Some TV fans use the term "seasonal rot" to explain why TV shows often dip in quality the longer they remain on the air. It's an evocative image, to be sure, and an accurate analysis of most TV shows. No matter how good a show is in its early seasons, the most long-lived TV shows are almost always a shadow of their former selves by the series finale.
Two NBC comedies that have been criticized as "seasonal rot" victims are "The Office" and "Community." Both shows have been panned for losing their emotional center and trademark humor in their later seasons. Not surprisingly, the two shows share the same underlying reason for a drop in quality.
In the case of both "The Office" and "Community," fans blamed the drop in quality on a change of showrunner. Not familiar with the term? The showrunner is the person who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a television series, most often credited as an executive producer.
The firing of showrunner (and show creator) Dan Harmon from "Community" has been highly publicized. Harmon was fired by NBC after the show's third season, allegedly because he was hard to work with.
Less publicized was the departure of showrunner Greg Daniels from "The Office." Daniels was also responsible for adapting the British version of the show to American tastes and served as an executive producer from Season 1 to Season 4. Daniels returned to the showrunner position for Season 9, the show's final season.
Let's look at "The Office" first. It's worth noting that most of the show's best episodes aired between Seasons 2 and 4, when Daniels was still around. It's also worth noting that bringing Daniels back as the showrunner for Season 9 didn't magically fix the show's problems.
Daniels should be commended for one major coup: He made fans care about Jim and Pam again. After Jim and Pam's marriage, the couple just wasn't given much to do. Whether you love or hate the recent storyline, where a member of the documentary crew had feelings for Pam, you have to admit that this is the first time in years that Jim and Pam have had emotionally resonant acting to do. Bringing back Greg Daniels has breathed new life into this aging show and made fans feel passionate about the characters for the first time in years.
Likewise, long-time "Community" fans feel that the current fourth season of the show lacks emotional resonance after the departure of Dan Harmon. More troubling than the lack of true emotional bonds between the characters is the lack of smart writing. All four episodes aired thus far are guilty of being condescending to viewers: Every script has characters blatantly stating the current situations and their feelings about that situation in such blunt terms that fans feel like the new season of "Community" sounds like it was written for young children or overly broad comedies on a second-rate network.
In the case of both "The Office" and "Community," seasonal rot is definitely linked to a change in showrunners. If "Community" does get renewed for a fifth season, here's hoping NBC can woo Dan Harmon back into the fold, as "The Office" did with Greg Daniels. At the very least, the troubled nature of these two shows may alert the public (and network decision-makers) about the great importance of keeping a showrunner around for the long term.