'Enlisted,' 'Parks and Recreation,' and Finding Comedy in Political Tragedy

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'Enlisted,' 'Parks and Recreation,' and Finding Comedy in Political Tragedy

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | March 12, 2014 | Comments ()


There’s a moment in the first episode of Fox’s Enlisted where Pete (Geoff Stults), an Army staff sergeant recently returned from Afghanistan and assigned to base support unit in Florida, sits in a bar and briefly tips his beer to a photo hanging on the wall in memory of those who didn’t make it. It was a toe not so much dipped in the water as briefly held above it, but it got the job done: viewers were reminded that Pete, in addition to being the main focus in a comedy, is also a character who’s seen some serious danger. Later episodes have underscored this, from Pete’s uneasy struggle with PTSD in “Pete’s Airstream” to his sarcastic brother’s heartfelt acknowledgement in the recent “Parade Duty” that Pete was, indeed, a genuine hero in a way that no one could deny. This is a tough thing to do: to use as the basis for your sitcom the decade-plus of war and chaos and pointlessness that’s been haunting the country. There have been more than 3,400 coalition deaths since the war started, and on the home front, more U.S. troops committed suicide in 2012 than died in combat. This is not exactly the stuff sitcoms are usually made of.

Yet the show works. It’s funny, briskly paced, and consistently entertaining. A big part of this can probably be chalked up to the fact that creator Kevin Biegel cut his teeth as a writer on Scrubs and then writer and co-creator on Cougar Town, two shows that, at their peak, could deftly pivot between broad comedy and genuine pathos with an ease that eluded so many other series. Enlisted can be wacky and occasionally surreal — the soldiers regularly get lost in weird riffs and tangents, like the discussion about the base’s seagull problem that segues into the urban legend that the gulls once found a baby in a dumpster and raised it as their own, right down to teaching it “the ways of the gull: culture, customs, art.” But it’s also emphatically honest and caring, and it works from a starting point that these characters have a tough job and that they’ve likely been through some unpleasant experiences as a result. It’s set against a backdrop of something uncomfortable and politically contentious, yet it manages to avoid controversy at every turn. In this way, it’s a spiritual successor to the only other comedy in recent memory to be honest about politics without getting bogged down in them: Parks and Recreation.

Parks and Recreation deals with government bureaucracy, but it’s done so in ways that sidestep left/right, red/blue dichotomies in favor of character-fueled comedy. Parks Department Director Ron Swanson is an outspoken libertarian (though he’s become a bit more cartoonish in recent years), but everyone else is just doing a job. Their commitments are about as deep as most people’s: they want a decent job, good friends, and a nice life. If they’re driven by anything deeper at all, it’s a desire to serve or to help each other. Leslie Knope wants to improve Pawnee because she loves it more than anyplace else in the world, and her coworkers want to help because they like and respect her. The show is hip-deep in politics, and later seasons have seen Leslie tangle with tougher foes as part of a campaign for city council and then a bumpy year as one of their own, but Parks doesn’t take sides. It, and Enlisted, are comedies about people trying to define themselves within homogenous systems, not crusaders trying to deliver real-world sermons. They excel as comedies and avoid political minefields by doing three basic things:

They focus on the people.
Enlisted is not about a soldier coming to grips with U.S. foreign policy, just like Parks and Recreation is not about a woman striving to rise within her party. These shows are first and foremost about people. It was Harold Ramis who said that “nothing will work if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.” That’s what these shows understand on a fundamental level. This lets them tell broader, more interesting stories that emphasize relationships over everything else. They’re designed to create stylized but mostly believable little worlds, not to deliver a message. You can really believe that Leslie Knope loves her husband, or that Pete and his brothers have years of shared family history. As a result, they can do stories that bump against political issues (finance, voting, spending, war) without worrying about them directly.

They place a premium on skill.
Characters’ skill, that is. Leslie Knope is a hyperactive person with an often abrasive office style, but she’s phenomenally good at her job. She loves her town and office and friends with a passion we should all be so lucky to feel. She gets things done. Similarly, Pete Hill is a talented soldier and the perfect person to take charge of a platoon of screw-ups who need a mentor and guide. What’s more, a lot of the stories revolve around supporting characters getting better at their jobs, too: Parks sees Tom go from slacker to businessman, while Enlisted has already shown how important it is for the rear detachment detail to support the families of those serving overseas. These people do silly things, but they themselves are anything but idiots.

They’re never about changing the world.
Most notably, Enlisted, like Parks before it, avoids controversy by being reactive and observant. It delineates between its characters and the machinery they serve, in the same way you always got a sense that Leslie Knope was just one part of a bureaucratic zoo. War and politics are depicted as just these things that happen, and not forces created by humans just like the characters (and just like us) who are able to change things. The characters have agency only to a point, and after that, they’re merely part of an enormous process they can’t quite comprehend. This is in some ways the ultimate fantasy — that these entities are somehow outside of us, not controlled by anyone, and not really anyone’s responsibility — but in other ways it’s the most bracing and honest truth you could hope to see on television. Not every government employee has a passion for the party platform; not every member of the service has a strong opinion about politics. These are just people, and they’re as varied and curious as the rest of us. Most people just want to get through the day, and that’s the same here. The gears keep turning, and we do what we can to get along.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Porkchop

    I appreciate SOMEONE having the chutzpah to base a show on the military that isn't all weepy, political, and serious. I agree with Cox, the common misconception that we're all badass Infantry types couldn't be further from the truth. Like the elder SSG Hill, I'm versed in the art of cat herding. Those in the military have all encountered "that guy," Private (can't get) Wright. SSG Hill has an entire platoon of them for comedic effect, but the general sentiment is kind of touching. Even though they're ate up, they're his family (literally and figuratively,) so he takes care of them.

    That said, I can't watch Enlisted without getting a nervous tic. Everyone on the show needs to shave, get a haircut, and for the love of God put your cover on when you're outside! Sorry, instinctual nitpick.

  • Ben

    never even heard of this show but you've talked it up to sound fantastic.

  • BarbadoSlim

    It's cancelled.

  • I'm just going to start telling my friends that Enlisted is what would happen if Scrubs and Parks and Recreation had a baby and sent it to military school. If that doesn't make them want to watch it, I give up.

    Also: am I the only one wondering if the way Randy says "hey, brother" is an homage to Buster Bluth?

  • Allijo

    The only other show that makes me laugh out as much as this one is The League. I've lost count on how many times I've referenced Bonobo Tears since that episode aired. I hope this one stays!

  • CeciliaBedelia

    I have been loving enlisted. It's such a funny and endearing comedy, one of the few that make me genuinely laugh out loud. The chemistry between the brothers is off the charts. The guy from suburgatory is hilarious and to my utter shock my favorite character is Piz(five minutes into the pilot I wanted to grab a beer with him instead of punching him the face) who woulda thunk it?!? The best part is the heart they show, the subtle nods to the men who serve have been wonderfully done . It saddens me that Fox will probably cancel this little gem and I will be watching reruns along with Better Off Ted and Happy Endings:/

  • CeciliaBedelia

    And to add insult to injury the Big Bang has just been renewed for three more seasons!! Ugh, the rage.

  • Classic

    God. Why????

  • Tom

    I saw the pilot for this on an airplane. I thought, "Wow, if I had network TV at home I might watch this."

  • Mrcreosote

    I like Enlisted not only because it's smart and snappy, but also because it's not about a group of urban 20somethings or nuclear families with wacky neighbors, or any of the standard tropes. And was I dreaming, or did the last episode subtly give a Harold Ramis tribute with the Stripes-esque music and marching, as well as an Animal House parade scene?

  • Has there been a verdict yet on Enlisted? I know Raising Hope has been cancelled. :(

  • narfna

    One of the producers responded to one of my tweets saying there's still hope. So we'll see.

  • NateMan

    Still up in the air when I checked this morning. Or at least no official word yet.

  • Whenever I managed to catch Enlisted, I laughed. Mostly because the jokes and the goofiness were pretty much a match for the sometimes-gallows humor that my military friends have and display and talk about.

    One story I'll share: there were these exercises going on in Germany (I think) and one Sergeant Major was about to retire. So a few of the soldiers under his command managed to get a weekend's pass and offered it up as a bounty for whoever managed to take him out during the wargames. They even made "WANTED" posters for it with his face and all. A couple of the young Lieutenants saw the posters and they somehow managed to extend it to a week-long pass. Then, the Commanding Officer saw the poster, called his subordinates in, found out what was going on....and he himself offered up another week's pass off on top of the one already up. So there was a two-weeks pass up for grabs to whoever took this Sergeant Major out and everyone (but him) apparently knew it.

    I never heard who got it or how. All I saw was the poster. And my buddies laughing their asses off after the fact.

  • cox

    as a vet myself, i get confused and flustered with people confusing my experience in the military, with the image of my military. enlisted gets it exactly right - most of the people in the army are not blood thirsty monsters, but they are not much of heroes either. we are, just like the most of you, just trying to get by in a day job, so we could go home and do something we *really* like. also, office politics. and paperwork. and meetings. sooooo many meetings. the amount of time i spent in the meetings, when i was technically "deployed" is astonishing.

    anyway. i adore enlisted with all my heart. its snappy and the chemistry between the brothers is outstanding.

  • NateMan

    I remember when my wife & I watched the pilot for Enlisted. Her initial reaction was to get offended on behalf of soldiers for the way they were portrayed in this show. Not seriously so, but she thought it was a bit disrespectful. But from my experience working and drinking with vets (no way no how would I ever join the service) is that this is what they're like in their off hours, particularly the young ones. They're goofy and often screw ups, some of them are brilliant and some of them, well, I'm amazed they know which end of the rifle is supposed to face away from their body. They fight hard when they have to and play hard when they can. And Enlisted does a good job of reminding people that soldiers are human first.

    The show isn't perfect, but it's sad it probably won't be around next season. I enjoy it more than I expected to.

  • Porkchop

    I had that reaction too, only I worried that well meaning folks like Mrs. NateMan would get offended on our behalf. It's a laugh to keep from crying thing, I've met soldiers much like those portrayed on Enlisted. You poop in front of people, shower en masse, and answer "hey, come check out this rash," unblinkingly. Almost nothing is an affront to our sensibilities.

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