It’s not news that Parks and Recreation really found itself this season, going from a struggling series, created almost under the network’s nose (NBC thought they were getting an Office spinoff, and instead they got a completely separate show with a similar filming style), to the funniest part of NBC’s strong Thursday night lineup. (The weakest this season? 30 Rock.) And though last night’s John Larroquette episode was a little more relationship-focused than most, it has found its own style, in part, by going for a broader, goofier style than The Office originally had — and finding its roots in something that hasn’t been seen much on U.S. TV lately, the small-town comedy.
I’ve said before that the rural or small-town sitcom virtually disappeared from the U.S., leaving Canadian shows like Corner Gas and the upcoming Dan For Mayor — whose pilot is funny, and gets funnier as it goes along — to pick up the slack. Parks and Recreation started out looking like a pure office comedy, the public-sector alternative to the private-sector Office. But while it’s still a workplace show, it has expanded to be more about the town of Pawnee as a whole and its record of lunacy and bad choices. It has a clear kinship with the un-named Vermont town on Newhart or Springfield on The Simpsons or South Park, places that are basically ungovernable and where everyone seems to be over-enthusiastic and apathetic at the same time.
The Office is about people who rarely interact with anyone outside of the workplace; the outside world is becoming almost more important to P&R than the office. That became clear in the season opener when they introduced a local public affairs show, “Pawnee Today” — Newhart’s show-within-a-show was called “Vermont Today” — and used the old reliable sitcom staple of having your lead character go on the show and get sandbagged by the crazy callers. The Office isn’t about Scranton, but P&R is about Pawnee.
So if The Office is a show that strongly parallels Greg Daniels’ own King of the Hill, then P&R is showing his roots on The Simpsons. The first episode of February sweeps, “Sweetums,” had a very Simpsons-esque attack on both deceptive corporations and the townspeople who eat up the deception; if you were reminded of “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey” or the kids’ reactions to the meat-industry film in “Lisa the Vegetarian,” you’re not alone. Other episode tropes — stupid town traditions or offensive murals; rumours that spread around the town and threaten to ruin the protagonist’s life — are reminiscent of the David Mirkin years of The Simpsons when Daniels was hired. One of the episodes he wrote, a favourite of Ricky Gervais, was “Homer Badman,” where Homer is mistakenly accused of sexual harassment, and makes matters worse when he goes on a local TV show and is made to look like a pervert. The “Christmas Scandal” episode of P&R, here Leslie is falsely accused of having an affair with a councilman, is similar in spirit, though not in beat-for-beat details. A good Office episode is usually about something small and recognizable; a good P&R is about something nutty that happens in a small town.
After writing the above, I discovered that Dan Fierman had already made the Pawnee/Springfield comparison in detail at GQ, so go read that too. But it’s not just Springfield; it’s a particular way of looking at a community of people. It’s not really condescending to small towns, because the objects of the satire are almost always universal — stupid people, bizarre traditions and media misdemeanors exist everywhere. But the advantage of doing a small town comedy (even if it’s a small town that magically becomes big when they need it to be, like Springfield) is that everybody knows everybody else, so the absurdity of human interaction is brought into sharper focus. Really, the small town of Newhart or P&R is just like an office or a house — just bigger and less controlled.
Meanwhile, The Office is going sillier; I’m not sure if this is exactly a bad thing, since they may have gone as far as they can go with small and real stuff. (It does suggest that the show may have trouble getting back to its absolute peak, but it’s in the sixth season — few shows get back to their peak form at this point.) Last night’s episode cemented this by bringing in Kathy Bates as perhaps the most cartoony character they have ever offered, serving up some very sitcomy A and B stories, and even offering some Vaudeville-style misunderstanding routines (“Did you see SAW?”). Believe it or not, this is another King of the Hill parallel, because that show went into wackyland in its sixth season, with increasingly surreal plots including one that had already been used on Family Guy.