From cringe to cheer: The evolution of foible in Parks & Recreation

It’s hard to recommend a TV show to people and, in the same breath, say “skip the first season.”* “The whole season?” they’ll ask suspiciously, “why?” “Well it’s only six episodes,” you’ll sheepishly reply, “and the show is completely different from that now.”

That’s not hyperbole. Parks & Recreation originally started as a spinoff of The Office which was also a spinoff of the UK show by the same name. The original UK show, along with other shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, are considered cringe comedy.

Parks & Recreation isn’t alone in it’s subject matter or style. The Office and Parks & Recreation actually have even more in common: NBC’s current Thursday block are all shows about friends of circumstance. 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Community, and The Office all deal with groups of people who probably wouldn’t have been friends outside of the work/school circumstance that threw them together. For me, the strength of the show is proportional to the amount of time we see these people outside of the structures that brought them together and, in this regard, Community and Parks & Recreation excel.

Last year I tried to devise a Grand Unified Theory of Comedy. Cringe comedy is a tough thing to nail down. Why is it when a character does something dumb that some people will laugh out loud while others wince and turn away? I think it comes down to the empathy line. Each person has their own internal tipping point where, beyond it, they relate with a character to an extent that they empathize with what’s happening and can’t find it funny. But empathy being both personal and a spectrum means some people laugh out loud at Curb Your Enthusiasm and others can’t even bear to watch it.

I explain all this by way of saying that Parks & Recreation started out as cringe comedy but over the last two seasons it’s moved the empathy line and is now one of the most inclusive, feel good, twee shows ever. This, even more than being one of the funniest shows on TV right now, is its most massive accomplishment.

Still not sure what I mean? The easiest way to show the difference in tone between the start of the show and where it is today is the credits. In the first season credits everyone is grimacing: local government, so irritating! But they revamped the credits for the third season: look at how happy everyone is! Don’t you want to watch a show with all these happy people?

How did all these characters become so happy? In season one it was Leslie Knope against the world. Her boss Ron was indifferent, her subordinate Tom was incompetent, and everyone in the government and the town was brutish. But by season three her boss Ron is hands-off, her subordinate Tom is misguided, and everyone in the town is eccentric. It’s a subtle but important shift not just in the way the story and characters are structured but in the way we appreciate the show.

Mark was a central part of the small season one cast but his role of the everyman/love interest was replaced by Ben, an objectively superior character, at the end of season two. Mark was the stock foil, a la Jim from The Office: generically nice, no strong perspective, an easy cipher for the audience. He’s a mile-wide, inch-deep character that’s great for turning to the camera and shrugging but not much else.

In the last episode of the first season Mark and Leslie kiss and when Leslie stops him Marks says “don’t worry, it’s not a big deal.” It’s this low-stakes, lack of investment that is a hallmark of cringe comedy and which really hurts the character of Mark, any relationships he has, and the show generally. Conversely when Ben expresses his feelings for Leslie it’s done in a high-stakes, grounded relationship which becomes a central focus for the show.

Pawnee is a really special town. I love living there. And I look forward to the moments in my day where I get to hang out with the town. And talk to the town about stuff. And the town has really nice blond hair too, and has read a shocking number of political biographies for a town, which I like.

It’s affection communicated not just from Ben to Leslie but also from the audience to the characters. When Mark told Leslie “Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal,” that was the same as the audience dismissing Leslie, our protagonist, which is why we cringe. But Ben is embracing Leslie and embracing the increasingly wacky world of Parks & Recreation and is saying, as the audience cipher, “you’re weird and that’s great.” They’ve moved the empathy line so instead of marginalizing out main character in a smaller realistic world, they’ve created a bigger fictional world in which our protagonist is idolized.

The town-as-character aspect of Parks & Recreation is one of the show’s greatest strengths in its evolution from cringe to cheer. In cringe comedy we rely not on invention but convention; the banality is what allows us to cross that empathy line and easily project ourselves onto the characters. For example, in the eight years that The Office has been on the air I’ve learned nothing interesting about the town of Scranton other than it has two similarly named pizza places. By creating a fictional town full of rich characters, Parks & Recreation is creating a microcosm of a world with its own unique perspective. This, again, moves the empathy line letting us relate to the characters on their own terms as opposed to viewing them through the prism of how they relate to us. The adorably inept local media are sharks, the internet is stuck in the AltaVista days, the neighboring town is full of preposterously pompous snobs. This richly layered backdrop allows even a character who’s never said anything to be memorable.

Unfortunately the transition from cringe to cheer hasn’t worked well for every character. The short first season had only one plot, the pit, which revolved around Ann. There was a lot of conflict for her to wrestle with and we got to see her relationships grow, particularly her friendship with Leslie. But once the focus broadened beyond the pit Ann got lost in the shuffle. She’s still stuck in the cringe comedy mindframe: alternately dating, breaking up with, and trying to get back together with boyfriends of all kinds, with no discernible personality. Even when the writers finally realized the had to involve her more centrally in the plot that just amounted to a part time job at City Hall. But it’s not enough; she still drifts through each episode unmoored. In the most recent episode she follows Ron around for no real reason helping to fix things in Andy and April’s house. Every character has a strength, and I hope the writers find Ann’s. They need to either double down with her like they did with Tom and Entertainment 720 or put her out to pasture like they did Mark.

Forged in the season one fires of cringe comedy, Parks & Recreation has earned its adorableness.

*So, where should you start? Season 2 episode 1 if you want a fuller arc, or season 2 episode 23 if you want to jump to the introduction of Ben.

Sarah Pavis is an engineer, writer, and Netflix obsessive. She writes “In the Queue” for The Idler.

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