TV Uncategorized

A graceful finale or a tragic end?

Parks and Recreation‘s storyline, though frequently ridiculous, always had its own internal logic. It made sense that we’d focus on these individuals’ personal lives, since they worked together in the city’s parks department. And we understood the personalities of each lead character: Ron was a caricature of manhood, who abhorred openly-expressed emotions and government dependency. Leslie was an over-eager, socially-awkward bureaucrat. Tom Haverford was a narcissistic syncophant with a penchant for overconsumption.

When its fifth season ended in May, Parks and Rec sat at a dangerous crossroads. The quirky NBC series (long a darling for both critics and meta-comedy fans) had already wrung dry its settings and the lead caricatures. In an attempt to extend the comedy context, the show stretched in new directions: Leslie Knope ran for city council. Ben Wyatt took over as president of the Sweetums Foundation charity. Tom Haverford launched a startup, catering to fashion-conscious middle schoolers.

But stretch things too far, and seams start to show. For instance, though multiple characters[1] have left the parks department, their lives remain improbably linked. And as the characters mature—Leslie mellows, Ron softens, Tom wises up—their interactions grow more normal and less… well, funny. We loved Ron’s eccentric hermit routine; hitching him to a bland, typical woman (even one played by Xena Warrior Princess) waters him down. Sinking Leslie into the bureaucratic machine gums up her frenetic, hilarious approach to government work.

At some point, you risk ruining what made Parks and Rec so great to begin with. It may not collapse like mush (as did its mockumentary predecessor, The Office), but it won’t end well. Here’s hoping the showrunners have the courage to call it quits before things get ugly.

How should the show end? Two things have to happen. First, Amy Poehler gets her wish, and Bill Murray guest-stars as the long-mentioned (but never-seen) Mayor Gunderson. Second, Leslie Knope gets her wish; Lot 48, an abandoned eyesore and a one-time safety hazard, becomes a picturesque city park.

  1. Leslie, Tom, Ben and Jerry.

TV Uncategorized

How TV’s renewal / cancellation cycle hobbles great shows

TV’s annual, stop-and-start production schedule hobbles its best shows. Because a programs’s creators never know how many seasons they’ll get, they must pace themselves for a race that could end at any moment. Some plot lines get rushed, as the writers scramble to tell it in the current season. Others arcs get stretched to absurdity, as the writers try to delay the choicest bits ’til the series finale.

For example, Parks and Recreation, network TV’s smartest sitcom, flirts with cancellation every spring. Because the writers don’t know whether they’ll get more time to tell the story, every season ends with a finale satisfying enough to close out the entire series. This approach works, but it’s hardly ideal.

Conversely, when showrunners know their series’ precise lifespan, they can do some remarkable things. Take LOST, for example. By its third season, the sci-fi mystery had floundered, spinning its wheels. The writers just weren’t sure how long they’d be on the air. But once ABC agreed to grant the show exactly six full seasons, things came together nicely. Those final seasons, though alternately absurd and schmaltzy, had a certain satisfying rhythm.

Now, imagine if LOST‘s creative heads knew they’d get six seasons, even before the pilot aired? They might have woven the series’ mythology more tightly. Big payoffs could have been set up in season one, then finally cashed in during the last few episodes.

Instead, all shows—even ones that are expected to be hits—walk on thin ice. They opt for short-term, intra-season thrills, instead of mind-blowing, series-long plot arcs.

Fortunately for viewers, there are signs that this production model has started to give way. Streaming services like Netflix allow shows to build audiences over time (instead of following the studios’ impatient schedules). As Andrew Wallenstein points out, Netflix helped catapult Breaking Bad from cult favorite to ratings juggernaut, years after that show’s premiere.

Maybe the studio suits will agree to loosen the leash for other shows—guaranteeing them time to tell their stories well.

TV Uncategorized

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.  ↩