The sandbox in the Park
If there’s an overarching critical narrative about Parks and Recreation, which aired its final episode last night, it’s that the show gradually evolved into something great after starting off as a mediocre clone of The Office. That’s true in itself: the jump in quality between the first and second seasons—as Leslie Knope transformed from a clueless bureaucrat to a hypercompetent idealist constantly done in by her own enthusiasm—is one of the most striking in television history. (Its later evolution, from a show about constant frustration into one in which all its characters’ dreams came true, is interesting as well, and probably has something to do with the nature of cringe comedy, which becomes unbearable over time without a larger positive arc to sustain it.) Yet it didn’t happen by accident. If luck, as Branch Rickey said, is the residue of design, it’s important to note how consciously the show’s creators built the possibility of change into the show’s premise. Reading the excellent oral history of the series recently published on Uproxx, I was most taken by the following tidbit, in which Greg Daniels explains how they decided to set the show in Indiana:
We had gone through every state and weighed its stereotype. We ended up with Indiana being it’s a Midwestern state that people don’t hear about much. Didn’t have a lot of stereotypes attached to it, we thought, nationally.
Which, when you think about it, is an extraordinary choice, since it’s the reverse of the approach that most sitcoms would take. When you’re trying to distill a concept into a single sentence for the benefit of viewers or marketing executives, it’s natural to want to choose a location that carries its own train of associations. The second you hear a title like NCIS: New Orleans, you know more or less everything about it. Parks and Rec did the opposite, picking a locale that it could treat as a blank slate or sandbox, to be populated by characters from its own imagination. Pawnee, Indiana is as persuasive a fictional town as anywhere short of Springfield, and this wouldn’t have been possible if they’d set the show in a place we already thought we knew. That kind of deliberate vagueness extended to the premise itself: it began its life as a proposal from the network for an Office spinoff starring Rashida Jones, evolved into a pitch for a mockumentary version of The West Wing, and even briefly considered taking the same approach to a family show, as Modern Family did later. And once they hit on the idea of making a series about local government, it still left them with a wide range of possible tones and stories. As John Ford—who might well be the only filmmaker Ron Swanson would like—said: “A situation must never limit a director. It must never be more than a point of departure.”
I’ve spoken a lot here before about the mystery of television, in which its basic assumptions are constantly being worked out in plain sight, and how little even a show’s creators can understand when they shoot the pilot. There’s a huge temptation to pitch a series with a big, obvious hook, but really, the best shows are initially a little vague about what they’re going to be about. This may be why shows named for locations or environments (The Office, Community, Cheers) often hold more potential than ones named after characters (Two and a Half Men). It’s an approach that only works if the creators assume, correctly or not, that they’ll be given a run of sufficient length to permit them to tease out each element’s potential. Given the merciless realities of television, this may be a form of irrational optimism, but it’s also essential: you’ve got to believe that you’ll run for six seasons and a movie, even if the odds are you won’t. A show that relentlessly focuses on its short game, like Glee, can find itself stranded when it’s given more than a couple of seasons. And while most shows that hope for a long run end up frustrated, when all the pieces come together, as they did here, it can be enormously satisfying. There’s a reason why last night’s finale ranks among the best I’ve ever seen: it’s the culmination of six years of material that the show was allowed to figure out over time.
And if Parks and Recreation stands apart in the amount of affection it managed to generate toward all its characters, it’s because we got to know them as the writers did, rather than being told who they were in a bullet point or two. Jerry and Donna started as background players who were left deliberately undefined, on the assumption that something good would come out of it if everyone waited for long enough. (As Mike Shur says: “Let’s pick these two people and we’ll put them in this office. They seem funny and we’ll get to it later.”) And such developments often arose from solitary moments of inspiration, out of the dozens of throwaway gags in every episode, that happened to ignite something in the writer’s room. Jerry’s role as the hapless office foil emerged from a single joke in the second season, when Mark accidentally informs him that he was adopted; Andy and April’s romance came out of a random pairing in the episode “Hunting Trip.” Like all great ensembles, it was able to experiment with different combinations of characters, and if one of them clicked, it survived, even as the failed drafts—like the attempt to match up Tom and Ann—live on in the reruns. The finale was an extended exercise in wish fulfillment, even for a show that often seemed determined to make its characters as happy as possible. But it was a worthy conclusion to a great sitcom that was made, like a life, one moment at a time.