Parks and Rec and the comedy of affection
“In a good play,” Christian Friedrich Hebbel says, “everyone is in the right.” This is also often true of books, movies, and television shows. I love a good villain as much as anyone, and I’ve created a lot of them in my own novels, but when we’re presented with a work of art that creates real drama and interest without resorting to neatly drawn lines of good and evil, it’s a reminder of how artful such stories need to be. It’s easy to slide in a generic bad guy for the protagonists to react against, and much harder to tell stories that arise organically from the conflicts between fundamentally sympathetic people, but if it works, the result is often worth it. This is especially true of comedy and children’s entertainment. It’s the reason, for instance, why the best recent family movies—the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, most of Miyazaki—have only incidental villains or none at all, preferring to create conflict through the interactions between the primary characters and their adventures in the larger world. (I’m willing to give a pass to Toy Story 3, but only because Lotso is arguably the most nuanced and interesting movie villain of the decade.)
It’s also why Parks and Recreation is the best comedy on network television. Community may rise to greater heights—although I’ve become increasingly skeptical that we’ll ever see those heights again—but on a weekly basis, Parks and Rec is a marvel of magical, inventive, organized storytelling. And a big part of its appeal is that we like everyone involved. The show doesn’t mine laughs out of manufactured conflicts, but out of the fact that the characters are funny, richly developed types who can’t help colliding with their coworkers, however good their intentions may be. It’s a truism that television, which relies on our willingness to invite the same people into our homes every week, depends on creating characters we like, but few other shows have ever delivered on this promise so beautifully. Last night’s wedding episode, which made my wife tear up, is a reminder of how emotionally rewarding this kind of storytelling can be, especially when sustained for season after season. We love these characters, and it’s largely because they love one another.
And it didn’t have to be that way. The first season of Parks and Rec was notoriously rocky, with characters who were little more than stereotypes and a tone that failed to distinguish itself adequately from that of The Office. Yet the show righted itself soon thereafter, largely because of the affection I mentioned above—in particular, the affection of the writers for their own creations. Their first great realization was that Leslie Knope wasn’t a clueless bureaucrat, but a hero who loved her job, was smarter than most of the people around her, but was endlessly carried away by her own enthusiasm. The second was even more crucial: Leslie’s boss Ron, despite his philosophical dislike of all forms of government, liked and respected Leslie as well. As a result, a premise that could have generated a string of tired conflicts became, instead, a show about the wary dance between two friends. (For this, we can probably thank 30 Rock, which quickly came to a similar conclusion about Liz and Jack.) The rest of the cast began to flower right away, and with the addition of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, the picture was finally complete.
It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this show’s evolution has been. In some ways, its uncertain start is what made its ultimate blossoming possible: this wasn’t a show that was perfectly conceived from the beginning, but one that gradually discovered the potential of its characters, setting, and cast, and it’s a miracle that it was allowed so much time to find its true form. Best of all, after an initial run of seasons in which our affection for the characters allowed us to enjoy episodes that were only mildly amusing, the show has become consistently hilarious. True, in the last season, the show has introduced its first real villain, in the form of Councilman Jamm, and the results haven’t always been great—his storylines are usually the weakest part of any episode. To the show’s credit, however, Jamm always gets a swift comeuppance, to the point where we suspect the writers just want to get back to the real business at hand. What began as a satire of local government has evolved into a show in which, weirdly, wrongdoing is punished and idealism thrives. It’s something that no one could have expected when this series began. And I hope it has the chance to grow and surprise us for years to come.