Television Tuesday :: 5 lessons television writers could learn from Parks and Recreation

12 Jan

The title pretty much explains the premise here.

5. No fiction has an excuse not to be diverse.
As a recap, Parks is set in Pawnee, Indiana.  It’s a random, wacky smallish sort of town.  It’s the kind of town that might in another piece of work be, shall we say, homogenous.  But in addition to having an almost equally gender-split cast, there is a refreshing variety of people in the cast, and they pull no punches.  What’s more, the jokes having to do with race are all about punching up, such this clip where Ken Hotate, an elder from Pawnee’s local Native American tribe, the Wamapoke, pokes fun at his hosts. Generally, the characters’ ethnicities are a non-issue, and when they are commented on, it is in such a natural way that we the audience doesn’t feel uncomfortable or offended (unless, I guess, you are a white person who loves Matchbox 20 and is terrified of curses).

4. No fiction has an excuse to rely on sex/gender-stereotyping jokes.
Are there jokes about sexism in Parks and Recreation?  Oh, totally.  Are there sexist jokes?  Not so much.  It’s much the same as the above scenario: the female characters see “comedically exaggerated” portrayals of sexism and systematically deconstruct them in a comedic fashion.  The jokes are about the existence of harmful stereotypes instead of reliant on the use of harmful stereotypes, proving that good humor does not inherently need to be offensive. For instance, an entire episode tackles the gender differences in government and specificaly in the sanitation field, after Leslie is appalled to find that Chris’ attempt at setting up a Commission on Gender Equality includes no female department representatives. And another episode pokes fun at the ridiculous standards politicians’ wives are held to, and also men’s rights activists. (“Let Ben speak!” “He just spoke.”)

3. No fiction has to rely on characters tearing each other down for humor.
A lot of comedy has an unfortunate tendency towards needing to make one character the butt of the joke. This is, of course, not automatically the worst thing ever, but a lot of the time it can go too far and come across as unnecessarily mean, and make the audience question why, if these characters are supposed to be friends, they would treat each other this way. (See also: most CBS comedies.) Parks manages to avoid this, most of the time, and instead shows character dynamics that are as varied and interesting as the characters themselves. We see Leslie’s unflagging love and enthusiasm about her coworkers and friends, but most especially her best friend Ann Perkins; we see multiple romantic pairings that are built on mutual respect and adoration and never rely on tired sniping arguments for humor; and even the character who is the butt of the joke, Jerry Gergich, gets the last laugh, as he has a devoted family and genuinely loves his life and his job.

2. No fiction has to shy away from absurdist humor.
One of the beauties of Parks is that its humor often comes from highlighting the complete absurdity of daily life situations, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes all too real.  Ongoing themes like the Pit, Li’l Sebastian, calzones, and Bert Macklin FBI, as well as moments like this, are examples of hilarious things that rely on absurdist comedy instead of cheap easy shots.  

1. No fiction has an excuse to keep characters static.
One distinct reason that Parks is such a stellar comedy is that the characters are not just confined to three-joke stereotypes or gradually reduced to a single character trait, but instead, they grow and change over the seasons. The best example of this is probably Andy Dwyer, who starts the series as an annoying and mildly creepy guy who’s obsessed with his ex Ann to the point of living in the pit behind her house. I hated him in the first season, but by season 3 he had become one of my favorite characters, because the writers allowed him to develop into a much more kind, funny, likeable person. Andy becomes a sweet, slightly dopey guy who loves his friends and his girlfriend/eventual wife April more than anything except maybe Skittles, and who genuinely cares about social issues and how people are treated. Similarly, Tom Haverford is the sort of person who would be glossed over as a joke character on a lesser show. But in Parks he is allowed to be a multifaceted salesman, fast talker, deeply insecure, and unrepentantly shallow (yet secretly romantic) guy. Despite being characters on a comedy show, these feel like real people and most of them have better character arcs than a lot of characters on long-running dramas.

–your fangirl heroines.

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