Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of Parks & Recreation's Sweetness

When I was thirteen, my English teacher incurred the wrath of my class by daring to discuss the theories on comedy of a scholar - possibly T.G.A. Nelson? - who posited that all humour is based on humiliation, on the way a comedic situation asserts the superiority of the person laughing, at the expense of someone else. We laugh, he said (she said), because we’re mostly relieved at not being the person in the comical situation; laughter asserts our dominance, and makes us feel better about ourselves. I think we were studying Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ at the time, and my teacher tied this theory of comedy in to Brecht’s determination not to give his audiences the satisfaction of the catharsis of comedy: in other words, he ensured that by underlining the artifice of the play we’re watching, he deprives the audience of that satisfying sense of relief and superiority that comedy can bring, and reminds us of the inherent awfulness of the world, of which we are part.

This is all a rather roundabout way of prefacing a critique of Parks & Recreation, the beloved NBC sitcom - beloved not just by my friends and basically all decent people, but also, to an extent, by me. I enjoy the show, and yet I’m constantly left hungry by it, feeling somewhat dissatisfied, as if there have been missed opportunities for the programme to strike harder, and be more bold. In many senses, the programme is bold, and strong: formally, it goes beyond traditional sitcom material by having a likable protagonist generally succeeding in her endeavours, and it furthermore surrounds her quite brilliantly by a cast of believable characters in the fictional but perfectly realised small town of Pawnee. The show also innovates in the narrative threads running through it, since it has a running story backing up each episode’s occurrences, so that we’re watching as much for the conclusion of the storyline as for the jokes - F.R.I.E.N.D.S did this somewhat with the Ross & Rachel thing, and The Office mastered it brilliantly with the love affair between Tim and Dawn, against the rise and fall of David Brent.

Very briefly, for people who don’t know what I’m harping on about: Parks & Recreation tells the story of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a small-town official in the Parks & Recreation department of the municipality of Pawnee. Over the course of the programme, she strives to get a horrible pit in the town converted into a beautiful park, put on a summer fair, and rise through the ranks of the town to become City Councillor. In the last season of the show, her campaign to be elected Councillor, pitting her as the plucky David to the rich boy Goliath of Bobby Newport (played by Paul Rudd), formed the essential narrative of the programme. Surrounded by her misfit but adorable acolytes as a kind of ragged campaign team, Leslie does her best to ensure that she, who loves her town so well and has served it passionately for years, will be its political representative. The season culminates in the election for City Councillor. Spoiler: she wins. 

Catching up on the final episodes of the season in the last few days - perhaps reminded to do so in the wake of Poehler’s divorce from Will Arnett - I’ve been, as I said above, somehow disappointed by the programme. I think it stems from the failure of the show to adhere to the Humiliation Rules of comedy, as briefly discussed above. Essentially, from the end of season 2 onwards, Leslie Knope ceased to be presented as a clucking do-gooder who serially ballses everything up, and began to be shown as, in fact, ruthlessly competent and able. While this is interesting in itself - and makes P&R unique in offering a strong, bold female role model - it basically removes conflict from the programme, strips it of the edge, the nastiness perhaps, that would make it properly great. The show is still very funny; it has great gag writers and an incredibly talented cast - but it has come to be lacking in any sort of bite.

The show originated as a kind of version of The [American] Office, with Knope playing the Michael Scott role - i.e. the adorable, underqualified buffoon of a little department. The American version of the Office had already, in my view, dulled the edges of the English Office by failing to make the central character dislikable enough: in the British version, the comedy arises, amongst other things, from David Brent’s pretending to like his colleagues, and wanting to be loved by them, when in truth he is so callous and rapacious that he would not hesitate for a moment to betray them for his own profit. What made the English Office so great was the fundamental despair behind these characters’ lives: the petty niggles of the office, the mundane jobs and stupid nights out, all punctuating the misery of these people in their day-to-day existence. Tim, the central character in the first season, is a borderline tragic character because his trajectory mirrors that of David Brent, as he fools himself that the best thing to do is stay on in this grotesque company that he loathes: the comedy resonates because each laugh is matched by its own tragic equivalent, like a dark shadow in a mirror.

Parks & Recreation does not have anything like this: we know, oh how we know because it is constantly spelled out, that everything is going to turn out OK, better than OK, awesome, wonderful, for Leslie and her joyous troupe of hangers-on. Leslie doesn’t hate Pawnee as someone might hate a small-minded, dull town (hello Slough), but loves it; her colleagues don’t resent working for her, they love it, and they love her. It’s like watching an episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil Fawlty manages to apologise to the Germans for mocking them with his funny walk, thanks to the tireless help of the adoring Polly and Sybil and Manuel, who rallied round and took time out from their weekend off, to help him mend the situation, because at heart he’s lovable and they want to see him succeed. In another episode, Basil adorably gets the wrong wall put in at the hotel, which creates a problem for customers and nearly destroys the building - but it doesn’t last long because Mr O’Reilly the builder is winningly convinced to come round and sort the wall out, and Sybil forgives Basil for his slip-up, because she loves him so much.

Comedy requires an edge; it needs bite, it needs, I’m afraid to say, an undercurrent of nastiness, a sense that the comedy arises from something other than love and goodness. Without this dark silhouette behind each gesture, informing each character, the comedy is simply a basket of kittens: enjoyable and lovely, but otherwise comforting the audience into a cute and cuddly - and fallacious in the catharsis it provides - sense that everything is right in the world, and good will win out.

I contrast this programme with other shows I love more - with Party Down, for instance, which shares a cast member with Parks & Recreation, Adam Scott. In Party Down, Scott plays a character who has fallen from a great height, and who is so disillusioned with his lot and his life that he can only seek solace in a fully sexual relationship with another cynical soul, played by Lizzy Caplan. Their sexual, romantic chemistry forms the backbone of the show. In Parks & Recreation, Scott also plays someone who has fallen from a great height, and is now reduced to being a small-time official in a little town - except that he comes to love his existence, and his chaste relationship with Leslie becomes a main storyline.

Chaste. Parks & Recreation never fully gives us a sense of the sexuality of its characters; it is made up of cute declarations and sweet pairings: I miss the sense I had in Party Down that Adam Scott wants to tear Casey’s clothes off. Sex, like comedy, is there to distract us from misery and ward off the sense of our own mortality. In Parks & Recreation, people are always making out or winkingly touching each other’s arses, like schoolchildren. In Community, a show I think I prefer to Parks & Recreation, there exists a real sense of sexuality, of a rejection of the cute and adorable in favour of the real, the honest: the revelation at the end of the first season that Jeff has been having sex with Britta, registers the show in a real, adult world where the characters surprise the audience by not adhering to expected patterns. In Community, the characters are thrown together and gradually bond and come to appreciate each other, but there is always an underlying irritation - something that suggests the fragility of their ties, the sense that it could all implode; there is always something grating slightly under the surface of the friendships; a
tension. The tension is sexual between certain characters, social between others, where much is made of race, class, education, etc.

Parks & Recreation had all of these things, at one point, and then abandoned them: Ron Swanson, the character who stands for everything that Leslie is against, for conservative, anti-government America, who is furthermore shown to have a hilariously zesty sexual rapport with his former wife, gradually gets co-opted into the all-for-one narrative. Guess what comes to be revealed under his grouchy exterior? Guess also what lies under the cynical exterior of April, the teenage office assistant? Or under the flippant exterior of Tom Haverford, the ne’er-do-well middle manager? Make that a full round of hearts of gold, barman. I think the reason I've enjoyed the appearance in this season of Kathryn Hahn, playing the campaign manager for Leslie's opponent, is that she provided a heartening sense of menace: she is a confident, brash woman who doesn't hesitate to go in for the kill. She basically has contempt for her own candidate and for Leslie, feels herself to be above the petty politics, and enjoys toying with these people she considers to be her intellectual inferiors. She is also brazenly sexual, as witnessed by her forthright advances to Chris (Rob Lowe) in the penultimate episode. In having the incredible genius that is Kathryn Hahn play the  dastardly mirror image of Adam Scott - uncommitted, not passionate, self-interested, vituperative - the show somehow injected some oomph into proceedings. But the underlying tone of the show remains the same slightly dispiriting embrace of cute goodness.

Did I mention I enjoy the show? I still love the programme; it’s vibrant, charming, well-acted and written, ambitious and intelligent; but I find it more and more to be lacking in the sort of tension, the driving impulse of some kind of melancholy or ennui, the bite of nastiness that might reveal true character in some of its protagonists, that would raise it to true greatness.