Mr. Seaborn Goes to Pawnee
by Lindsay Giggey — UCLA
June 08, 2012 – 00:00
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.