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