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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (7/2/12) 5:40pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Parks and Recreation [season one]
Books:  <none>



Parks and Recreation [season one]
This is the first season of the mockumentary sitcom about Leslie Knope, deputy director of the Pawnee, Indiana Parks and Recreation department, and her efforts to replace a city-block-sized pit with a public park.

I don't think I've ever had more fun watching such a profoundly disappointing season of television.  I mean, yes, season one is as underwhelming as all of the critics say.  It's funny-ish.  It has moments that work.  It does a pretty good job of setting up its characters and its world.  But you can tell that none of it is quite gelling until the finale.

Improvisors have a saying: "every show is actually *two* shows."  There's the actual story being told within the universe of the show, but then there's also a second story, a meta-story, and that's the story of the improvisors coming up with the material before your eyes.  So an audience may laugh because (say) they recognize a character's behavior from their own lives, but they also may laugh because (say) the performers finally noticed a profound self-contradiction in their story, and they have no idea what to do about it.

This "two shows" notion also applies to television.  Unless it's some "write it in one fell swoop, then shoot it all at once before broadcast" thing on HBO, television is really just improv slowed way down.  Week-to-week, they're seeing how the show is going, responding to that, and trying out new ideas for making it work better.[1]  So yes, there's the first story, which is going on in the fictional world of the show -- but there's that second story, where the whole cast and crew is trying to figure out what this show is supposed to be.

I would argue that this first story in season one of Parks and Recreation is dull, but the second story is riveting.

The first rumors about Parks and Recreation were that it was going to be a spinoff of The Office.  This made sense, since The Office was a critical and commercial success for NBC, a network that had precious few successes.  Then the rumors shifted -- no, it was just a show that took place in the same universe as The Office.  And then finally, no, it's just a show from the same production team as The Office, and it shares a bunch of stylistic quirks as The Office, but really, it's its own thing.

And from the get-go in the show's pilot, two things are obvious:  (1) Parks and Rec is trying really, really hard to be like The Office; (2) Parks and Rec is really, really poorly served by (1).

You get this feeling, watching the episodes, for what the show *wants* to be.  It wants to be basically optimistic about local government -- it wants to identify with Leslie Knope's positivity.  It wants to be very much an ensemble comedy, with pretty much every character drawing our attention as much as Leslie.  And it wants to revel in the quirks and traditions of this small town, kind of the same way Northern Exposure loved exploring the magical realism of Cicely.

The Office, on the other hand, is a playset designed to express the bleakness of office life.  This is especially true in the British version:  David Brent is pretty much there to viewed from without.  Apart from a few deliberate moments of sympathy, Mr. Brent is not a viewpoint character -- instead, he's every horrible, blinkered boss you've ever had rolled into one.  And while both the US and UK versions of that show have a broad ensemble cast, you can tell that the real focus is on how our viewpoint character (Tim Canterbury) deals with that horrible boss.  It's running us through the worst idiocy we've experienced in the workplace, and letting us a silent look of understanding with the guy onscreen who has to put up with it.  And there's really nothing lovely about Wernham-Hogg.  That's almost the whole point of the show.  That workplace is meant to be bland and soul-killing.

So you have this show that wants to be about happy, proactive government -- and it's trying to be like The Office.  It's a little like trying to bang a nail in with a screwdriver.  It tries to hit these comic beats of "Leslie does something dumb; Ann gives a glance to the camera; an implied sad trombone plays in the background," and it just feels wrong for the show.  Wait, am I... supposed to feel bad about government? about Leslie?  Am I supposed to feel jaded about this rich setting they're creating?  And what about all these other office workers?  Can't I hear more from Ron Swanson and his astounding moustache?

And this contradiction means that the show proceeds along two tracks simultaneously:  first, it sticks to its Office guns, with Leslie being a contemptible loon, and the basic story engine being "Leslie does something crazy-stupid, and those around her endure the fallout"; second, it creates this amazingly rich world for these clunky "Leslie embarrasses everybody" beats to play out in.  But as the show goes on, the world-building gets stronger and stronger, as does the ensemble.  And with Leslie, they gradually, gradually ease up on the crazy.

By the sixth episode, "Rock Show" -- which is the end of this short season -- they've basically discovered a new show, one that is definitely *not* The Office.  Yes, Leslie is still awkward and naïve, but she's also somebody we can identify with.  In her business meeting that turns out to be a surprise blind date, we identify with *her*, not the people enduring her fallout.  *Leslie* is the viewpoint character for that scenario.  Meanwhile, they pull the trigger on Ann dumping Andy, and the show does some of its strongest work completely *apart* from Leslie and her dynamic with Ann.

So now it's a show about a naïve-but-optimistic bureaucrat trying to create a park in her town.  It's not a show about "oh, god, aren't naïve-but-optimistic bureaucrats just *awful*?"  Now it's a show where the supporting cast has things to do besides roll their eyes at Leslie's latest shenanigans.  And it's a show that gives those supporting characters feelings besides "isn't Leslie embarrassing?"  Suddenly, the awkward, abortive affection between Leslie and Mark feels touching, because there's just a little more emotional weight there, on both sides.

So that's why I was punching the air and shouting profane encouragements during "Rock Show".  The story was just okay, but the meta-story was triumphant.

(Also:  obligatory Hutts and Recreation link.)


For next time:  I'd like to watch something quickly before I fly off to Chicago, but nothing on my instant queue is really jumping out at me.  I may need to switch back to a DVD subscription when I get back.  In the meantime, can someone loan me The Social Network?  (And yes, I'm still listening to my audiobook of A Clash of Kings.

________
[1] Or more precisely, *ideally*, they're doing that.  A show that's just incompetent, or a show that's gotten long-in-the-tooth and comfortable with one way of doing things, will not have this kind of constant experimentation.  A show can be really boring without that second story there.

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[User Picture]
From:gregstoll
Date:Monday (7/2/12) 10:14pm
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To repeat what everyone says: season two is a lot better (at least the first show!).

Also, Michael Schur is an executive producer and I will love him forever for Fire Joe Morgan, which you will enjoy if you like baseball. And if you don't, maybe you'll still like the excessive amount of snarkiness?
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