I’ve been mildly curious as to what Kal Penn was going to do with himself after he left the White House other than continuing to cash large checks for playing an amiable stoner, and now we know! He’s just sold a single-camera workplace comedy where the workplace is the United Nations to NBC. This should be reasonably exciting for a couple reasons. First, NBC has the workplace comedy thing down pat, and with Parks & Recreation, has experience with workplaces that also happen to be bureaucracies.
Second, the United Nations is deeply marginal in popular culture. It’s periodically shadowy or dangerous, as in the Left Behind books and movies or The Art of War (Wesley Snipes has worked for a surprising number of government or quasi-governmental agencies on film); scandal-ridden, as it will be in the upcoming Rachel Weisz human rights vehicle The Whistleblower; or marginal and ineffective, as in Armando Iannucci scabrous black comedy In the Loop. But unlike, say, the NYPD or the FBI, we don’t have a pop culture trope about how the UN is supposed to function despite the fact that, for all the criticisms leveled at it, it’s a reasonably important gatekeeper in world affairs and thus should probably play a more significant role in our security-oriented popular culture.
And finally, there is a real virtue to people who have actual knowledge about how government works imparting that knowledge to people who make our popular entertainment, or in Penn’s case, being someone who has worked in both government and entertainment and thus has a sense of what might translate in both directions. I’m not saying our pop culture needs to be spinach, but having drama with real roots can eliminate plausibility problems, convey accurate background information in situations where it’s important not to dramatically mislead the audience, and make it possible to land punches of social criticism and satire harder and with much greater accuracy. Complaining about the UN as a world government is both misleading and not particularly illuminating. Poking the institution where it needs tweaking and showing off the breadth and complexity of its work and internal politics is well worth doing and much more interesting.