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Category Archives: Television

My Love Affair with Parks and Recreation

I gave Parks and Recreation a miss when it premiered on April 9th, 2009, because I made the mistake of thinking that it was just trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice. The mockumentary-style comedy was becoming a thing after the success of The Office, and it just felt like NBC wanted something that worked just as well without understanding what made it so good in the first place. I didn’t know that much about Amy Poehler beyond the fact that she was partners with Tina Fey and the wife of Will Arnett, both very funny people.

Then I started watching it. Ryan and I were looking for something new and relatively quick to watch, and we’d heard enough good things about it to give it a shot. What attracted me to it at first was its good-natured silliness. Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a little ditzy (like boss Michael Scott in The Office), but she was so naively optimistic it was hard not to fall in love with her. The rest of the staff of Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation Department were doofy in their own way, but most of them didn’t have that same bite you find in The Office. It made the show a brighter, fluffier companion to the folks in Scranton, PA, and right away it showed itself as a good complement.

The first six-episode season focused around the filling of a pit behind the house of Ann Perkins, a registered nurse. The plot served as a great introduction to the process of getting anything done in local government, as well as establishing the personalities and relationships of its main characters. There are a number of roadblocks that make Leslie’s goal of filling the pit and turning it into a park difficult, but the sheer tirelessness of her optimism and her surprising resourcefulness win out — she manages to pull it off, earning a small win for herself and her band of broken people.

From there, the stakes raise throughout the season and Leslie and co. have to pull off increasingly difficult projects while navigating professional and romantic entanglements. In order to stave off a government shutdown, Leslie has to put together a Harvest Festival to prove the worth of the department. Out of that success comes the chance to run for City Council, fulfilling one of Leslie’s lifelong dreams — running for public office. The campaign and election takes up the entirety of season four, and it’s here where Parks and Recreation becomes one of my favorite comedies of all-time.

The first three seasons are all great, don’t get me wrong. The ensemble cast clicks in almost no time at all, and as Leslie’s character goes from being optimistic ditz to hard-working, unbelievably good person her transition elevates the entire show. Leslie’s beliefs and her commitment to being true to them through her actions form the backbone of the show, and the supporting characters rally around that. Through the first three seasons, you see these people become inspired by Leslie to raise their own personal standards and learn to not only tolerate, but support one another despite their differences.

Season four’s campaign storyline is the culmination of that. You see these people — the stupid but earnest Andy Dwyer, the apathetic goth-girl April Ludgate, the man’s-man Libertarian Ron Swanson, the excessively happy health-nut Chris Traeger — form a tight-knit community that completes them in some way, and forces them to see the world beyond their small bubble in it. Helping Leslie achieve her dream leads them to finding and chasing their own, and they get a better sense of themselves through it. That secureness in their own character enables them to interact with people who would normally be their antithesis. In so many ways, Parks and Recreation illustrates the best of what government can do: help us find a way to live together despite our different ideas.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch. In so many ways, it’s more a liberal, escapist fantasy than The West Wing. That show featured incredibly intelligent people circling the wagons against a hostile world that wants to take them down. Everyone’s on the same team, and it’s just a matter of watching them engineer defenses against attacks. It’s great to watch, if you’re on the same team as well. But what makes Parks and Rec greater than that is having people coming from so many bizarre directions forced to work together. Not only that, but they have to learn how to do it well. Through hard work and constant effort, they manage it. They overcome every obstacle thrown at them by building a better community that accommodates everyone.

This is the kind of story we need right now. Our political process has become fundamentally broken because the national conversation has devolved into shouting matches between two teams who cannot see the value in learning to be civil with one another. Parks and Recreation shows us just what we can do when we come together for the good of our neighbors, and how much doing so enriches our lives. Leslie Knope is a model citizen to that end, and a model politician. She believes in the power of government and bureaucracy to make the places we live better, and she’s not content to simply hope for that to happen. She goes out to make it happen, and she encourages the people she works with to make it happen, too. And it’s a genuine joy watching her.

 
 

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Literary Television Episodes

When I first discovered the Internet, one of the things that I immediately took to was the many different ways you could use it to disseminate information. Stuff like Wikipedia is great, and the fact that I could theoretically find out how to make just about anything by looking it up is stupendously awesome. If you’re interested about the basics of woodworking, or the finer points of baking, or studying mythology in different ways, there’s a place on the internet for you. If you learn by reading, or watching, or discussing, then you can find an article, video or community that suits your needs. It’s truly awesome.

It didn’t take me long to find that you could play around with how stories are told as well. Back when LOST was first airing, there was an alternate-reality game centered around the passenger manifest of Oceanic Flight 815. It was absolutely engrossing, a way to bring you deeper into the world in a way a TV show never could. LOST was one of the very first television shows to bring in the interactive element, and I can tell you now it was one of the reasons I became so terribly addicted to that show. To this day, I’ll go to the mat to defend it — mainly because the story it told took advantage of new technologies to push my buttons so, so well.

The internet has changed how we take in information and stories quite a bit — at least, for those of us who spend a good chunk of our lives here. Alternate-reality games are all over the place, and it’s almost expected for a TV show or movie with any sort of geek interest to have an interactive element. Even for those of us who are primarily writers, the Internet offers us a great opportunity to stretch the form of storytelling in ways we never would have thought about before.

One of my favorite things about this isn’t anything quite as out-there as ARGs or blogs and websites that blur the line between fiction and reality. (Though those are almost always really interesting.) The thing that really gets me excited about online publishing is the rise of serialized fiction, and how feasible, even easy, it is to get stuff like that out there.

I confess that serialized, episodic storytelling is one of my favorite forms. It’s something that’s been played around with in the sci-fi/fantasy genre for a little while now, but I don’t think it really hit the big time until LOST came around. Tying character journeys around a big, over-arching mystery that takes years to complete is a fascinating process, and it’s something that people have taken and run with to create some truly great fiction. There’s The Sopranos (heck, just about anything on HBO), Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield. Each season is treated like a novel, with episodes comprising chapters in that novel. There’s an arc and a theme for each one, and the premise of the show turns a little bit (or a lot, depending) at the end of every season. You get invested in the journey of these characters over the long-term, and there’s enough growth from year to year that it doesn’t feel like anyone’s treading water. That is, if you do it right. It’s complicated and difficult, holding that many moving parts all at once, but when you pull it off there’s nothing better.

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time now is take that format and apply it to short stories or small novels. You come up with a setting or a group of characters, you plot out a ‘season’ of stories to tell with them, and you release them one a week at the same time and place. I even have two or three scenarios where that would work fairly well, and I’ve arced out some character arcs that might actually do. The only trouble is, of course, that I have a devil of a time finishing anything I start.

But that’s an entry for a different time. For now, I’d like to ask you guys if you’ve found anything like what I’m talking about — a great story that’s been broken up into different episodes, like a television show. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them around, but I’m curious what other people have found out there. Share, share!

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Television, Writing

 

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