Two Sitcoms Diverged on a Low-Rated Network, and One Took the Road Less Traveled By: Comparing the Season Five Starts of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation"
Quickly approaching mid-November, we are now seven weeks out from the start of the season for NBC's Thursday night line-up. As I vowed to do at the end of last season, screaming at a mountain that isn't so much lifeless as indifferent to my pathetic needs, my boycott of the peacock network until "Community" is back on the air is in full effect. So far, NBC has listened by first pushing the Greendale Six's premiere a whole month after the rest (and on Fridays after "Whitney") and then by pushing it even further away until February of next year (but at least back on Thursdays). So, my plan is clearly working. You go, me.
Still, I adore "Parks and Rec" and I won't let the evils perpetuated by the National Broadcasting Corporation stop me from watching it. So, a special thanks to Hulu is in order: Thanks, Hulu! In the midst of all the heartwarming hilarity to be found in both Pawnee and D.C., something very peculiar jumped out at me: Didn't season five of "The Office" also feature a dramatic, surprise proposal? I don't know how I remembered the right season - as I stopped buying "The Office" DVDs with season three, hadn't re-watched any episode after season four, and my sense of chronology has always sucked - but sure enough, a quick look at the episode descriptions on Netflix proved all the alcohol and drugs from my misspent youth hadn't yet put my mind in total disarray. When I watched the first two episodes of "The Office" season five after catching up on "Parks," originally aired as a two-parter, it was impossible not to compare Jim's proposal to Pam in the rain to Ben asking Leslie in their new shared home.
What I found intrigued me, but it wasn't shocking. Season five may be the make-or-break year for our favorite sitcoms, when character arcs should be in full gear and the series' mission statement fully understood by the writers, producers, and audience. Season five broke "The Office," but it probably won't break "Parks and Recreation."
Let's dive in and consider why...
As you may recall at the beginning of "The Office" season five, Jim and Pam are separated due to the latter attending art school in New York City while the former toils away back home in Scranton, PA. Naturally, the separation is hard for both partners, with all their missed calls and bad timing. Being away from his lady love proves to be too hard for Jim, so he arranges a rendezvous with Pam approximately mid-way between their two locations (although it is a little closer to Scranton) in order to propose marriage to the woman he loved unrequitedly for too many years. Of course Pam says yes, they kiss, it's raining and romantic and the two-part episode ends with a strong sense of purpose for both our heroes and the show in general. At least, that's what the episodes are designed to do. But closer inspection reveals that Jim felt that pressure of separation far more than Pam did, who was enjoying her time at art school in a new city with new friends quite a bit. Jim, unlike Ben on "Parks and Rec," bent down on one knee due to a growing desperation more so than profound, undying love for his girlfriend.
That desperation stems directly from Jim's latent jealousy over other guys that Pam now knows, because he was once an "other guy" that Pam once knew. Outside of her, Jim had no dreams, so the fact that Pam is off striving for hers while he remains stuck in a life and career he never wanted can't help his inner turmoil. This stands in stark contrast to Ben and Leslie, both of whom are living the lives they always dreamt of and doing so together, in lock-step. Their separation is equally painful, but because they don't want their paths to diverge for any longer than necessary, not because one of them is completely lost without the other -- and not in the fun way like April and Andy. When Ben proposes to Leslie, it isn't the obvious pay-off to years' worth of pining, but an evolution of the relationship between two characters who really, really like each other.
To be fair, most bitterness toward "The Office" as the sinister place where storylines go to die comes from the present state of the show, whereas Jim and Pam kissing in the rain felt, at the time, like something worth rooting for just as much as Leslie and Ben. It is with these decidedly not-rose-colored glasses that we can start to see season five as when "The Office" began to waver as a contender for Best Sitcom of All Time. Remember: Jim and Pam don't actually get married until after they find out Pam is pregnant at the start of season six, rather than at the end of season five when stakes should be at their highest; and they have the baby eight weeks before the finale of season six; and then Jim and Pam offer nothing of consequence for the next three years. Oh, and let's not forget that since this, Pam (or the writers) gave up on trying to be a professional artist; not through conflict and resolution, but by simply dropping it from all future scripts.
There's a simple reason for this, unlike in real life, Jim and Pam's story was over the moment Jim proposed (or, if you prefer, the day they got married). Sure enough, in the four episodes following the season five premiere, Jim and Pam barely register as a couple due to their continued separation - meaning, besides the momentary happiness, nothing for the characters on the TV show has changed. One could probably very easily describe Jim and Pam, and most of "The Office," as a darkly comic reflection of suburban middle-class America, where stories simply stop happening rather than have satisfying endings, just like the reality we all experience. Surely the world is littered with failed artists, for any number of reasons, who perhaps just find themselves drawing less and less until they can't remember the last time they drew anything at all.
That, of course, is a cop-out.
Jim and Pam are fictional characters in a fictional story, wholly conceived by the producers, writers, and actors who make "The Office." It is not, despite the narrative conceit, an actual documentary. Their situation was established as a fairly generic romantic comedy for the first three seasons and they were given practically no other motivations than they were simply, obviously, "meant to be together." (G'awww.) There was talk amongst critics and fans during seasons four and five, and perhaps six, that maybe Jim and Pam could morph into something we rarely see in our entertainment: a mostly normal, mostly happy, well-adjusted and loving couple. In theory, that is what happened, and it wasn't terribly entertaining. Here again, with "Parks," we begin to see what could hopefully be another marked difference between the two NBC series that share more than a little in common. If we're lucky, Mike Schur learned those lessons after leaving "The Office" for "Parks and Rec" and will finally fulfill that promise.
After all, like so many aspirant people, Leslie Knope has never been solely defined by whom she is dating. In fact, before Ben Wyatt entered the picture, Leslie's love life was entirely secondary to her career in government, or even tertiary when considering the story arcs of her (admittedly) workplace friendships. There is a tectonic, almost palpable shift when Ben arrives in Pawnee as one of her new bosses. Yes, their relationship starts rocky, but it's doubtful that anyone watching at home thought these characters were headed anywhere other than lustily smooshing their parts together. And eventually they did, though after much less agonizing time than the three whole seasons Jim and Pam danced awkwardly around each other. And now they're getting married and, yet, there seems very little to be wary of in the months (and hopefully seasons) to come.
Why is this? Because neither Ben nor Leslie absolutely need each other as characters to be interesting, or any romantic partners to be meaningful. They both have goals beyond each other, but it's clear those goals, once achieved, will be far more satisfying because they'll be achieved together. They have a trajectory, something which Jim and Pam, and most of "The Office," never really had beyond that engagement ring.
Trajectory is a strength "Parks and Rec" has had going for it since the earliest days when nobody was sure what to make of this new, seemingly more lightweight version of "The Office." (Itself a more lightweight version of the original UK recipe.) That first season memorably began with a giant pit and Leslie as a merely feminized Michael Scott trying to fill in that pit. Season two turned the pit into a not-a-library and revealed the city's budget crisis. Season three used the Harvest Festival to get out of that budget crisis and bring Ben and Leslie together, which led straight to the quandary behind season four and Leslie's run for political office that ends with personal and professional wins for both. With season five only six episodes old, it will probably look a lot like season two, with the characters living with their successes before another multi-episode arc presents itself having grown organically from what came before.
Through all of that, we've seen Leslie, and Ben grow, and by leaps and bounds once they were growing together. These are characters that don't just exist until the next punch line but feel actively engaged in their own stories, their own lives. With any luck, their careers will throw them some curveballs but their relationship will remain mostly normal, mostly happy, well-adjusted and loving. Fingers crossed, it won't get boring after that transition, because we'll have something besides their couplehood for which to root.
This meta-narrative of general purpose extends to most of the Parks Department, as well, as each character learns to be the most awesome version of themselves. Ron's constant struggle against his ideas and the rest of the world, a strong but wounded guy who gradually pokes holes in the walls he built to protect himself. Tom's constant entrepreneurial spirit and striving for a way of life he wants so badly, finally focusing with an idea he recognizes as having real potential. Andy and April both maturing in their own ways without losing their true natures of fun-loving party dude and acerbic, cynical wit, like if the ninja turtles Michelangelo and Raphael finally got hitched. (Bonus: April and Andy's maturation was spurred by their own evolving relationship, giving us a second "normal" couple to watch.) Ann, Chris, Jerry, and Donna are somewhat more problematic in this regard, though each has had continuing arcs throughout multiple episodes. Donna is the possible exception, but Retta makes her a damn delight.
What can be said of the Dundler-Mifflin crew?
Michael Scott clearly had a trajectory, but like Jim and Pam it was based solely in terms of his romantic relationships. Yes, he was the office manager, but he had no career goals beyond that save for the pipedream of his Michael Scarn screenplay, which, like Pam's art, was another unceremoniously dropped character arc. (Save for a overproduced video that stretched believability beyond reasonable limits and ruined the joke.) For the most part, Michael's goal was a wife and kids who loved him; who appreciated his efforts for the grace notes he always intended. Of course, he did at least get that wife in Holly, who became his soul mate in - yep, you guessed it - season five, before being sent away four episodes later. But Michael and Holly didn't get engaged until the end of season seven, with two long interims where they didn't see each other and Holly was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Sufficiently enough, with Michael's story done, he was written out of the show. Technically, the story had to conclude because Steve Carrell, the actor who played Michael Scott to perfection, was leaving. The mind reels at how long the character might have spun his wheels if Carrell didn't have a burgeoning film career.
But the rest of the Scranton branch? As an independently successful beet farmer with a huge ego that curiously works as a toady in a dying industry, Dwight is comic foil that might be one of the least consistent characters ever presented on screen. Except there's also Andy, who was a yuppie with anger issues until he became a naïve romantic until he became Michael Scott with more personal issues, lurching to each personality by the dictates of the Maguffin-like plots. Then there's Kevin the Idiot, Angela the Bitch, Darryl the Cool Guy, Oscar the Gay One, Stanley the Grouch, Phyllis the Secret Bitch, Meredith the Drunk, Toby the Doormat, Kelly the Other Idiot, Ryan the Douche, Erin the New Idiot, and Creed the... well, at least Creed being an enigma is the point. Now, in its final season, "The Office" also has Jim 2.0 and Dwight Redux, as well as a British Lady Michael Scott. After nine years these people haven't changed, except, perhaps, to devolve into the least awesome version of themselves.
Who are these people and why are they here? We don't know, and we've stopped caring, because the story of "The Office" was done years ago. It was a romantic comedy slathered in the venom of Ricky Gervais and the faux-normalcy of Greg Daniels, whose trio of leads were a lonely man who wanted love and a will-they-won't-they-couple-that-obviously-would. When the lonely man stopped being alone, the story was done. When the couple tied the knot, the story was done. In a perfect world, the stories would have ended at the same point, with Pam and Jim tearfully saying goodbye to Michael as they prepared to board different flights at the airport, the former heading off on their honeymoon and the latter to Colorado, to be with Holly.
On the other hand, the story of "Parks and Recreation" isn't even the story of the Pawnee Parks Department; much less the romantic entanglements of its employees. Rather, it's about the people who work(ed) there and whatever entanglements their march toward the future inevitably brings. One is about a paper company, the other is about people. Both, in the right hands, can lead to long-lived and entertaining television. One is about the jokes, one is about the characters, and neither must be at the expense of the other. But it's can be much more satisfying to allow and embrace the risks that change brings, successfully achieved or not. Anyone who's worked in an office or the corporate world knows how very few things actually change and how microscopically those changes happen. Verisimilitude has its place in art but, in spite of what Beckett might tell you, soul-devouring tedium is not it. When you write about people, you must write about change, because otherwise it's a pointless, fruitless endeavor, which is too often the real world we're already trying to escape.
"Parks and Rec" is trying for the latter, trying for the thing that so few sitcoms actually value. Trajectory. Unlike a show like "How I Met Your Mother," "Parks" also isn't confined to a specific ending, allowing the characters to go down paths unknown to both the audience and the creators. So far the miss-adventures of Leslie Knope been a wonderful, memorable ride. The show ought to remain a ride worth taking all the way to the very end, as long as the writers don't lose their true north: that characters like Leslie matter.
If only every sitcom -- groundbreaking or not -- could say that. If only more tried.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He thinks "Community" under creator/showrunner Dan Harmon was certainly trying, albeit very differently, so here's to the new regime taking that baton and running with it.
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