As a result of creating some very influential programs and being extremely candid with his fans, Dan Harmon is someone who has developed a cult-like following. With Community having recently ended its run and it still being months until Rick and Morty returns, you might have found yourself going through a certain drought of new Harmon content (podcasts not withstanding). Well unbeknownst to many people, the perfect Harmon companion piece just wrapped up its first season, and on the History Channel of all places.
Premiering in February as part of the History Channel’s new late-night comedic programming block, Great Minds with Dan Harmon is kind of a Harmon fan’s wet dream. It’s a sublime incorporation of Harmontown elements, Community connections, and enough meta material to give Abed a nosebleed. The series sees Harmon and Harmontown mainstay Spencer Crittenden in possession of a time machine (acquired through Community earnings) that allows them to temporarily transport historical figures for our time for interview purposes. The “temporarily” in that refers to the fact that the time machine’s science is wonky enough that these titans of history eventually experience a “protoplasmic disconversion” that renders them into dust. If you squint this kind of resembles Paul F. Tompkins’ Dead Authors Podcast, but this is all so steeped in Harmon and wacky science fiction that it feels wholly different. Tompkins even appears on the show as Edgar Allen Poe, so clearly he’s given his blessing.
Great Minds is an interesting project to stem from Harmon; it truly feels like a synthesis of all of his previous works. The same storytelling patterns and isolating Hero’s Journey that Harmon puts himself on in this show are reminiscent of his former endeavors. Even the heavy influx of sci-fi concepts and nonsense feel like Rick and Morty’s influence on Harmon showing its hand. The show also spotlights current events both from Harmon’s own life and the world around him that give the series an “in the moment” immediacy that reflects a certain podcasty feeling, too. I remember when this show was initially being conceived and in consideration at IFC. It’s much easier to picture something like this airing over there, or how comfortable of a fit this would be on Adult Swim (even the 11-minute runtime lends itself to the channel). On the History Channel something with such a unique voice stands out even more.
The series also acts as a nice distillation of Harmon, with practically all the guests that turn up coming from a different stage of his career. Over the course of 14 episodes, Great Minds succeeds in picking some satisfying historical figures to send up. Historical “All-Stars” like Thomas Edison (Jason Sudeikis), Ernest Hemingway (Scott Adsit), and Sigmund Freud (Nick Kroll) all make appearances, but so do figures like Idi Amin (Ron Funches), Mary Wollstonecraft (Aubrey Plaza), and Ada Lovelace (Gillian Jacobs).
It’s fun to see how Great Minds subverts these personalities, like Buddha (Danny Pudi) becoming a shill for product placement and advertising. Beethoven’s episode sees Harmon and Jack Black gleefully singing lyrics full of bodily functions to the composer’s classic works. The Shakespeare installment sees Harmon trying to impress the bard with Community episodes, only for the writer to be much more taken with the likes of Dirty Grandpa. Betsy Ross’s episode puts Sarah Silverman’s own political agenda on display as Ross turns out to be a huge Bernie Sanders supporter, becoming all too eager to make a flag for the candidate. The Amelia Earhart entry even hits some surprising poignancy as it toys with the idea that Earhart is still out there, alive, old, and well. When given the chance to play with John Wilkes Booth, Harmon puts the budding actor into a performance where he plays Lincoln in order to have the assassin empathize with his victim.
Great Minds also really provides the opportunity to let Spencer shine, and if nothing else it’s nice to see him get a vehicle like this where he’s on an even level with Harmon. The Ada Lovelace episode is a particular showcase of Spencer’s ability, with the two of them becoming code together and nearly causing a nuclear apocalypse. You know, the typical sort of stuff you see on the History Channel. Harmon and Spencer’s opposing yet overlapping personalities create the perfect dynamic for their repartee. Just like on episodes of Harmontown, Spencer’s blasé attitude is used to perfection as Harmon constantly pokes and prods him for the sake of the show. One episode sees Dan trying to place catchphrases upon Spencer, turning him into a more relatable, popular sort of personality. It’s a move that’s also consistent with Harmon telling stories of constantly being at war with “The Man” and dumbing himself down as a means of pleasing a wider audience.
It’s comforting to see Harmon still telling stories about fighting against the Network and ratings, but it’s hard not to view all of this as being done ironically. We almost expect Harmon to slide into that role of the David that is always up against a Goliath, but I sincerely doubt that the History Channel was really applying any pressure on him. It’s almost like he’s playing all of this as a satire of his own career. His competition is entities like Pawn Stars and Swamp People now. It doesn’t matter if he’s on Comedy Central, NBC, Yahoo! Screen (R.I.P.), or here, he’s still the unpopular kid trying to impress the executives and get invited to the cool table. And that’s an added layer to this program that makes it extremely satisfying if you’re a Harmon fan. If there’s any sort of arc that occurs through the season, it’s this frequent network pressure. The final episode even aptly sees the series getting canceled, with Harmon rallying to save the show (not to mention the lives of crew members from a JFK spider monster) and get a second chance.
Make no mistake, this show is still educational, but no more so than if you were to read the first paragraph of any of these historical figures’ Wikipedia pages. While the other programs that are apart of History Channel’s recent “Night Class” block similarly take a focus to comedy rather than history, Great Minds goes one step further and is more concerned with Harmon and his ego (and I mean that in the best possible way, I do) than anything else. The series almost functions as a checklist of Harmon’s various vices and triggers. Alcohol (“I prefer vodka. It’s odorless. You can get away with more.”), Adderall, redheads, mannequin legs, and mortality all come into focus at one point (the idea of getting Thomas Edison onto Adderall so he can be a better inventor is pretty inspired, too). Allusions to Harmon’s recent divorce manage to find their way into the show and they even find time to fit in Harmon’s father and his accompanying baggage.
As much as this feels like it could be a writing exercise from his therapist, Harmon is someone that wears his everything on his sleeve so publicly. He’s playing into that and if you’re privy to the in-jokes that he’s alluding to, the material becomes all the stronger. It’s surprising to see how well vanity mixes with history. At one point Dan jokes with Spencer about priming Great Minds for a spin-off, but that the sister series would also star Dan. Maybe the ultimate subject that this show is educating people on is not Ernest Hemingway, JFK, or Beethoven, but rather Dan Harmon himself.
Now that the entire season is out there, Great Minds is more than worth your time and a perfectly serviceable distraction until Rick and Morty returns. It’s got winning performances across the board from all of its guests, with highlights like Aubrey Plaza’s Mary Wollstonecraft or Andy Dick’s John Wilkes Booth being particularly great. It’s unclear if a second season of Great Minds will happen – or if it even needs to – but it acts as another satisfying piece in Harmon’s career and definitely the most surreal thing to air on the History Channel.