On some level, I’m still having a hard time believing that Dan Harmon is back running Community,” and that the show has been as good as it’s been for most of this season. Large entertainment conglomerates are not generally in the business of rehiring idiosyncratic creators whom they have fired, and TV shows that go off the rails as badly as “Community” did in the Harmon-less fourth season rarely return to former levels of glory.

But both things have happened. “Community” is again an unpredictable delight on Thursdays at 8 on NBC, and things are so strange at that network that I would not be in the least bit surprised if the phrase “six seasons and a movie” went from an accidental joke in the fake clip show episode from season 2 into a reality.

When I was in LA last week, I sat down with Harmon to talk at length — as in, close to two hours and 15,000 words worth of conversation — about his return to the show, and also about his fantastic new Adult Swim series “Rick & Morty.” The conversation was so long that I’m splitting it into three parts. Today, you’ll get Harmon discussing the initial process of his return, mending fences with Chevy Chase and saying goodbye to Donald Glover, among other things. Tomorrow, we’ll have a lot more on this season of “Community” (UPDATE: You can now read that part here), and then either Friday or (more likely) Monday, we’ll have some “Rick & Morty” talk as well as Harmon’s thoughts on being a content creator in a business going through massive institutional turmoil.

I don’t know that every one of you will make it all the way to the end, but I also know that there is a certain breed of “Community” fan (better known as “a ‘Community’ fan”) who will probably wish for even more of this. If you are such a person, enjoy.

At what point did you start getting an inkling that parties might be interested in your return?

Dan Harmon: It was a phone call from Joel McHale, but I didn’t take him seriously. I just thought it was a very loyal, passionate actor calling an old friend to let him know that he was missed after concluding a year of work without him. I thought that Joel works hard and really beats the pavement and politics, but I never dreamed that an actor could accomplish too much more than inspiring a Tumblr blog about him, you know. I didn’t think he had that much sway. So there were a few phone calls where he would call me and talk about how I was missed and then he would say, “Would you come back if you could come back?” And I would say, “Well, I don’t need to know the answer to that question.” He said, “Well, are you open to the question being asked, if they were to ask you to come back?” And I said, “Well, if for purely theoretical reasons for this conversation, yes, if Sony and NBC both asked at the same time, yeah, I would be open to them asking. I would be able to say yes or no.” And I would get off the phone with him and my girlfriend would say, “What was that about?” And I’d tell her and I would just roll my eyes at her. There were two or three phone calls like that from Joel with increasing emphasis on the idea that he was gonna talk to so and so and he was gonna make this happen and I still really just thought it was all folly. Obviously because in 60 years of television – this is not something that happens. And if it ever is, it’s not something that doesn’t get brokered by an actor.

So shame on me for underestimating Joel McHale about the last thing in my life that I’ll ever underestimate him for. Because it appears now that he can do anything. Yeah, and then all of a sudden one day my agent called me and said, “Sony wants to know if you’re interested. They think that they can possibly goose the numbers going into a fifth season which will get us very close to 100 with the publicity surrounding your return.” So that’s typical: human beings tend to think in terms of good guys and bad guys but corporations just go, “Okay, we thought we’d change this light bulb and that it would save us money. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. Let’s put the old one back. That’ll save us money.”

As a side note, I think that all the speculation about why and how and what the hell happened, the most practical and insightful analysis of the whole thing was done by Joe Adalian at Vulture. It was very no-nonsense. The probable truth is probably very boring. My contract was up. A lot of peoples’ contracts were up for renewal. We would have been an effective labor union going back into a fourth season. Me, (Neil) Goldman, (Garrett) Donovan, (Chris) McKenna, all of us would need to renegotiate and instead why not just turn them all against each other. See who will be willing to replace who. If that falls apart, replace them all. And that’s what they did.

So anyways, then it was just a matter of a couple more phone calls. It really took me all of probably 11 seconds once my agent told me that this was a real question that needed a yes or a no. I sat down with McKenna and we had a couple of drinks at the Formosa. The Formosa Club, not the Formosa Café. He really gets upset with the image of us sitting in a café under an umbrella somewhere. We were hard-driven, manly men in a dark booth day drinking and thinking about what we would do and how we would do this. It was easy enough — Chris and I both are programmed the same way in this regard. We will spend the rest of our lives wondering what would have happened if we don’t go back. Only if we go back will we get to find out what would have happened. And in which case it doesn’t matter as much if something bad happens or something good happens. It’s gonna be far worse if we don’t do this for us.

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com