Parks and Rec: the rewards (and perils) of a fleshed-out sitcom world

NBC’s Parks and Recreation goes out of its way to create a consistent fictional world, with recurring characters and odd local lore. For example, Li’l Sebastian, the beloved mini-horse of Pawnee, Indiana, doesn’t just headline a single funny episode. He comes up again and again, even after his untimely death. He’s the star of the town’s Harvest Festival; his demise is mourned in an elaborate town-wide memorial service. The next season, one character gives another a Li’l Sebastian plush toy. Years afterward, the parks department plans a memorial fountain in the tiny equine’s honor.

Recurrent guest stars also contribute to Parks and Rec’s faux-realism. Take the town’s local media personalities, for example. Rather than just substitute in a generic reporter every time the plot calls for it, the show takes pains to bring back Perd Hapley, Joan Callamezzo, and Shauna Malway-Tweep, familiar local celebrities (each with their own quirks).

A third example of the show’s fleshed-out imaginary world: Pawnee’s Town Hall is decorated with murals depicting famous scenes from hometown history. Unfortunately, most of these historic episodes are grotesque, shameful, and, therefore, hilarious. For example, one wall-sized masterpiece portrays a traveling magician (and his rabbit) being burned at the stake for witchcraft… in 1973. The murals typically get introduced in a single episode, but as set decoration, they appear again and again as backdrop to scenes set in City Hall.

This self-referential approach gives the show (at least the illusion of) depth, and rewards those fans who pay close enough attention to pick up on the recurring jokes. Not coincidentally, then, the show has earned a dedicated (if small) cult following. And it’s in good company; 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The Simpsons have colored in their own fictional worlds; all three shows enjoy a devoted horde of fans.

There’s a danger to this self-referential approach, however. Layer things too deeply, and your show becomes too obtuse to approach. If a channel-surfer can’t decipher a show’s call-backs and inside jokes, she’s likely to keep on flipping. Shallow, “jokey” sitcoms like Big Bang Theory (which has often shared a timeslot with Parks and Rec) set a far lower bar for entry. Not surprisingly, then, Parks and Rec has flirted with cancellation every spring. The similarly heady Arrested Development got canned after three short seasons.[1]

On the other hand, maybe shows can afford to challenge their viewers these days. The broadcast model, which encouraged episodic plot lines and broad accessibility, is dying. The Netflix era has arrived. Now, an individual episode serves as the bait; capture the new viewer’s attention, then get them to gorge, binging on entire seasons at a time. Before long, they’ve seen every episode, and you’ve added one more cult member, humming along to “5000 Candles in the Wind” (a Li’l Sebastian tribute), or craning their heads to take in Pawnee’s magnificent murals.

  1. Arrested Development doubled down on inscrutability with Season 4, recently released via Netflix. Even devotees of the show have had trouble following the tightly-knotted plot.  ↩