“I’ll go out on a limb,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt said at the Television Critics Association press tour on January 19. “Parks and Rec is going to have a seventh season.”
That’s great news for those of us who have come to love passionate civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler, who won a Golden Globe for her performance last weekend), and the fictional version of Pawnee, Indiana where she lives and works. And it’s also a reminder that diving television ratings may be bad for the industry as a whole, but they’ve made passionate viewers more valuable to networks, and made it easier for niche shows like Parks and Recreation to survive.
Parks and Recreation‘s ratings have never been spectacular. But in comparison to the supposedly broader comedies that NBC scheduled around it this year in an attempt to rebuild its Thursday night comedy block, Parks looks decidedly rosy. The Michael J. Fox Show, which NBC committed to air for a full season before audiences had tested it out, is tanking: 1.99 million viewers tuned in to see it last week, and the show scored just a 0.6 rating in the coveted demographic of 18-49 viewers. Similarly, Sean Saves The World, about a gay single dad, pulled in 2.67 million viewers and an 0.8 rating in the demo. By comparison, Parks and Recreation‘s 3.05 million viewers and 1.2 rating in the demo look positively healthy, even vibrant.
It turns out that a star who once anchored a hit show in a prior age of television is less valuable today than a show with a very specific concept and worldview. CBS may be able to find shows that appeal broadly to audiences while producing a reasonably deep attachment. But CBS is keeping that secret sauce–really, showrunner Chuck Lorre–proprietary. And every other network seems to be finding that, when it comes to comedy, it’s actually easier to develop shows that appeal deeply to a small pool of very committed viewers than to try to replicate The Big Bang Theory.
And the specific survival of Parks and Recreation is heartening precisely because it mirrors Leslie Knope’s own determination in the face of a corrupt, pandering, disengaged political culture in Pawnee. Parks is a show that shouldn’t have survived, just as Leslie shouldn’t have gotten so much done in the Parks department, or beaten Bobby Newport in the race for city council. Like Leslie’s loss in the recall election, Parks has faced setbacks, including getting episodes bumped, and bouncing all over NBC’s calendar. But both Leslie and the show that follows her have a determination that have kept Parks standing steady even as their competitors reveal fundamental weaknesses. Ultimately, Parks succeeded for reasons it should have failed: it’s a procedural set in a branch of government that most people don’t think about, its stakes are small and kind and human rather than apocalyptic, and it’s got huge faith in government rather than devolving into baroque conspiracies.
Before Greenblatt said that he planned to bring Parks back, he made another announcement. His network has signed Poehler to a three-year production deal, and is working on her first show that’s a part of it, tentatively titled Old Souls. The series will follow Natasha Lyonne, playing a young woman trying to figure out her life even as her job, working with elderly people, leaves her feeling out of step with her peers. It sounds just as specific and unusual, and just as delightful as Parks. And that’s a great thing.