Parks and Recreation [June 4-8, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
June 01, 2012 – 06:55
Monday, June 4, 2012 - Christine Becker (University of Notre Dame) presents: “Yes we can, even though we say Knope”
Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - Faye Woods (University of Reading) presents: Leslie Knope - My Feminist Heroine
Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - David J. Loehr (2amt and Riverrun Theatre Company) presents: Ron Swanson: Working (Or Not) From the Inside
Thursday, June 7, 2012 - Amanda Ann Klein (East Carolina University) presents: Why We Hate Jerry Gergich
Friday, June 8, 2012 - Lindsay Giggey (University of California, Los Angeles) presents: Mr. Seaborn Goes to Pawnee
Theme week organized by Alisa Perren (Georgia State University).
Image from the NBC.
In a frustrating piece of New York Times television criticism (redundant?), Jon Caramanica backhandedly describes Parks and Recreation as representative of “the meme-ification of the sitcom,” featuring digestible and reducible humor to encourage fans to meme, hashtag, and gif their approval. In a typically insightful response, Alyssa Rosenberg tackles Caramanica’s implied notion that what’s on both TV and computer screens is simplistic and fragmented, at best displaying “semi-intelligence.” In contrast, Rosenberg praises the show’s humor as coming from a place of “deep character development and great writing,” encouraging similar creativity from fans: “make your audience wish they were that smart — and then go out the next day to prove it.”
I would add another catalyst for extensive Parks and Recreation fan production: the show’s optimistic tone. It’s simply really fun being a fan of the show, and I propose that it fosters inspired fan responses partly as a result of mixing character depth with an uplifting spirit. The clip offered here is an example. Hip-hop artist and TV fan Adam WarRock created an EP of songs devoted to Parks & Rec, and this one is my favorite. American politics have become insufferable, and both Leslie Knope and this song’s lyrics provide an inspirational (albeit imaginary) antidote to the toxicity that surrounds us.
A very short list of other fan-created works that relate to this idea include Infinite Drunk Ron Swanson, who will remain delightfully drunk and dancing for as long as the web itself exists; a resolution declaring the official name of the Parks & Rec fanbase as “Weirdos who care,” including such statements as, “Whereas: The cast, crew, writers, and showrunners are full of sunshine and happiness and inspire the fandom;” crossover credits and images with Doctor Who, a show from a much different genre but with similar spiritual DNA of wanting to please; and Swan Ronson, just because. There is also bountiful fan fiction, including a very NSFW but fascinating piece of April/Andy podfic, in which “Andy learns about different ways of interpreting feminist ideas. Through sex.” I doubt that’s what the writers meant to inspire with the show’s favorable depictions of women’s studies, but the bold idea at the heart of the podfic story wouldn’t exist without the generous richness of their work.
Leslie Knope makes me want to be a better woman. I have a picture of her next to my work computer for moments when I feel overwhelmed. Us ladies often talk about our connection with 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, but this is nearly always a claiming of our crap-ness, our undermining of ourselves, our tiny triumphs slogging against the tide. I recognize myself in Liz, but Leslie inspires me. What is it about Leslie Knope that prompts this, what makes for our pleasure as viewers?
Part of it is that Leslie Knope is a self-proclaimed feminist. She is passionate in her support for other women, she tells them they are awesome, her desk is backed by a gallery of her female political heroines. She is a powerhouse of ideas, and displays an unashamed dorky enthusiasm for all things government, no matter how small. For an overworked, unorganized academic always struggling to keep her head above water, Leslie’s inhuman work ethic represents an ideal.
Leslie – to misquote Poehler and Fey’s SNL Weekend Update piece – gets stuff done. Now, the Type-A workaholic woman is not underrepresented in popular culture. Romcoms are full of them. But Leslie is different: she doesn’t fall over. She also doesn’t get punished, brought low and ‘loosened up’ by the love of a good man (I’m looking at you Heigl). In Pawnee, Leslie’s workplace dedication is valued and celebrated. It is part of the show’s fundamental positive outlook and its feminist voice. But Leslie’s brand of sunny smarts is also slightly skewed in a way that we feel warmth, not intimidation. My video showcases clips that demonstrate her combination of hyper-competence and weirdness. The former makes her nearly superhuman, but the latter makes her just like us.
But we can’t talk Leslie without talking Amy Poehler and her comic fearlessness (who else goes all out with a Sarah Palin rap on SNL whilst virtually ready to pop?). Poehler’s innate warmth and worldview chimes with Leslie’s feminism and celebration of sisterhood, the character fits like a glove. The recent funny lady memoirs from Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Mindy Kaling all spoke of Poehler’s comic skills, her support of other women and determined refusal to be put into the standardized boxes. Leslie’s appeal is that she fits into no popular cultural box, and that’s why we love her.
Parks & Recreation has come a long way from its genesis as a proposed spinoff of The Office. It’s certainly the best representation of how government works since The West Wing, an acknowledged inspiration along with The Wire.
So how is it that Ron Swanson, a Locke-style libertarian, is often presented as the voice of reason and/or sanity?
He believes all government is a waste of taxpayers’ money. He’s spoken of staying in government to help dismantle it from within or at least slow it down to a crawl. And yet, despite being philosophically 180 degrees apart, he shares a Lou Grant-like relationship with Leslie Knope’s Mary Richards. Why?
Because he’s not alone. His viewpoint is one of many on the show, and the others are allowed to disagree. Often, he winds up working for the greater good in spite of himself. Leslie brings out the better angels of his nature as he grounds her in the reality of how municipal government works.
Also note, there is no talk of political parties, nor will there be, according to executive producer Michael Schur. Good government isn’t about one or the other, it’s about working together. Ron illustrates that, despite his professed ideal form of government being one man alone in a room, doing nothing.
The high-wire act that Schur and company pull off so gracefully is in presenting Ron’s beliefs as worthy of respect at least, consideration at best. There is a logic to Ron’s positions, and even when Leslie—or the writers or we—don’t agree, we’re allowed to see his logic clearly. Better, we see how it might apply & adapt to a given situation. It’s why I prefer this to Wing—it presents a more nuanced & balanced government workplace.
Would that all civic discourse were as civilized.
As it happens, I live in a small Indiana town much like Pawnee. (The murals are spot-on, as are the festivals.) Their version of life here is uncanny, to say the least. If only we had Ron & Leslie out here…
Although Ron Swanson once described his employee, Jerry Gergich, as “both the schlemiel and the schlimazel,” this statement is not entirely true. Jerry certainly suffers from a lethal combination of poor coordination and bad luck, but so much of Parks & Recreation’s humor is built around failure, both physical and karmic, that singling Jerry out seems nitpicky. Other than possessing a name which sounds like a piece of food getting stuck in your throat, Jerry Gergich is not an obvious candidate for office whipping boy: he is hard-working, loyal, and empathetic. He’s also a skilled painter and pianist who has three beautiful daughters, a loving wife, “a time-share in Muncie,” and, most surprisingly, a giant penis. Nevertheless, every major character on Parks & Recreation dislikes Jerry.
The humor of the office’s Jerry-bashing lies, as Charlotte Howell has argued, in its stubborn persistence. This collective affect is positioned as something that was always already there (much like Pawnee’s worship of L’il Sebastian), transcending the diegesis. Initially at least, it is the baselessness of this scorn that forms the crux of the running gag’s humor — the less Jerry deserves his coworker’s contempt, the funnier the scene. But beyond the inherent humor of unfounded cruelty, Jerry’s schlemiel/schlimazel character serves another function in the Parks & Recreation universe: generating camaraderie. A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that shared dislike for the same person helps people bond. For example, in the featured clip, Chris, a character known for his kindness and sensitivity, cannot help but join his co-workers in laughing at Jerry. Contempt can be contagious; it makes us feel like part of the group.
A shared dislike of Jerry also creates a bond between the viewer and the show. After four seasons of devoted viewership I’m not simply laughing at Jerry; I’m laughing with the show’s characters (at Jerry). This acquired contempt is an earned privilege for a Parks & Recreation fan like myself, drawing me closer to the text and allowing me to “fully consume the fiction” (Jenkins 62). As Henry Jenkins writes, “the difference between watching a series and becoming a fan lies in the intensity of [the viewer’s] emotional and intellectual involvement” (56). My ideological complicity with Parks & Recreation’s other characters — my ability to truly find Jerry annoying — makes the world of the show feel more real.
Parks and Recreation finds its humor through its juxtaposition with its more serious predecessors. Key among these is The West Wing, the most iconic portrayal of an inside look into American government. In Pawnee, this intertextuality is most clearly seen through the utilization of actor Rob Lowe. With Lowe cast as state auditor Chris Traeger, Parks and Recreation plays on familiarity with arguably the actor’s best known television role—idealistic deputy communications director Sam Seaborn.
Not only are Traeger and Seaborn played by the same actor, but Traeger himself is an extreme caricature of Seaborn. By using The West Wing as its point of reference, Parks and Recreation reads not as purely cyncial satire, but instead, comedic. The intertextality of the two characters can be seen as both infuse their environments with optimism. Although Traeger lacks the intellectual curiousity that drives Seaborn, he shares Seaborn’s core enthusiasm down to their shared reference romanticizing discovery and achievement as significed by the space program. Seaborn’s sense of wonder is articulated through his delivery of information regarding an unmanned space probe, which establishes his enduring idealism. Part of the humor inherent in Traeger’s character builds on prior knowledge of Lowe as Seaborn, which dually exaggerates Seaborn’s enthusiasm and subverts audience expectation of his earnest do-gooder persona. Instead of pontificating about the wonders of space, Traeger’s over-zealous focus on personal fitness demonstrates his commitment to a far less noble cause, an opinion that would be ridiculous within the diegesis of The West Wing.
As a comedy, Parks and Recreation puts its characters into farcical situations, which are grounded in their overinvestment in micro levels of govenmental policy. Whereas President Bartlet’s White House is populated with serious people reflecting the gravitas of their work, Pawnee is populated by personalities larger than the stakes with which they engage. Leslie Knope’s enthusiastic dedication to the seemingly insignificant issues surrounding the parks department of small-town Indiana also plays off this intertextuality with The West Wing. Whereas Seaborn’s positivity enhances President Bartlet’s magnanimous agenda, Traeger’s arrival recalibrates Knope’s enthusiasm, making it more palatable and less absurd. Thus, viewers enage and even cheer on Leslie in her attempt to achieve her altrustic goals. Traeger’s presence both ties Parks and Recreation to The West Wing, but also posits a more comedic portrayal of idealistic governmental systems. Lowe’s positioning emboldens the humor that derives from the relationship between the two texts.
Fri, 01 Jun 2012 11:55:53 +0000