Television / Parks and Rec

An American Sitcom: A Parks and Recreation Retrospective

It’s hard for comedy to be hopeful. Post-Seinfeld comedy is almost always intertwined with the sarcastic, the cynical, and the ironic. That’s what makes Parks and Recreation so refreshing: It’s an upbeat sitcom with a sunny sense of humor. And with the show’s final season now available on Netflix, it’s time to consider the legacy the show leaves behind—time to consider the show in relation to that other titan of twenty-first-century sitcoms: The Office.

Since Parks and Rec.’s inception in 2009, critics have consistently compared the show to The Office. Both are mockumentaries. Both take place in the workplace. And both have Rashida Jones. But that’s where the similarities end; the two diverge when it comes to content, and most importantly, mood.

The Office is not an American show—or at least not originally; its roots are in an eponymously titled B.B.C. show featuring Ricky Gervais as the boss. That show’s humor is brutally dry and mocking. And, at least at first, its American counterpart followed suit. (Just watch season one.) The show’s harshness certainly mellowed over time, but it always kept a certain vestige of humor that laughs at the expense of others. Parks and Rec., in contrast, was an earnest American show from the start. When it comes to kindness, just consider the two respective leads: Leslie Knope and Michael Scott. While both might be funny—might be laugh-out-loud hilarious—only one can truly be called inspiring and that’s Leslie Knope. She’s defined by overworking, scrapbooking, and obsessive-compulsive conscientiousness; Michael Scott’s just a big goofball.

In addition to characters, Parks and Rec. has the more endearing community too. Where The Office largely limits itself to the four walls of the company, Parks and Rec. is more expansive: it encompasses the entire community of Pawnee, Indiana. Indeed, Pawnee is a community vividly drawn—and full of faults. To take a few: Pawnee’s largest employer is Sweetums, an occasionally evil sugary sweets conglomerate, which is the cause of astronomical obesity levels in town. One of Pawnee’s city councilmen is a senile and racist former Dixiecrat who never bothered to leave office. And the whole town has an obsession with a miniature horse named Little Sebastian. In sum: the town is nothing if not unique. But Scranton, Pennsylvania, simply lacks that same creative detail. And much of that comes down to the human imagination—because while Pawnee is fictional, Scranton is most certainly not. Non-fiction forces producers to conform to reality; fiction lets their minds run wild.

Despite its non-fictional locale, The Office could still have provided details to create a sense of place and community. But here too it stumbles. Because apart from alluding to Scranton’s obvious post-industrial decay and Dwight Schrute’s Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, the show never really considers the city or the region of the show in its entirety. Community is made inside Dunder Mifflin, not outside of it—we never gain in-depth knowledge about the lives of characters as they exist outside the company. In contrast, Parks and Rec., largely due to the show’s public sector focus, is entirely about the interactions of the employees with the city at large—whether it’s the addictive waffles of J.J.’s Diner or the semi-malicious Dr. Saperstein and his radioactive adult children. These details are not just intermittent—no. Rather, these details are what make up each and every episode, each and every unproductive town hall meeting and over-the-top project. And as a result, it produces not just a company, but also a community.

Both series have that same hallmark of successful sitcoms: strong recurring supporting characters. Kelly Kapoor and Donna Meagle, Toby Flenderson and Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry Gergich. But The Office is static when it comes to the life prospects of most of its characters. Maybe it boils down to the non-fictional locale: If the middle class of America is dying in real life, then why should the employees of a paper company prosper? Sure, there are ups and downs. Sure, Jim and Pam get hitched. Sure, they all find meaning in the mundane. But the lack of mobility reeks of squandered opportunity. It’s why Meghan Keane once dubbed The Officethe most depressing show on television.” Furthermore, the lack of sustaining social ties outside of the workplace serves to isolate the individual; it’s indicative of the increasingly individualistic America that Robert Putnam critiques in his landmark books “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids.” The latter book particularly highlights a growing economic inequality across America—the economic determinism that comes with location and place. That divide is apparent in Pawnee and its neighboring town Eagleton. One is poor and the other is rich; Pawnee’s obesity stands in stark contrast to the horses and country clubs of the cosmopolitan Eagleton. The point is that Pawnee defies its socioeconomic destiny to provide hope to viewers—to show what real opportunity looks like for the middle class.

In Parks and Rec., each character lives a life defined by upwards mobility. Consider occupations: Leslie moves up the ranks of the Parks and Recreation Department, runs for city council, becomes a National Park Director, and finally the governor of Indiana. Her husband Ben Wyatt starts as a disastrous mayor and then becomes an accountant, a campaign manager, a city manager, and finally a congressman. Change happens—and it’s not just in terms of occupations. Each character goes through massive life transitions—new dates, bad breakups, lost elections, deaths, third marriages, and even triplets. And there’s always a community there to mourn or to celebrate, to laugh or to cry.

Perhaps it’s all mere wishful thinking. Thoughtful public servants engaging with their community, making a difference, and forming meaningful relationships? Everyone knows that government is chronically dysfunctional. And what about the show’s undeniable middle class sensibilities? Certainly the middle class is dead. Upward mobility? Nobody believes in that anymore. In sum, we are left with this argument: how can we stand to watch a show that epitomizes an American Dream that—at least according to many commentators—is already dead? To that I answer: The accuracy or plausibility of Parks and Rec. matters not. What matters is its earnest and humorous attempt to illustrate an idealized America and to give its viewers hope.

Hard work, optimism, community, and laugh-out-loud situational comedy. These are the values on which America has been built, and they deserve to be a part of our sitcoms.