There’s something very strange about declaring that just because Parks and Recreation creates a meme-a-minute that it’s a semi-intelligent show, or that it’s “less risky” than its relatively ossified counterparts, 30 Rock and The Office:
Welcome to the meme-ification of the sitcom, a phenomenon in which the latest iteration of television comedy writing anticipates and includes the Internet as a secondary delivery vehicle right from the start. In the last couple of years a particularly digestible style of writing has emerged, well suited to various attention spans and bandwidths: on these shows, and also “2 Broke Girls” on CBS and “Man Up!” on ABC.
There’s a semi-intelligence to these sitcoms: smarter than traditional multi-camera, laugh-tracked shows, but less risky than single-camera progressive fare like “The Office” and “30 Rock.” The meme-ified series compose a new middlebrow, creative enough to alienate conventional sitcom fans and attract viewers in search of a challenge but not complex or jarring enough to be off-putting. (Despite its savvy writing “Community” on NBC is probably a hair too dense to fit this bill.) Their humor plays well for 30 minutes, but is also reducible and portable in ways that make sense online: punch lines are more like catch phrases that feel like Twitter hashtags, and scenes with celebrations, dances and odd body movements look hilarious when looped endlessly as a GIF.
First, if anything, 30 Rock‘s vastly more tied to the news cycle and the pop culture than Parks and Recreation is. And The Office is on its second cycle of the same story: that’s the defined inverse of risky. In both cases, Parks and Recreation‘s relentless optimism and commitment to making an argument about the value of public service are so square, so different from either the irony-saturation or the manufactured, bland cheeriness of most other fare on television that the show’s themes and tone have come out the other side and are cool again.
But more to the point, just because something’s meme-ifiable doesn’t mean it’s stupid. Juxtaposition humor is really hard: something like the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness has to come from a place of both deep character development and great writing. The sight of a very butch man in a tiny hat and veil, the kind of dance GIF this piece refers to, could easily get reduced to a bad drag joke, but in the Parks’ writers hands and on the capable head of Nick Offerman, it’s something far weirder and more delightful.
And it makes a lot of sense that the smart, generally sophisticated characters who populate these kinds of shows, would get meme-y in their actual lives: the Internet’s elevated the kind of in-jokes that groups of friends have had since Sam Malone ran a popular Boston watering hole, given people a tool to broadcast the narratives that govern their relationships. Sure, there’s a cyclical relationship between pop culture and real life, and shows provide grist for the mill. But having your characters act like people act in real life doesn’t mean you’re anti-intellectual or only partially bright. You can fulfill people’s fantasies of living in the culture that they love by letting them talk to their favorite reality stars, like Andy Cohen does on his Bravo late-night show. Or you can show them a riff on their group of friends that turns out jokes a little faster, that loves and fights at a slightly higher tempo, and make your audience wish they were that smart — and then go out the next day to prove it.