The Influence of ‘Parks and Recreation’

In a long piece on Parks and Recreation as part of Deadline’s look at Emmy-contending shows, I was struck by this section on what made the show successful, and how it’s influenced the television landscape:

Producer Daniel Goor says that finetuning Poehler’s character was essential to assure viewers that she was not just a female version of Steve Carell’s self-absorbed Michael Scott of The Office.

“Once we clarified that the other characters in the ensemble liked her, it made it easier for people who liked her, too”, Goor says.

Goor also believes that Poehler’s strong female presence is helping the show surf this season’s new wave of comedies created or cocreated by women, about women, including HBO’s nominated Girls, New Girl, Suburgatory, and Up All Night.

“I think in way we lucked out, and we’ve kind of inadvertently surfed this trend, because our show is very much about a girl, a girl with a job”, Goor says. “Amy Poehler is very much the lead of this show, we’ve tried all along to make it her perspective, and the perspective of a woman working in a man’s world”.

(Goor notes as an aside that Up All Night creator Emily Spivey and Suburgatory creator Emily Kapnek both served on the staff of Parks.)

Parks and Recreation is one of a few shows, along with Community, which has already spun of showrunners of its own in the form of Anthony and Joe Russo, who created Animal Practice, and New Girl, which spawned its first showrunner in Dana Fox, who created Ben and Kate, which premieres on Fox on September 25, that may never achieve astronomical ratings but that seem likely to be labs that produce a lot of influential writers in years to come. I can’t wait to see what, for example, Community‘s Megan Ganz, or Parks‘ Aisha Muharrar (who wrote the upcoming season that takes Leslie Knope to Washington) do when they get their own shows someday.

But Goor’s remarks also strike me as an illustration of how hard it can be to replicate the best parts of a show like Parks and Recreation. I think it’s absolutely true that the show didn’t make it clear whether Leslie was admirable or a joke in its first season, and the entire show clarified and clicked into place when it became clear that she was extremely competent and committed, and the people around her admired her for it. But Leslie isn’t just likable—she stands for ideas more specific than the archetypes represented by Regan’s working mother, Whitney’s committmentphobe, or Jess’s lovable kook. That may be a limitation on the show’s ultimate audience, though I do wonder if a less surreal take on small-town public service could capture a wider viewership. But the point remains that Leslie has some problems that are inflected by gender, but the bigger idea she represents isn’t solely bounded by her sex. More lady shows could stand to have big ideas where the program’s perspective on it is tied to a main character’s gender, but not solely defined by the fact that she’s a woman. I’m all for explorations of femininity and what it means to be a woman, and I wish more male audiences were interested in those kinds of shows, or that the entertainment industry trusted them to be. But not everything every woman does is about gender and gender roles.

And it’s important that the default for telling those kinds of stories about public and national service, or saving the world, or surviving the workday not always be male. As long as male characters are coded as an acceptable representative for all of humanity but female characters can only represent the experiences of women, and in some cases, a very narrow slice of womanhood, we’re unlikely to get to a place where the depictions of men and women are roughly equal in terms of both number and characterization.