Dan Harmon’s new show HarmonQuest is a natural evolution for the man who has made a career combining pop culture obsessions with post-modernism.
Available on the comedy streaming service Seeso, HarmonQuest is a literal version of that concept. The show features Harmon, his podcast co-hosts Jeff B. Davis, Erin McGathy, Harmon’s resident dungeon master Spencer Crittenden, and a rotating roster of comedic guest stars playing a role-playing board game much like Dungeons & Dragons in front of a live audience. That campaign is animated to provide an absurd, visual representation of what will clearly be a series of strange adventures.
Dan Harmon has experimented before with portraying the popular live-action role-playing game. His beloved series Community featured two episodes where the cast plays an exaggerated version of the live-action RPG, while his popular podcast Harmontown also features a segment in which Harmon and his co-hosts play the game in front of an audience. HarmonQuest is a natural evolution then, as it presents a concentrated and focused representation of role-playing, visualized through animation.
When Harmon sat down with Inverse to discuss HarmonQuest, he theorized that Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity because it offers something nerds have lost since the emergence of video games: the human connection.
“Around the 1990s, video games — as good as they were getting, as fast as they were getting — we couldn’t help but ask ourselves as nerds why we would bother to take a pencil and paper out and roll a dice anymore,” Harmon said. “We began to feel like suckers and chumps for simulating randomness while a machine was getting so good at simulating reality. Then, ten years after video games got so good, that it made room for us to become nostalgic for an analogue component that exists still to this day, until the singularity when a machine can think like a human.
“There is a huge divide between talking to your friend who is capable of so much processing a computer isn’t,” he added, “that if you just sacrifice the graphics of a video game, you gain so much from an analogue game.”
There has been a quantifiable resurgence in the popularity of tabletop games as of late. The number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight estimate that crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter have generated a $196 million board game renaissance. And HarmonQuest isn’t the first online show to feature actors and celebrities playing DnD for home audiences; Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role paved that path. It’s a verifiable trend and Harmon believes this trend is related to how we used to interact with other people, pre-internet.
“I think it’s all part of a larger resurgence,” he said. “The big factor of course is the internet, just simply the way we consume knowledge of what everyone else is thinking. At one point — before the internet became mainstream — we gathered information from one-way transmissions. We got them from billboards, we got it from TV shows, commercials, and watercooler conversations.”
“The internet changed into a way for so-called ‘normal’ people to consume television. It changed the way they started talking to each other about how much they like television and why,” he said. “And at that point, I think everyone found out that they all had thought their entire life they were nerds. And thought there had been someone out there called ‘mainstream’ person who turned out not to exist, and that everyone left to their own devices will do what humanity’s done forever, which is to obsess over any mythical, magical thing, consume it, and talk to other human beings about it.”
So Harmon believes everyone is a nerd to some extent, and he’s right. There’s no difference between someone who obsesses over wizards and goblins and someone who obsesses over Walter White and Don Draper. And Game of Thrones has proven there is a massive audience for high fantasy comprised of every demographic out there. Harmon was “bolstered by the consciousness of that tide-shifting,” the tide being the realization we all live in a post-nerd society. And that realization coaxed him to pursue HarmonQuest as a full-fledged idea.
Inspired by the success of the DnD segments on his podcast, and armed with a talented dungeon master, Harmon became inspired by Ricky Gervais’ podcast-to-animated series on HBO, on which Gervais and co.’s impromptu dialogue set to fun, crude animation. The pitch quickly found a home at Seeso.
Time will tell whether or not the designation of “nerd” will even exist soon. If everyone identifies as something, is it worth counting as a distinction? While the internet used to be seen as a bastion for like-minded individuals to gather and obsess over their favorite bits of pop culture, it’s turned out that these individuals were far more diverse than anyone ever really expected.