Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Parks and Recreation

“But some things can’t be undone…”

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"But some things can't be undone..."

Note: This post is the sixty-second—and final—installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the epilogue. You can read the previous installments here.

How do you end a series that has lasted for three books and more than a thousand pages? To some extent, no conclusion can be completely satisfying, so it makes sense to focus on what you actually stand a chance of achieving. There’s a reason, for instance, that so few series finales live up to our hopes: a healthy television show has to cultivate and maintain more narrative threads than can be resolved in a single episode, so any finale has to leave certain elements unaddressed. In practice, this means that entire characters and subplots are ignored in favor of others, which is exactly how it should be. During the last season of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner and his writing team prepared a list of story points that they wanted to revisit, and reading it over again now is a fascinating exercise. The show used some of the ideas, but it omitted many more, and we never did get a chance to see what happened to Sal, Dr. Faye, or Peggy’s baby. This kind of creative pruning is undoubtedly good for the whole, and it serves as a reminder of Weiner’s exceptional skill as a showrunner. Mad Men was one of the most intricate dramas ever written, with literally dozens of characters who might have earned a resonant guest appearance in the closing stretch of episodes. But Weiner rightly forced himself to focus on the essentials, while also allowing for a few intriguing digressions, and the result was one of the strongest finales I’ve ever seen—a rare example of a show sticking the landing to maintain an impossibly high standard from the first episode to the last.

It’s tempting to think of a series finale as a piece of valuable real estate in which every second counts, or as a zero-sum game in which every moment devoted to one character means that another won’t have a chance to appear. (Watching the Mad Men finale, I found myself waiting for my favorite supporting players to pop up, and as soon as they had their scene, I couldn’t help thinking: That’s the last thing I’ll ever see them do.) But it can be dangerous to take such a singleminded approach to any unit of narrative, particularly for shows that have thrived on the unpredictable. My favorite example is the series finale of Twin Peaks, which wasn’t even meant to end the show, but provided as perfect a conclusion as any viewer could want—an opinion that I’ll continue to hold even after the new season premieres on Showtime. Instead of taking time to check in with everyone in their huge cast, David Lynch and Mark Frost indulge in long, seemingly pointless set pieces: the scene in the bank with Audrey, with the decrepit manager shuffling interminable across the floor to get her a drink of water, and especially the sequence in the Black Lodge, which is still the weirdest, emptiest twenty minutes ever to air on network television. You can imagine a viewer almost shouting at the screen for Lynch and Frost to get back to Sheriff Truman or Shelly or Donna, but that wouldn’t have been true to the show’s vision. Similarly, the Mad Men finale devotes a long scene to a character we’ve never seen before or since, the man at the encounter group who ends up inspiring Don’s return to humanity. It might seem like a strange choice, but it was the right call: Don’s relationships with every other character were so burdened with history that it took a new face to carry him over the finish line.

"And she fears that one will ask her for eternity..."

I found myself dealing with many of the same issues when it came to the epilogue of Eternal Empire, which was like the final season of a television series that had gone on for longer than I’d ever expected. Maddy and Wolfe had already received a sendoff in the previous chapter, so I only had to deal with Ilya. Pragmatically, the scene could have been about anything, or nothing at all. Ilya was always a peculiar character: he was defined mostly by action, and I deliberately refrained from detailing large portions of his backstory, on the assumption that he would be more interesting the less we knew about his past. It would have been easy to give him a conclusion that filled in more of his background, or that restored something of what he had lost—his family, a home, his sense of himself as a fundamentally good man. But that didn’t seem right. Another theme that you often see in series finales, particularly for a certain type of sitcom, is the showrunner’s desire to make every character’s dreams come true: the last season of Parks and Recreation, in particular, was a sustained exercise in wish fulfillment. I can understand the need to reward the characters that we love, but in Ilya’s case, what I loved about him was inseparable from the fact of his rootlessness. The novel repeatedly draws a parallel between his situation and that of the Khazars, the tribe of nomads that converted to Judaism before being erased from history, and I once compared him to the tzaddikim, or the unknown men and women for whose sake God refrains from destroying the world.  Above all else, he was the Scythian, a wanderer of the steppes. I chose these emblems intuitively, but they clearly all have something in common. And it implied that Ilya would have to depart the series as he began it: as a man without a country.

What we get, in the end, is this quiet scene, in which Ilya goes to visit the daughter of the woman who had helped him in Yalta. The woman was a bride of the brotherhood, a former convict who gave up her family to work with the thieves, and her daughter ended up as the servant of a gangster in Moldova, five hundred miles away. Ilya gives her some money and her mother’s address, which he hopes will allow them to build a new life together, and then leaves. (The song that is playing on the girl’s cassette deck, incidentally, is Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree.” This might be the nerdiest, most obscure inside joke of the entire series: it’s the song that appears in a deleted epigraph in the page proofs of Gravity’s Rainbow, before Thomas Pynchon removed it prior to publication. I’d wanted to use it, in some form, since The Icon Thief, and the fact that it includes the word “eternity” was a lucky coincidence.) It all makes for a subdued conclusion to the trilogy, and I came up with it fairly late in the process: as far as I can remember, the idea that there was a connection between the women in Yalta and Moldova didn’t occur to me until I’d already outlined the scenes, and this conclusion would have been an equally late addition. And it works, more or less, even if it feels a little too much like the penultimate scene of The Bourne Supremacy. It seemed right to end the series—which was pointedly made up of big, exaggerated gestures—on a gentle note, which implies that reuniting a parent and her child might be an act of greater significance than saving the world. I don’t know where Ilya goes after this, even though I spent the better part of four years trying to see through his eyes. But I suspect that he just wants to be left in peace…

The time factor

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Concept art for Toy Story 3

Earlier this week, my daughter saw Toy Story for the first time. Not surprisingly, she loved it—she’s asked to watch it three more times in two days—and we’ve already moved on to Toy Story 2. Seeing the two movies back to back, I was struck most of all by the contrast between them. The first installment, as lovely as it is, comes off as a sketch of things to come: the supporting cast of toys gets maybe ten minutes total of screen time, and the script still has vestiges of the villainous version of Woody who appeared in the earlier drafts. It’s a relatively limited film, compared to the sequels. Yet if you were to watch it today without any knowledge of the glories that followed, you’d come away with a sense that Pixar had done everything imaginable with the idea of toys who come to life. The original Toy Story feels like an exhaustive list of scenes and situations that emerge organically from its premise, as smartly developed by Joss Whedon and his fellow screenwriters, and in classic Pixar fashion, it exploits that core gimmick for all it’s worth. Like Finding Nemo, it amounts to an anthology of all the jokes and set pieces that its setting implies: you can practically hear the writers pitching out ideas. And taken on its own, it seems like it does everything it possibly can with that fantastic concept.

Except, of course, it doesn’t, as two incredible sequels and a series of shorts would demonstrate. Toy Story 2 may be the best example I know of a movie that takes what made its predecessor special and elevates it to a level of storytelling that you never imagined could exist. And it does this, crucially, by introducing a new element: time. If Toy Story is about toys and children, Toy Story 2 and its successor are about what happens when those kids become adults. It’s a complication that was inherent to its premise from the beginning, but the first movie wasn’t equipped to explore it—we had to get to know and care about these characters before we could worry about what would happen after Andy grew up. It’s a part of the story that had to be told, if its assumptions were to be treated honestly, and it shows that the original movie, which seemed so complete in itself, only gave us a fraction of the full picture. Toy Story 3 is an astonishing achievement on its own terms, but there’s a sense in which it only extends and trades on the previous film’s moment of insight, which turned it into a franchise of almost painful emotional resonance. If comedy is tragedy plus time, the Toy Story series knows that when you add time to comedy, you end up with something startlingly close to tragedy again.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II

And thinking about the passage of time is an indispensable trick for creators of series fiction, or for those looking to expand a story’s premise beyond the obvious. Writers of all kinds tend to think in terms of unity of time and place, which means that time itself isn’t a factor in most stories: the action is confined within a safe, manageable scope. Adding more time to the story in either direction has a way of exploding the story’s assumptions, or of exposing fissures that lead to promising conflicts. If The Godfather Part II is more powerful and complex than its predecessor, it’s largely because of its double timeline, which naturally introduces elements of irony and regret that weren’t present in the first movie: the outside world seems to break into the hermetically sealed existence of the Corleones just as the movie itself breaks out of its linear chronology. And the abrupt time jump, which television series from Fargo to Parks and Recreation have cleverly employed, is such a useful way of advancing a story and upending the status quo that it’s become a cliché in itself. Even if you don’t plan on writing more than one story or incorporating the passage of time explicitly into the plot, asking yourself how the characters would change after five or ten years allows you to see whether the story depends on a static, unchanging timeframe. And those insights can only be good for the work.

This also applies to series in which time itself has become a factor for reasons outside anyone’s control. The Force Awakens gains much of its emotional impact from our recognition, even if it’s unconscious, that Mark Hamill is older now than Alec Guinness was in the original, and the fact that decades have gone by both within the story’s universe and in our own world only increases its power. The Star Trek series became nothing less than a meditation on the aging of its own cast. And this goes a long way toward explaining why Toy Story 3 was able to close the narrative circle so beautifully: eleven years had passed since the last movie, and both Andy and his voice actor had grown to adulthood, as had so many of the original film’s fans. (It’s also worth noting that the time element seems to have all but disappeared from the current incarnation of the Toy Story franchise: Bonnie, who owns the toys now, is in no danger of growing up soon, and even if she does, it would feel as if the films were repeating themselves. I’m still optimistic about Toy Story 4, but it seems unlikely to have the same resonance as its predecessors—the time factor has already been fully exploited. Of course, I’d also be glad to be proven wrong.) For a meaningful story, time isn’t a liability, but an asset. And it can lead to discoveries that you didn’t know were possible, but only if you’re willing to play with it.

The Friends fallacies

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The apartment from Friends

Last year, the real estate site Movoto took a close look at the houses and apartments featured in fifteen iconic television series, crunching the numbers to see which characters would really be able to afford the homes in which their fictional lives took place. Not surprisingly, many shows turned out to paint an unrealistic picture of how much house you can have, and the lead exhibit, as usual, was Friends. Rachel and Monica—a fashion coordinator and a chef—were estimated to earn a combined monthly salary of $9,300, while a comparable apartment of 1,126 square feet in Greenwich Village would set them back $5,000 every month, or well over half their gross income. “Most sitcoms,” a related article on Fast Company concludes, “ultimately serve as lifestyle advertising,” and there’s no question that viewers are often left with unrealistic expectations about the quality of life they can reasonably expect upon, say, moving to New York after college. But this only gets at part of the answer. If the apartment on Friends is twice the size it should be, it’s because it’s essentially an ordinary apartment cut in half longitudinally and unfolded to create an invisible proscenium arch. Monica and Rachel aren’t living alone: they’re sharing the space with three cameras.

The sets in sitcoms, in other words, aren’t explicitly designed to arouse viewer envy, at least not in terms of their size: they’re simply a pragmatic response to the logistics of shooting a three-camera sitcom with a live audience, and the proportions of these apartments roughly match those of the soundstage. In another Fast Company article, the interior designer Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde, who is often asked to recreate sitcom sets for his clients, goes into greater detail about the compromises that the format entails:

Almost all the shows have triangular proportions to lend the sensation of depth to the sets. Even the apparently squared sets are in fact trapezoidal…and sometimes it’s very difficult to translate to a sheet as “real houses” because all the tricks of the set decorators are in evidence.

A show filmed using a single camera isn’t subject to the same limitations, which is why a series like Girls can get away with sticking its characters into cramped, depressing, “realistic” spaces. Whether Friends would have seized the imagination of its audience to the same extent if it had been shot in the same way is something we’ll never know. But there’s no doubt that some combination of the show’s practical demands and the attractiveness of the cast and their stories fused into one in the minds of many viewers, until they could no longer safely be separated.

Parks and Recreation

It’s a pattern that we see repeated in other elements of storytelling, in which conventions that were originally introduced to solve specific problems of writing, staging, acting, or direction become bundled up with the larger fantasy that the narrative presents. The fact that actors in so many movies and television shows are always smoking doesn’t point to a vast conspiracy with the tobacco companies: it’s more a reflection of an actor’s need to do something with his or her hands. Actors are always looking for bits of business, and the cigarette—with the rituals of lighting, puffing, gesturing, and stubbing it out on the ashtray—is manifestly the best prop ever devised, even if its collateral damage has been immense. Similarly, the ensemble cast of a show like Friends, which provides writers with useful pairings and combinations for generating plots, leads to a form of unrealism of its own. Most of us don’t spend our lives hanging out with the same set of six friends from our twenties, and we don’t engage in humorous adventures with our colleagues after work. People drift apart; they move away; they find themselves more preoccupied with marriage and children; and the last thing many of us want to do is spend more time with the people we see at the office. But none of this prevents me from watching Parks and Recreation and feeling a stab of regret that I never found that kind of family in the workplace. (If anything, shows that have suffered from creative turnover, with supporting players disappearing abruptly and stars departing over contract disputes, are closer to real life than the few that manage to keep their core casts intact.)

You could even say that the idea of a plot itself affects the way we see our own lives, and not always for the better. For reasons of economy, fiction is usually tightly focused on one aspect of the protagonist’s world: our real lives are a constant balance between the competing demands of work, love, family, and other kinds of fulfillment, while stories generally only have room for one of the above. That’s often the correct choice, as far as constructing a workable plot is concerned, but it rarely reflects the complexity and messiness of everyday reality. And the imperative for a story to deliver a neat beginning, middle, and end has problems of its own. A romantic comedy, for instance, focuses on a single slice in the story of two people, and very few have ever tried to consider what might happen in the years and decades after that closing kiss. (From a viewer’s perspective, this isn’t always a bad thing. Many of the best fictional romances actively create a dynamic of tensions that would realistically shake any relationship apart within a matter of weeks. It’s hard to imagine Cary Grant settling down with the Katherine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby, but that movie is so fun precisely because it creates an impossible pairing and focuses intently on the handful of days in which it could be expected to survive.) Movies and television aren’t out to fill us with dissatisfaction: they’re only trying to crack the hard problem of holding our attention for an hour or two. But when we make lives of our own, we need to use a different set of blueprints.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2015 at 8:47 am

You can’t always get what you want

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Glee

Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of Glee.

“The best way to criticize a movie,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is to make another movie.” Intentional or not, we find apparent examples of this everywhere: the works of art we experience are constantly commenting on one another, often because similar ideas are in the air at the same time. And two parallel approaches viewed side by side can be more enlightening than either one on its own. Take, for instance, the series finales of Parks and Recreation and Glee, which aired less than a month apart. Both are built around an identical formal conceit—a series of self-contained flashforwards that tell us what happened to all the characters after the bulk of the story was over—and both are essentially exercises in wish fulfillment, in which everyone gets more or less exactly what they want. Yet the Parks and Rec finale was one of the best of its kind ever made, while the conclusion of Glee was yet another misfire, even as it offered a few small pleasures along the way. And the comparison is telling. On Parks and Rec, the characters get what they need, but it isn’t what they thought they wanted: Ron ends up working happily in a government job, while April settles down into marriage and family, even if her firstborn son’s name happens to be Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer. It’s sweet, but it’s also the endpoint of a journey that lasted for six seasons.

On Glee, by contrast, Rachel wins a Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical—or exactly what she told us she wanted within five minutes of appearing onscreen in the pilot. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Glee always approached characterization as a variable that could be altered at will, or by Will, from one moment to the next, cheerfully dumping entire story arcs for the sake of a cheap gag or a musical number. When you can’t be bothered to sustain anyone’s emotional growth for more than an episode at a time, it’s no wonder that each student or teacher’s ultimate fulfillment takes a form that could have been predicted from a few lines of character description written before the pilot was even shot. Those capsule summaries are all we ever learned about these people, so when it came to write endings for them all, the show had no choice but to fall back on what it had originally jotted down. For a show that always seemed endlessly busy, it’s startling how little happened in the meantime, or how much it sacrificed its long game for the sake of a minute of momentum. It was ostensibly about the collision of dreams with reality—or about how hard it can be to escape the small town in which you were born—but in its final, crucial scenes, it seemed to say that happiness lies in getting everything you wanted in high school, and within five years, no less.

The cast of Glee

There’s one large exception, of course, and it’s a reminder that however haphazard Glee could be, it was also forced to deal with factors outside its control. Cory Monteith’s death was a tragedy on many levels, and it crippled whatever hope the show might have had for honoring its own premise. From the start, it was clear that Finn was the one character who might be forced to confront the reality behind his own dreams, looking for a form of meaning and contentment that didn’t resemble what he wanted when he was a teenager. His absence meant that the show had to recalibrate its endgame on the fly, and there’s a sense in which its decision to give everyone else outsized forms of happiness feels like a reaction to the real loss that the cast and crew endured. (It reminds me a little of The West Wing: originally, the Democratic candidate was supposed to lose the election in the final season, but after John Spencer’s sudden passing, the storyline was altered, since a political defeat on top of Leo’s death felt like just too much to bear.) I can understand the impulse, but I wish that it had been handled in a way that lived up to what Finn represented. His most memorable number expressed a sentiment that Glee seemed to have forgotten at the end: you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

And by trying to be all things, Glee ended up as less than it could have been. Last week, while writing about three recent sitcoms, I pointed out that for all their surface similarity, they’re very different on the inside. What set Glee apart is that it wanted to have it all: the flyover sentimentality of Parks and Rec, the genre-bending of Community, the rapid succession of throwaway jokes we see in the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s a lot for one show to handle, and Glee never lacked for ambition; unfortunately, it just wasn’t very competent or consistent, although its good intentions carried it surprisingly far. After the finale, my wife pointed out that the show’s most lasting legacy might be in the inner lives of teenagers coming to terms with their own sexuality, which can’t be denied. But it could have done all this and been a good show. I’m grateful to it for a handful of unforgettable moments, but that’s true of any television series, which time and memory tend to reduce to little more than a single look on an actor’s face. As Howard Hawks, one of Godard’s idols, said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.” For television, you can multiply that number by five. Glee had all the great scenes we could ever need, but it racked up countless bad scenes and diminished itself as it tried to be everything to everyone. And it got the finale that it wanted, even if Finn deserved more.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2015 at 9:25 am

The unbreakable television formula

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Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Watching the sixth season premiere of Community last night on Yahoo—which is a statement that would have once seemed like a joke in itself—I was struck by the range of television comedy we have at our disposal these days. We’ve said goodbye to Parks and Recreation, we’re following Community into what is presumably its final stretch, and we’re about to greet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as it starts what looks to be a powerhouse run on Netflix. These shows are superficially in the same genre: they’re single-camera sitcoms that freely grant themselves elaborate sight gags and excursions into surrealism, with a cutaway style that owes as much to The Simpsons as to Arrested Development. Yet they’re palpably different in tone. Parks and Rec was the ultimate refinement of the mockumentary style, with talking heads and reality show techniques used to flesh out a narrative of underlying sweetness; Community, as always, alternates between obsessively detailed fantasy and a comic strip version of emotions to which we can all relate; and Kimmy Schmidt takes place in what I can only call Tina Fey territory, with a barrage of throwaway jokes and non sequiturs designed to be referenced and quoted forever.

And the diversity of approach we see in these three comedies makes the dramatic genre seem impoverished. Most television dramas are still basically linear; they’re told using the same familiar grammar of establishing shots, medium shots, and closeups; and they’re paced in similar ways. If you were to break down an episode by shot length and type, or chart the transitions between scenes, an installment of Game of Thrones would look a lot on paper like one of Mad Men. There’s room for individual quirks of style, of course: the handheld cinematography favored by procedurals has a different feel from the clinical, detached camera movements of House of Cards. And every now and then, we get a scene—like the epic tracking shot during the raid in True Detective—that awakens us to the medium’s potential. But the fact that such moments are striking enough to inspire think pieces the next day only points to how rare they are. Dramas are just less inclined to take big risks of structure and tone, and when they do, they’re likely to be hybrids. Shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are able to push the envelope precisely because they have a touch of black comedy in their blood, as if that were the secret ingredient that allowed for greater formal daring.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

It isn’t hard to pin down the reason for this. A cutaway scene or extended homage naturally takes us out of the story for a second, and comedy, which is inherently more anarchic, has trained us to roll with it. We’re better at accepting artifice in comic settings, since we aren’t taking the story quite as seriously: whatever plot exists is tacitly understood to be a medium for the delivery of jokes. Which isn’t to say that we can’t care deeply about these characters; if anything, our feelings for them are strengthened because they take place in a stylized world that allows free play for the emotions. Yet this is also something that comedy had to teach us. It can be fun to watch a sitcom push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, but if a drama deliberately undermines its own illusion of reality, we can feel cheated. Dramas that constantly draw attention to their own artifice, as Twin Peaks did, are more likely to become cult favorites than popular successes, since most of us just want to sit back and watch a story that presents itself using the narrative language we know. (Which, to be fair, is true of comedies as well: the three sitcoms I’ve mentioned above, taken together, have a fraction of the audience of something like The Big Bang Theory.)

In part, it’s a problem of definition. When a drama pushes against its constraints, we feel more comfortable referring to it as something else: Orange is the New Black, which tests its structure as adventurously as any series on the air today, has suffered at awards season from its resistance to easy categorization. But what’s really funny is that comedy escaped from its old formulas by appropriating the tools that dramas had been using for years. The three-camera sitcom—which has been responsible for countless masterpieces of its own—made radical shifts of tone and location hard to achieve, and once comedies liberated themselves from the obligation to unfold as if for a live audience, they could indulge in extended riffs and flights of imagination that were impossible before. It’s the kind of freedom that dramas, in theory, have always had, even if they utilize it only rarely. This isn’t to say that a uniformity of approach is a bad thing: the standard narrative grammar evolved for a reason, and if it gives us compelling characters with a maximum of transparency, that’s all for the better. Telling good stories is hard enough as it is, and formal experimentation for its own sake can be a trap in itself. Yet we’re still living in a world with countless ways of being funny, and only one way, within a narrow range of variations, of being serious. And that’s no laughing matter.

The sandbox in the Park

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Parks and Recreation

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.”

Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

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, CommunityCheers) 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.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2015 at 9:40 am

The running gag

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The Story of Everest

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What are your favorite running gags?”

In comedy, there’s a type of joke known as the rake gag, as best described by Mike Scully of The Simpsons: “Sam Simon had a theory that if you repeat a joke too many times, it stops being funny, but if you keep on repeating it, it might get really funny.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but the original observation comes from his commentary track on the episode “Cape Feare,” in which the rake gag itself was born.) The protracted repetition of a joke—which was often only marginally funny in the first place—is fascinating because it seems to violate a basic principle of comedy, which is based on surprise. It’s a form of metahumor, or antihumor, that breaks an unstated contract between the writer and the audience, and it forces us to watch ourselves as much as the joke itself. In a sketch like “The Story of Everest” on Mr. Show, our anticipation of every new variation, or the lack thereof, of the underlying pratfall turns us into active participants. Since we know what the next beat will be, we’re placed in the position of authors or collaborators, and most of the suspense comes from how long it can be sustained.

The rake gag is only a highly compressed version of the running gag, a joke that recurs in various forms over the course of a show or story at longer intervals, but which also depends on a weird kind of intimacy between the narrative and its viewers. Any particular instance of a running gag isn’t all that funny in itself; the humor lies in our memory of the previous occurrences, and the anticipation that each subsequent setup creates. We laugh as much out of recognition as anything else, and the effect is subtly flattering. If it’s a running joke on a television series, it assumes that we have a memory that extends beyond the boundaries of the episode we’re currently watching, and our appreciation of the gag can feel like insider knowledge. A casual viewer of Community—if such a thing exists—probably has no idea what to make of the repeated references to the Dean’s fondness for dalmatians or why Beetlejuice casually walks by in the background of one scene, and that flicker of understanding both tickles us and makes us feel like a member of, well, a community.

Michael Cera and Mae Whitman on Arrested Development

This may be why the best running gags are subtle ones, and a poorly handled example can feel like a rake to the head. When a show tries too hard to create a running gag for its own sake—as Parks and Recreation arguably does with the cast’s mistreatment of Jerry or Gary—it can seem forced, an attempt to artificially create the kind of intimacy that can only emerge over time. Like the original rake gag in “Cape Feare,” which was designed solely to prolong an episode that was running short, a great running gag often has the feel of an accident, or a serendipitous return to material that worked unexpectedly well the first time around. After all, a lot of the humor we find in our own lives comes from this kind of organic repetition: we return to the same jokes with our friends because they trigger happy memories, until the original incident has been long forgotten. And like a running gag on a favorite television series, when we try to unpack an inside joke for an outsider, it falls apart, as if we were trying to explain one of our dreams. In the end, you just had to be there.

The closest a show has ever come to willing that kind of familiarity into existence, even before it had much of an audience to work with, is in Arrested Development. The Simpsons is often cited as the first freeze-frame series, which utilized the new technology of home video recording to insert sign gags and almost subliminal jokes that went by too quickly to be processed on first viewing, and Arrested Development was arguably the first show designed to be watched as part of a box set. (If anything, the fourth season took that tendency a little too far, which implies that the key to great comedy lies somewhere in the tension between sustaining a story week by week and in delivering it in one huge binge.) The list of the show’s running gags is insanely long, but if I’d had to pick a favorite…well, I don’t think I will. Explanation kills comedy, as I’ve been doing throughout this post, and that’s especially true of something so fragile, yet oddly resilient, as the running gag. Out of context, it may not seem like much, but at the right place and time, it’s as plain as the nose on Ann’s face.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2014 at 9:42 am

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