Cracked.com’s excellent web series After Hours recently released a video in which the four characters try to come up with a TV show, but they keep subverting every idea because they can’t see the shows as anything but bland, homogenous formulas slightly more appealing than what babies drink. The series has also gestured to this in a discussion of character types based on the four humors—scientifically discredited bunk that television writers still use in place of nuanced writing. Those are two excellent episodes to watch after watching one of your favorite shows lean on sitcom-y crutches and cartoon characters.
After Hours describes NBC shows as “Really great comedies that nobody watches, except . . . elitist culture snobs out of touch with the common man,” and CBS shows as “some of the most successful shows on television, despite the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of a single one.” Another character calls CBS shows “Regular TV for dumb people.” I’d like to amend that: NBC shows start out as “really great,” but eventually whatever the conceit is dries up. They still make the kinds jokes that appeal to their audience, but they don’t make them the same way. This episode of Parks and Recreation is a perfect example—I’m rooting for Leslie and sympathetic to her struggles with eye-deadening bureaucracy. I’m laughing at Tom. I’m marveling at Ron. But it’s quieter, less surprising. Sort of like how pizza used to be an awesome treat, but once you decided to make Friday night “pizza night” two years ago, it’s just another blasé part of the week.
The main plot involves Leslie and Ann attempting to educate Pawnee’s seniors about safe sex. This is a typical Leslie cause—do right, even if it’s nauseating. Fielding questions from seniors about sex is just as gross as running for city council against Bobby Newport or trying to reason with Perd Hapley, but someone has to do it. Unfortunately, we get the seniors saying a bunch of sexual things, and you can feel the writers next to you on the couch, drinking the last beer in your fridge and tonguing chips out of their mouths while elbowing you and saying, “get it? It’s funny that she wants condoms, because she’s 80.”
It’s nice to see Ann have some sort of purpose other than finding a new boyfriend. Make no mistake, she does have a new boyfriend, but mercifully, it’s background noise. He lives on a dude ranch, so we never see him. But she does show up dressed as a cowgirl at the beginning of each scene, which is . . . funny, I guess? At any rate, Ann actually hints at some sort of knowledge of public health and professional fealty to the Hippocratic Oath by urging Leslie to demonstrate some #pluck and stand up and fight against abstinence-only education.
Oh wait, did I mention sex education is illegal in Pawnee? Because of course it is. Morality watchdog and too-cartoonish-to-be-funny character Marcia Langman walks in, but here’s a new twist: she has a husband, and HE’S A MARCUS BACHMANN SURROGATE.
For those who don’t remember, Marcus Bachman is the husband of Congresswoman Michelle Bachman. He runs a “pray the gay away therapy center,” and Jon Stewart once implied that Marcus was so gay “he calls Top Gun ‘that volleyball movie.'” Marcus may or may not be a closeted gay man, but it doesn’t matter. His flamboyant vivaciousness is enough to completely undercut his tragically exploitative and dangerous ideas, and few things make me happier than idiots who embarrass conservatives simply by following conservative beliefs.
So Marcia’s husband, brilliantly named Marshall, prances around and preaches about pushing perverted desires out of your mind while professing his love for Ann’s half-Pippi Longstocking, half-Annie Oakley fashion sense. No one addresses his flamboyancy beyond subtle sidelong glances, and it’s never addressed throughout the episode. Which is a relief, because for a while, I was convinced the writers were going to make Marshall coming out of the closet the climax.
Initially, Leslie breaks the law and tries to tell the seniors abstinence until marriage is the only form of safe sex. This should be hilarious, since it’s pretty safe to assume that these seniors—Baby Boomers who endured the Mad Men era—have all been married before, or at least done the dirty once. Instead of letting that subtlety ring, however, we get a woman saying she won’t be told not to have sex by someone ten years her junior (get it? Leslie looks old, apparently) and how some woman wants to see the condom demonstration again because she doesn’t know where Leonard’s been (get it? She and Leonard are going to have sex, and Leonard’s apparently had sex recently, gross, old people). Some cheap quips that have all the subtlety of a battering ram ruin what should be a hilariously poignant scene.
Meanwhile, Tom has been banned from “using screens”—phones, TV, computers, etc.—for a week after crashing his car into a fire hydrant due to DWT: Driving While Tweeting (not texting, Tom emphasizes). This is a super-gimmicky, sitcom-like punishment, and it’s difficult to sustain your suspension of disbelief that a ban on using screens would be enforceable (what if he plays pickup basketball? OH SNAP, that’s a joke that probably just barely got cut from the final script). Suspension of disbelief or not, it allows Ron an excuse to take Tom out to his cabin—you know, removing him from the temptation to use screens.
Like all addicts, Tom struggles initially. Ron does something very un-Swanson and asks Tom to talk about it. Just give a play-by-play of what he does with screens every day, let it out into the open air, and it will be off his chest forever. So Tom runs through his social networking while Ron chops wood, catches a decent-sized bass, shoots a few birds, and builds a fire. It’s pretty standard Ron-as-Dad/Tom-as-infantilized-man-child stuff, but they hilariously underplay Ron’s expertise with nature. Tom is so embroiled in his discussion of the internet that he doesn’t even jump at a gunshot. Apparently all has been forgiven since Tom shot Ron in the head.
In the end, we get the predictable: Tom steals Ron’s car to buy a burner phone and crashes it. Ron gives him a book—not an e-book—about automotive repair and orders him to read it and help him fix his car. Subplot resolved. Cue Leslie talking to Ben on the phone about the episode we just saw.
You could say that this episode is about avoiding temptation, but I think a better way of phrasing it is it’s a caution against indulgence. This can also be read as “play it safe”—safe sex, punishments that don’t involve prison, safe and easy jokes about ugly, old people bumping uglies, whiny Tom, doofus Andy, ass-backwards Marshall and Marcia Langman. This was a good episode, but not a great episode. Playing it safe is one of the worst crimes a TV show can commit (well, that, and having a fifth season). It’s frustrating, though, to watch a program that has so much to say and so many funny ways to say it devolve into something more closely resembling a pilot CBS would greenlight. I want the Parks writers to disregard the lesson of this week’s episode. Go overboard. Get insane. A spectacular experiment that maybe misses the mark is always better than perfectly replicating dated formulas. Push yourselves, Parks writers. No one wants Good The Office 2.0 to become Bad The Office 2.0.