Saturday, April 11, 2009

Parks and Recreation

When I heard that Indiana would be the location for an "Office"-like show about small town government, I began to wonder which of my home state's fine municipalities would get the Scranton treatment, turned unexpectedly into a byword for the foibles and quaint blandness of middle America.

Pawnee, Indiana, where Parks and Recreation is set, is not a real town, and the show doesn't even seem to be filmed in the Midwest, much less in Indiana (I'm a little insulted the NBC folks think Pasadena can pass for the Hoosier State). To add insult to injury, the show's creators don't even seem to know what the Midwest looks like. Below is the establishing shot for the title sequence. I honestly cannot tell what is growing in these fine-figured rows, but it isn't corn or soybeans, wheat or anything else one might expect from Indiana.
My disappointment is a little petty, I suppose, but the choice to fabricate a town wholesale does say some interesting things about the show's treatment of its setting. I wonder whether, like the movie Hoosiers, which is set in the mythical Hickory, Indiana, but which is based on an actual small town's run to the state championship from Milan (pronounced My-lin, unfortunately), the entertainment brass feel as if no actually existing Hoosier town adequately represents the purity of the popular conception of middle America. "Indiana" is more of a pastoral trope than a filming location and would always underwhelm audience expectations, whereas Rust Belt America can be approximated more palatably and convincingly by Scranton, PA.

A friend of mine wrote a very good op-ed about Parks and Rec which deals with the economic side of this pastoralizing condescension: Scranton has become a surprise tourist destination, and has cashed in on its ambiguous fame. No town in Indiana will be able to say the same, even if Parks and Recreation becomes a monster hit, which it looks like it will not.

On the other hand, the pilot (which is now up on NBC's website) surprised me somewhat in drawing its humor from a non-regional, nearly universal source: the pettiness of small-time (not necessarily small-town) politics. The town—what we saw of it—was not coded as very Midwestern, in fact; there was a very noticeable attention to assembling a racially diverse cast (even more so, I think, than The Office), and there has not really been an obvious gesture toward quaintness—the town looks like a generic, faceless suburb which could just as easily sit outside Albany or Springfield, Massachusetts. There is no rural presence (other than that shot from the title sequence), and the cast is, as yet, strikingly young—there are no old-timers, a favorite trope of the static, rural small town. The show's writers do not seem to want to milk any laughs from the setting of the show; just from its characters.

Yet this avoidance of the show's setting seems to indicate a future crisis of representation: the documentary-like filming techniques which viewers of The Office (and other shows) have now been trained to accept as a bridge between obviously absurd behavior and the very real work-related issues we really do face is now being imported whole into an imaginary setting. I can't understand how this bridge will reach far enough; any absurd behavior captured in this filming style will just appear more and more estranging, and there won't be any "outside world" to sink this estrangement in. Even if we've never been to Scranton, the knowledge of its reality is a sort of passageway to a place like Scranton that we have been to; knowing that Pawnee is unreal seems as if it will just repel any attempt to find a similar place in our imagination or experience, because there is no place like Pawnee.

There are, of course, shows which are quite successful in settling into an imaginary town in a real state: I'm thinking of Weeds and Twin Peaks, but there are obviously others. These shows are conspicuosly not shot in any manner which betrays a desire for confusion with documentary or cinéma vérité. They are shot like feature films and rely on a sort of positive alienation from the events depicted: Nancy Botwin and Dale Cooper are compelling protagonists because we have never faced any problems like they face.

Which leads me to wonder why bother with a real state, anyway? For a television show like this, isn't this an immediately obvious case of square peg, round hole?

I have only seen the pilot of Parks and Rec, and maybe subsequent episodes will explore the town a bit more and drum up some yokels to laugh at, but for now I'm left wondering whether the setting serves any point at all, whether choosing an imaginary town didn't kill any sort of connection to the reality of life in a small town, and whether this won't end up making the show airless, in both senses of the word.


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