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

Monday (8/27/12) 9:59pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Parks and Recreation [2x01-2x20]
Books:  <none>



Parks and Recreation [2x01-2x20]
This is the second season of the Office-like NBC mockumentary about an idealistic parks & rec employee in a small town in Indiana -- and by all reports, this is where the comedy really finds itself.  Season one ends on an amazing high note, not necessarily in its plot, but in that the show finally hits the tone it seems to be striving for throughout that first season.

And season two?  It maintains that level of quality -- the stories and characters and world-building are all solid throughout.  There are times when it outdoes itself -- say, the farce plotting in "Tom's Divorce", or the surprising and awkward tenderness in Leslie Knope's brief relationship with Louis C. K.'s Officer Sanderson.  But the exhiliration of the first season -- of the show staggering and stumbling and somehow through it all *finding* itself -- is gone.  Now it's just a very competent comedy.

But mind you, there are many, many worse things than a very competent comedy.  And sometimes just the technical acumen on display is impressive.  For instance, look at how Parks and Rec handles the "Why is he still here?" problem.  This is a made-up name for a real problem, one that all ensemble shows run
into: there's a beloved character in the ensemble, and you really want to keep him in the show, but there's really no reason for him to be there any more.  Some shows come up with labored contrivances to keep that person around (see: everybody who graduates from high-school on a high-school show).  Some shows just ignore the problem, and keep the person around even though we know full well that's unrealistic (see: Kevin Nealon on Weeds).

Parks and Rec's second season was hitting the "why are they still here?" question with Anne *and* Andy *and* April.  Anne is not a department employee.  Andy is not even friends with any department employees.  April is an intern; internship is a temporary position.  But you can tell the showrunners recognized that this was going to be a problem early on, and they carefully build plot structures that will keep these characters around.  With Ann, it's fairly simple: in season one, they build up a genuine friendship between Ann and Leslie, and that justifies Ann sticking around, sometimes in the Parks office, more often just hanging out with Leslie.  With Andy, it's pretty simple, too: they give him a job at the office building.  But then, they don't just do that out of the blue: they set up a credible running story about how Andy wants to impress Ann with his stability and maturity.  So of course he wants a job.  With that in place, all they have to do is invent a retiring shoe-shine man, and suddenly it makes *sense* that Andy is taking on this job.  Then, with Andy sticking around, they have all the pieces in place for April sticking around.  They already started the groundwork of giving April a crush on Andy in season one, so now that pays off -- once Andy is sticking around, they just need to make a job vacancy show up (Ron's assistant) and suddenly it makes *sense* for April to stick around, too.

Yes, I know -- now that I've written this out, it feels like an unconvincing Rube Goldberg machine.  In practice, it benefits a lot from the fact that the audience *wants* to see this ensemble stay together.  But we like it even better when the writers start plot threads months ahead of time that will pay off in the developments that keep the supporting cast around.

And it *is* an especially strong ensemble they've created here.  Somehow, they've created characters that are all heightened just to the point of caricature, but they've manage to give the audience an emotional connection to all of them.  I suspect that one of the big advantages of the mockumentary format is how it allows for 'unguarded' moments.  In the middle of a broadly silly scene, the camera can catch just one quick sad expression passing over a character's face, and suddenly we-the-audience feel like there's a genuine person suffering through this crazy scenario.  They pepper those throughout, along with character-centric episodes like "Tom's Divorce" that let us really settle into one character's P.O.V., and by this point, our hearts go out to all of these people, no matter how whimsical the story gets.

So, when you think about it, just making a solidly funny, perfectly competent half-hour comedy is amazingly challenging.  Here in season two, Parks and Rec just isn't showy about it.  It's not reinventing television.  It's not drawing attention to its expertise.  It's just putting on an entertaining show.


For next time:  I'll finish off season two of Parks and Rec, and then... whew, not sure, really.  Breaking Bad, maybe? Game of Thrones, if I can lay hands on season one?  Meanwhile, I'll keep reading H. P. Lovecraft stories, as preparation for The Black Vault
.

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