of the NBC sitcom Community and host of the Harmontown podcast—freely admits that he’s a miserable, alcoholic asshole, but he also doesn’t protest when he’s called a genius (which he is, not infrequently). The documentary Harmontown falls over itself to balance his dark and light sides, with talking heads testifying both to his rare comedic voice and his impossible-to-deal-with irascibility. Sarah Silverman, near the top of the doc, does both in the same breath, touting how great his jokes on The Sarah Silverman Program were, then admitting that she was so scared of his explosive personality that she had to fire him. He’s a “human hand grenade with a predilection for pulling his own pin out,” says John Oliver.
In a cliché so pronounced it couldn’t work anywhere but in a documentary (and even then, it’s sometimes a stretch), it turns out that Harmon only wants to be loved. So after being fired from Community after its third season, he decides to take his warts-and-all podcast on the road in order to connect with his small but very worshipful fan base. The shows come across as shambolic but somehow magical: Harmon is joined onstage by his co-host Jeff Bryan Davis and a fantastic, plucked-from-obscurity sidekick named Spencer Crittenden, whose chief job is Dungeon Master for onstage Dungeons & Dragons games. The shows are frequently drunken revelries, with Harmon talking about whatever pops into his head, unfiltered, as well as doing some impromptu singing and crowd surfing. It feels like an inclusive celebration, with a beloved, drunken ringmaster at the center.
What happens after the shows is just as important: Harmon sticks around to chat with each and every fan—smarter-than-average people, often not great socially—to bask in their compliments and to give them as much time as they want in return. It’s all very sweet and honest and unmasked and occasionally depressing, because Harmon can only get out of his head for so long before he’s letting the part of him that believes he’s worthless battle it out with the part that knows he’s talented. It’s a fight that can be hard to watch when the mix of anxiety and cockiness turns sour, and to his credit—Harmon is an executive producer on this movie, so presumably he had some say in its content—he doesn’t pull punches on his own shittiness, as least not all of the time. There’s a particularly harrowing scene in which Harmon and his girlfriend Erin McGathy—herself a podcaster, of This Feels Terrible—talk onstage about a recent fight they’d had in which he called her “the C-word.” It’s meant to illustrate Harmon’s dangerous, disturbed, self-centered side, and it works almost too well, as does his statement that “I’m never going to leave her, and if she leaves me I’ll kill myself.”
With admissions like that, it’s a little hard to accept the documentary’s third-act attempt at redemption. Sure, fans attest to the fact that Community and Harmontown give “hope to all of us who are self-destructive and anxious,” but it’s a little hard to swallow Harmon’s eventual, convenient realization—via a pilot he’s writing for CBS—that heroes should be capable of change. He faces tangible regret, but he’s also clearly in love with the idea that to be truly creative and incorruptible he also needs to be deeply flawed. That dichotomy makes him a great documentary subject: He’s an open book that’s also completely inscrutable, a generous, creative man who’s also likely to lash out at those who love him the most. He’s much harder to root for than his characters on Community, who mostly play like idealized facets of his personality whose biggest problems are behind them, and who’ve more or less decided to find some optimism and get their lives on track. Harmontown reveals a man who never seems far from a bleak cliff, and though it tries to present bright, joyous moments in his life, they’re nearly always fleeting. Viewers may want to believe the movie’s final moments, with Harmon considering his future and expressing a desire to “become responsible,” but they’re hard to buy considering what came before them. Still, the film makes him compelling enough that you want to know what happens next—whether Harmontown 2 will be a comedy or a tragedy.