Why I’m afraid of tonight’s Parks and Rec
Here’s the thing.
Michael Schur, the creator of the show and a guy who worked on The Office back when it was good (and notably I used to think, stopped working on it when it became horrible) likes to remind people that Steve Carrell has never won an Emmy.
I’d argue that no matter how talented an actor he is (he’s not, or at least he hasn’t demonstrated any range to me), the material he was given was impossible to turn into an Emmy because the material with which he was working just left the character too inconsistent (and maybe too dislikable) for anybody to find much value in the work. I was somewhat surprised to read that, because Schur has always seemed like a smart, reasonable guy. It’s easy to write off something like that as the natural blinders that go up with people’s friends and their own work. Still- it struck me as being somewhat unaware of how the character was being presented and perceived.
What concerns me is when I’m seeing that degree of tonedeafness applied to P&R, which I would have told anybody that would listen was the best show on TV up until a week ago.
The only real critique I had of the show was that in some of the early eps this season, Tom was written as an incredibly selfish douchebag who was using his friends to chase his dream. He was a giant shithead to Leslie, and I don’t think they did nearly enough work (and didn’t lay enough groundwork previously) to justify her forgiving him.
Now they’re trying to get Tom together with Ann, and in the process have written him to be even MORE unpleasent (Tom as misguided, unaware player, kinda funny and plausible as dating option. Tom as a whiny, baby talking, pathetic creature is just simply not credible as being attractive to anybody. To say nothing of the “gosh you wore me down into dating you” character assassination of Ann, who while she’s had shitty taste in dudes, at least has had a “type” that’s slightly Alpha-Male and very much non Tom). As a plot point, it’s whatever. I don’t care that much about these characters to get worked up about who is dating who.
It is important to me that the writers of this very good show understand what they’re doing, and stay true to the characters they’ve created. I know this is important because I’ve seen what happened to The Office. Michael Scott became terrible because it seemed like the writers believed that under all the just abjectly terrible and unforgivable things he did, there was a heart of gold that explained why people still spoke to him. The problem was that 1- that heart either didn’t find its way on screen often enough. 2- The writers just didn’t appreciate how unforgivable some of the things Michael did really were. This then extended into nearly every character. Relative to the best seasons, everybody is broader, less human, less likable now. Prior to last week, I just chalked that up to the fact that all the great writers were off working on the new show.
What made P&R so great is that it just magically walked this incredibly fine line between humor and heart. The characters are broad, but also fully formed, and human enough that we’ve grown to care deeply about them. The moment that the characters stop behaving as people and turn into devices for bad jokes, that falls apart quickly. While Tom and Ann were the most obvious example, nearly everybody last week was slightly broader than normal, and it felt like their humanity was traded in for punchlines. Standard for most shows, but not for one of this quality.
I think the writers must believe that Tom really is a sweet guy. The problem is that not only have they not laid the groundwork to make me buy that, they’ve done the opposite. (and again, not only is he simply not nice enough to be a credible match for somebody that knows him as well as Ann should- his turn into a mewling sack of pathetic is about the most asexual thing possible).
So seeing what happened with the Office, and how it lost its way- it terrifies me to see a show I love this much moving down the same path. I got out of my chair and fist pumped when Andy and April hooked up, in part because you had these very broad, very goody characters that still had real emotion, heart and credibility to them. I could see what they saw in each other- because each character had been written with a degree of intelligence, care, and consistency. Parks and Rec was doing a very special thing. Last week’s ep (the whole thing) was anything but special. There’s enough talent on the show that it was still good, but they can do a lot better than good. I know, because I saw the second season, and every damn ep was GREAT.
If tonight is another step in the same direction, where I’m literally left wondering what Schur and company were thinking, it’s going to be incredibly disappointing. This is mostly my own crazy, but I’m not sure if I will be able to set aside my contempt for the Tom/Ann plotline- and what I’d consider (at best) the incredible unawareness of how the characters are being perceived and have been constructed- and enjoy the parts of the show I still love.
So please guys, don’t fuck this up. Let this be Ann running a long con to set up Tom to be laughed at by Jerry. Let Ann have a moment of clarity and run into Chris’s arms. Let Tom realize that he’s being pathetic and that the only way he’ll be happy is if he starts acting like a adult male. Anything but what I fear I’m about to see in an hour and a half.