Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: "Parks and Recreation" and "Star Wars" references


So an interesting thing is happening in NBC's last bastion of decent programming (i.e., featuring shows that aren't inspired by games you teach remedial kindergarten classes): the learner is becoming the master.

For no reason I can divine, I've never quite gotten into NBC's The Office. And it's not out of a misplaced sense of Anglophilia, either. I'm not a huge fan of the BBC original because, weirdly enough, I prefer the American version's sweet haplessness to the British incarnation's mean-spirited awkwardness. You see that it's perplexing as to why I don't watch our Office religiously. Regardless, The Office has always been a show I can take or leave.

So when Parks and Recreation appeared as a mid-season replacement in April of 2009, I was hesitant to jump on board. "Another mockumentary sitcom? Don't people understand that awkward does not always equal funny?!"

The pilot didn't help matters, either. And most distressingly, it wasn't bad because of a half-baked premise or a mismatched cast. It just wasn't funny.

I though the pilot was so bad, in fact, that I refused to watch the show even after I'd heard that the show had improved dramatically. But because Parks sits amongst NBC's aforementioned not-crappy Thursday night lineup (including The Office, Community, and 30 Rock), I ended up watching the thing almost by accident one night. Holy crap, was I surprised.

Parks had transformed itself into a laugh-out-loud funny, emotionally affecting stroke of genius. Working off of feedback from audiences and their own observations of the cast's strengths, the writers have managed to craft a superb second season that showcases some of the best ensemble work on television. While 30 Rock is getting increasingly lost in a thicket of mediocre (but high-profile) guest spots, Parks has kept its head down, content to just be fucking funnier than everybody else.

Funnier, in fact, than that Office show. And though you could blame the show's current "meh"-ness on the Trix rabbit getting the Trix (i.e., Jim finally getting together with Pam), I'd say the same thing I said, ironically enough, about the Parks pilot: it just isn't funny. The writers seem to be having a difficult time juggling the funny and the touching (see the YouTube-aping wedding episode), as they did so deftly early on.

Parks undoubtedly takes much from The Office. So much, in fact, that it was initially announced as a spin-off and is still thought of as the latter's sister show.

But even NBC seems to recognize that Parks has eclipsed The Office (in creative success if not in audience). The biggest hint? Parks got renewed a month before its forebearer. Of course, with its witless and hitless schedule, NBC would have been idiotic not to pick up the rest of its Thursday evening lineup.

As shocking as it is to think of the once-mighty Office being defeated by its Padawan learner, Parks, it's actually quite a familiar pattern.

Take juvenile provocateur/fat Jesus Kevin Smith, for example: the guy essentially invented the "twentysomething males curse and complain about their crappy lives" genre, and he's seen his own star eclipsed tenfold by the likes of Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). 2008's limp Zack and Miri Make a Porno (seewhatIdidthere,didjadidja?), released most certainly to capitalize on the success of the genre Smith founded, was a critical and commercial off-note. It wasn't quite a flop, but it made clear that Smith had been beat at his own game.

Or The Simpsons and Futurama: members of the creative team of the former peel off to work on the latter, and the latter goes on to wild critical acclaim...and cancellation (and subsequent rebirth, but the jury's still out on the success of that third chapter). The Simpsons, meanwhile, is wheezing through its 21st creatively but still walloping the competition audience-wise.

So whaddya think: are we witnessing, as Darth Vader (Parks) put it so succinctly all those years ago, the learner becoming the master? Or will Obi-Wan Kenobi (The Office) tell Darth to eat a dick, cut the dude in half, and keep on living ten years past the time he should have become a Force ghost?

All I can say is, don't switch off your targeting computer just yet.