Dan Harmon, the creator of several TV shows including Rick and Morty, first made his mark on the nation with Community after several lower-level projects. Harmon’s investment in this Emmy-winning series is more interesting than most executive producers: as part of the show, he would re-write every episode to suit the show’s particular style and format. The theory behind it now lives on as the “story circle” method, a distilled description of a hero’s journey type storyline that can suit TV episodes and movies. If you needed an excuse to revisit Community, here are the steps you can identify in every episode (except Season 4, when Harmon was not involved with the show).
The Eight Steps
- A character is in a zone of comfort or familiarity.
In essence, the writer establishes the hero, giving them a mold with which to break. Harmon also calls it the “you” stage, since the audience should identify with the person they are following.
- They desire something.
The “need” comes up, tension builds, and the familiar situation is demonstrated to be imperfect. Within this archetype, it’s the quest that the hero must take (usually reluctantly answering the call to action).
- They enter an unfamiliar situation.
Basically, the hero has to “go” somewhere to do this. Big or small, the act of change is what matters - otherwise, the hero won’t have a satisfying journey for the audience.
- They adapt to that situation.
What Harmon really means here is the “search” for what the hero is looking for. In the traditional archetype, outlined by comparative mythology writer Joseph Campbell in 1949, this was called “The Road of Trials.”
- They get that which they wanted.
For every search, the hero must “find” the end of their road. The journey has led right to this meeting point, usually the middle of the story.
- They pay a heavy price for it.
For the story circle to work, the hero has to go back to the start - it’s part of the classic mode of television sitcoms which start and end in the same place. Regardless of what they “take” from the journey, the consequences have to lead them back home.
- They return to their familiar situation.
The “return” stage is the journey back, which Campbell called “The Magic Flight.” This road too may be difficult because of step 6, but they always end up at the final step, ready to start it all over again in the next episode.
- They have changed as a result of the journey.
The “change” step is especially important in television. Though many shows truly do reset with each episode, the best ones use it as a mode of gradual human change. The movie hero has undergone only this one journey, but in television, they do it every episode, morphing into a beginning/middle/end by the conclusion of the season or the series.