Spoiler babies: If you're not all caught up on all shows on NBC, just skip this one.
The excitement over Breaking Bad last night was sadly undermined by the fear that we'll soon be having to put Parks and Recreation to bed. I was thrilled when the show was renewed— from what I understand, it was touch and go there for a bit—but now I'm beginning to think that they had to sell out big time to get that renewal, and it may become unwatchable. Thursday night's episode, which we watched on DVR last night, felt like a big time shark jump, the moment when the writers gave in and stopped making a show for smart people who are quick to get a joke, and started to make the show for people who don't get a joke unless you explain it to them.
Example #1: the joke at the top of the show, which you see in the first part of the full episode here. I was excited that they were going to send up NPR and just general quiet, pretentious public radio, and they did do that with the joke about "Nefirtiti's Fjord". Old P&R would have simply had her read the bit about the lesbian funk-Afro etc. band and played the music and gone out, trusting that the audience gets why that's funny. New P&R has the characters explain the joke to you with Leslie complaining that the music sucks and the DJ explaining that "lesbian" trumps "quality". Which in turn makes the joke kind of offensive, instead just a funny poke at public radio for the overall pretentiousness of their music, instead of zeroing in on the "lesbian" thing.
Example #2: After Ann finally gets Ron and April's attention with a gross medical story, Ron calls her by another name to put her in her place. Not that funny a joke, but at least a joke. But then they cut to him explaining what he did, in case you didn't get it. Here's an idea: instead of riding every joke into the ground for fear that one will get by the slower people in the audience, why don't you just keep making jokes, figuring some have to hit? That's what you used to do!
Example #3: I think we get why the birth certificate nonsense was stupid, and the people of Pawnee are stupid to care. There was a recent event in our history that would be a helpful reminder, in case we didn't get that. So why do you keep explaining it, over and over again?
There are more examples—I counted at least 7, and that was after I started counting, so there were probably more—but it's too depressing to watch it again and count them up. Plus, I have other complaints!
Complaint #1: Bad characterization. For no real reason, they've made Chris stupid and Ann even more so. The whole subplot with Ann trying to get Ron and April to talk to her is the dumbest thing they've ever done with Ann, and Ann is by far the weakest character on the show, story-wise, of any of them. Ann used to be there as a bit of a no-nonsense character who was baffled by the red tape and politics of city government. Now Ann….gives a shit if two people she doesn't even like that much make small talk with her? We have had zero indications to date that Ann is a person with a perverse love of small talk, nor do we have any reason to think she's an attention whore. I think this is an attempt to get Rashida Jones onscreen more, which I can appreciate because she's cute and funny, but if you don't have anything good for her to do, don't just make up out-of-character weirdness that has no relationship to human behavior.
Also, old Leslie would have asked her mom about her birth first.
Complaint #2: Sentimentality. Old P&R had a healthy sense of humor about Leslie's attachment to the shithole they call Pawnee. One of the best running jokes on the show is how the ungrateful citizens of Pawnee ruin every public meeting by being irrelevant and cranky. Leslie's sense of scale is supposed to be out of wack, even if other parts of her personality are admirable. But now she's giving impassioned speeches about why she loves Pawnee, and instead of it being a joke, we're supposed to get sentimental with her about her fictional town that has been routinely portrayed as Backwardsville, USA? No, thank you. This is especially fucked up in light of the birth certificate storyline—since it was a reference to the President's situation, there's an unpleasant whiff of suggesting that the racist screeching about the birth certificate should be written off as relatively harmless eccentricity instead of a toxin that's eroding our political discourse. That's unforgivable in a show that usually has a swift grasp of the realities of politics.
These are my complaints, and I'm only issuing them because the only thing that's made me laugh all season was the torturing-Ann-with-penises joke. That said, I don't blame the writers fully for this downward dive that P&R has taken. I blame NBC. Towards the end of the show, I turned to Marc and said, "I'll bet this dumbing down wasn't the writers' idea. I just can't imagine you get so stupid so fast. I'll bet NBC had a come-to-Jesus meeting where they were told that either they make the show much stupider and less harsh towards the assholes in our society to reel in a larger audience, or they will be canceled." I'm a firm believer in the mediocrity principle, and I think that Hollywood executives have turned making mediocre but popular shit into an art. And they're not wrong! Shows that are sharp in their critiques of American society will be turned off by people who cherish the unjust status quo, as well as people who get uneasy about "mean" humor, which probably kills off more of an audience than a network show can afford to lose. Shows that assume an audience that's paying attention and is smart enough to get rapid-fire humor also lose a huge audience chunk, which is why 30 Rock can't pull it out in the ratings no matter how many Emmys they get. (And the only time they surged in ratings was their worst, stupidest season, season 3.) I get why networks see sharp, pointed humor and want to reel it in. So that was my theory of what's happening to P&R.
And then, right after I floated this theory, I got a confirmation from the universe, in the form of the writers of Community. See, we had only caught up to the end of season two last week, so we watched the season premiere of season three right after the latest episode of P&R. I had heard in the rumor mills of the internet that Community is also hanging by a thread, under threat to tone down the weirdness by NBC, with cancellation looming. I worried that they, too, would rob the show of everything odd about it I love in order to appeal to people who don't like sharp humor and prefer predictability in their sitcoms. But instead I got this:
If that's not a "fuck you" to NBC executives telling them to tone it down, I don't know what is. This confirmed all my suspicions that the showrunners and writers are getting immense pressure to produce more generic, sentimental, unfunny crap that has a mass appeal. It's a shame to see P&R give in to that pressure, but I suppose predictable, since The Office went there years ago. Let's just hope 30 Rock keeps riding their Emmys off into fuck-you land, because for some reason they've managed to come back to the humor that made them so great in the first place without getting cancelled.