Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
Well, I thought I had seen it all, but I was once again amazed and mildly amused when NBC aired its first episode of “Parks and Recreation,” a sit-com. NBC describes it thusly: “The new series is a half-hour mockumentary that looks at the exciting world of local government.”
I’ve become more open-minded as the years have shown me that I’m not always right, even though it may seem as though I should be. So I’m not going to judge the wisdom of network execs just on this one episode.
For those who may not have seen it, I’ll give a rundown on the “plot.” The scene is a small town–Pawnee, Ind.–and the plot revolves around the day-to-day life of the parks and rec department.
The city is fictional, though it has put up a Web site that looks very real until you start reading some of the material. For example, a story about the “Raccoon Eradication Program” features a logo of a cute raccoon in a circle with a slash through it. In the tourism section, the site states that “Pawnee is not a tourist Mecca, but this fact has made it a somewhat desirable location for those looking to get away from the crowds.” Oh, and the new snow-removal policy? “Pawnee will no longer remove snow.”
The characters for the show are still what I’d call “in development.” The leading actress–Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live-fame, plays Leslie Knope, the recreation deputy director, a 30-something, over-exuberant, somewhat naive lady with a desire to please everybody, no matter what it takes. In this episode, she tries to transform a vacant lot into a park after it had been abandoned by a bankrupt builder, who had already dug an enormous hole for a basement.
Then there’s her boss, Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman. He believes the government should not be involved in parks and rec, but that it should all be “privatized.” Hmm, seems I’ve heard that somewhere before. Swanson appears to be a Hunter S. Thompson type, anti-establishment, former hippie who cut his hair and started working for “The Man,” and hates himself for it. One of Leslie’s colleagues is Tom Haverford, played by Aziz Ansari, who in real life is a stand-up comic of some repute. He is a “Yeah, whatever” type of guy who seems bored with the whole working thing, and would rather be somewhere else doing anything else. There are other characters, some in the rec department and some in other city positions.
The Not-So-Funny Truth
Does it sound funny yet? Again, final judgment is still pending, and I’ll give it a few more episodes before I decide whether or not to exercise my right to vote by changing channels or not even turning on the TV.
First impressions are the ones that stick, they say. If that’s true, then here’s the impression that so far has stuck with me.
My first impression is that this is a satire on local government, maybe on government as a whole. Perhaps I’m too close to the subject, but for me, instead of its being funny, it was depressing. It depicts public administrators as simplistic, addle-brained, self-serving pudding-heads who run about aimlessly without a clue.
When I first heard about the show, I thought it might be a comedy based on some of the real-life comedic situations that parks and rec public servants run into and how they deal with them. And it isn’t far off that mark … the scenario of the abandoned lot is feasible. But somewhere the plot takes a very negative turn.
The writers seemed to unearth every negative stereotype applied to government service and imposed them on the characters. Instead of a balance between satire and reality, it appeared to me overwhelmingly satirical and negative. Understanding that these are stand-up comedians and Hollywood actors in the cast, it still could have been produced with better balance.
Out Of Touch With Reality
It makes me wonder if the producer and director actually consulted with any real parks and rec people or public administrators on this. It could have been so much better had the show been balanced. Many credible shows have “technical liaisons” from the subject area to make sure they’re depicting enough reality to make the presentation believable.
For example, the folks who produced Major Dad in the 1980s continually consulted with the Marines to ensure they accurately depicted Marine Corps life. This was a show about a gung-ho Marine major who marries a feisty woman journalist with three daughters, with all the culture shock on both sides as they get comfortable with their new roles. The show was well-cast with Gerald McRaney as the Marine, Shanna Reed as his wife, Polly, and talented young actresses as the girls. The characters were well-developed and realistic, with believable relationships among the cast. The show was a big hit for several seasons.
If the parks and rec show had consulted with experienced parks and rec professionals or public administrators in the field, I have to believe they would have obtained a more realistic–but still funny–result. Maybe they did consult with someone, but either they didn’t take the advice or didn’t get worthwhile guidance.
I wonder if some or all of the writers on this new show had bad experiences with parks and rec people when they were kids. Maybe they were kicked out of camp for misbehaving, and this was their way of finally getting back at that camp director. Or maybe they didn’t make the select soccer team and blamed it on the condition of the fields, and this is what those parks and rec people deserved for ruining their chances at soccer stardom.
Perhaps the next sit-com they work on should be about people who sit around and come up with crazy ideas for sit-coms or “mockumentaries” … it could be therapeutic.
But, just my opinion, and I don’t claim to be a critic. If anyone else saw the show and agrees or disagrees, share your review with PRB.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org