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'Community' creator Dan Harmon on tonight's finale and big changes in season 3. Plus, how he's taking a cue from 'The Hangover'

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Community Finale
Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Tonight, with the second part of the two-part Community finale, NBC proved that it really is “More Colorful” as the members of our favorite study group painted Greendale Community every shade of the spectrum. Tonight’s episode capped off a sophomore season filled with stunt guest appearances, too many meta gags to count, and an epic episode that began as a Pulp Fiction spoof but morphed into an homage to My Dinner with Andre. In a chat with EW, creator Dan Harmon recaps the madness/genius of the season and teases what’s in store for one of network TV’s most fearless comedies. [SPOILER ALERT]

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY So you ended the season with a bit of a cliffhanger, as to whether Pierce will come back. There’s been a lot of Pierce drama this year—were you building up to that moment all season?

DAN HARMON: For the last two seasons, with a few rare exceptions, I’ve never really planned anything more than six episodes in advance because I just was never confident enough to do so. In TV, you’re always roughly six weeks ahead of the all-important experience of watching the show along with the audience. It wasn’t until the paintball episodes that we actually talked about ending the story in that particular way.

Will season 3 begin by addressing his return?

Yes. Nobody’s going to wake up in the beginning of the season and just hit the reset button. It’s going to be an issue that we use to tell a few stories in the third season, for sure.

You really went all out this season with the meta storylines and some crazy experimentation. Are you going to try any of the crazier stuff, like the stop-motion episode, again in the next season?

The stop-motion thing is up in the air right now. Because we didn’t plan that [far] ahead enough, the words “Christmas episode” around my parts means “difficulty.” Right now, it’s a bad time to even utter the words, which makes it difficult to even think about doing another one. But that stuff tends to wear off. It’s like childbirth — the chemical is released that makes you [want] to have another kid — but that’ll be a couple weeks down the road. As for other stuff, I really, really loved the response that people had to the fake clips show episode. If we do it again, I would like to go into it knowing that we were going to do it from the beginning of the season and be able to really do the hell out of it. As impressed as people were with that one, I think I could do one three times better if we saw it coming.

This season was so rich in terms of spoofs and stunts — are you going the same route for season 3?

What I really want to do is dimensionalize the characters even more than we have so far. If you thought of [the show] as a four-chapter story — I have a circular story model in which stories are generally kind of four beats long — it’s in the third one that major changes occur and have consequences. You get plunged across a threshold in the first act. The second act causes you to adapt and have all kinds of strange, wonderful experiences. But it’s in the third or fourth chapters where a hero actually has to ask himself some tough questions. You can’t be a goofball, erratic underdog in your third season. You can have low ratings, but you can’t be enfant terrible. We have to answer the question, “So what?”

So it’ll be a heavier focus on ensemble.

Yes, but it can’t as simple as doing less of what was cool. If we take our foot off the clutch, we gotta put it on the gas somewhere else, otherwise you’re just watering down a good show. I’m happy to say that right now, I don’t entirely have specifics about what that means. I’m not like George Lucas, going like, “Jar Jar is going to become a Jedi, and that’s gonna change everything.” I think of these things in a very kind of organic, improvisational way. I don’t like the idea of overcorrection, but I get bored with my own stuff. I try to change one major thing that I do each season so far. The first season, I was just defending my show against the world, including all of my employees who were going home by 6 p.m. and wondering why they weren’t involved in the show at all. I was writing in my underwear at home. Second season, because that had to stop, I invited my very talented writers into my horrible psychotic process, and everyone was going like, “Oh, I’m going home at 3 in the morning.” I was learning how to collaborate. In the third season, I’d like to nut up one level higher and actually try to plan some things ahead in terms of story and character. [I’d like to] sit down and say, “OK, it’s the third season. How’s the third season going to end?” And then work backwards from that, just a little bit. Just 8 percent more than we’ve been doing.

I think that will create radical sweeping, fundamental changes to the show’s DNA that should simultaneously make the show feel a little more dependable without making it feel predictable to the people who love it….We’ve actually hit a tipping point there, in terms of storytelling: The future is more important than the past. [Laughs] All of that sounds ridiculous, but we take our show very seriously because that’s what people in TV are supposed to do. You want the show to be stupid, but you don’t want to feel stupid watching it.

Just because he was such a standout this season, I have to ask: What’s going to happen with Ken Jeong’s character, Chang?

What I tried to do from season 1 to season 2 is free him up a little bit because I didn’t want to be guilty of constraining the character or the actor at all. I also didn’t want to get into a template of Chang being the Spanish teacher every week. There’ve been all kinds of reasons that I needed him out of the role of an authority figure, but now that we’ve established that there can be a certain amount of forward movement in each season, I’m actually interested in returning that character to a position of authority. I felt like there was a lot of fun to that. There was an inherent irony to that. When I watch Ken Jeong in The Hangover, a big part of why it’s funny is that he’s naked and jumping out of a trunk, but then when the character comes back, he’s in a suit. He’s in charge of whether you live or die. I want to give his character more opportunities in terms of his role in the group.

What did you think of the Community finale, readers? And what are your ideas for season 3?

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