The secrets of Parks and Recreation

I just finished watching the seventh and final season of Parks and Recreation. It is a brilliant show: funny and endearing, playful characterisation. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

This post is about two interesting elements of the show you may not have noticed.

They made a drastic change after the first season

The first season of Parks and Recreation was fine, it was funny, but something was wrong: the main character, Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), was hopeless. The writers originally thought it would be funnier if she was something of a failure, allowing the other characters to crack jokes at her expense, to turn to the camera with widened eyes.

The problem was that this made the other characters less likeable. That one decision about the protagonist’s effectiveness warped everyone around her and made the whole program feel dour, more mean-spirited. Kudos to the show’s writers and producers for noticing this and being bold enough to make a significant change (turning Leslie into an effective but somewhat obsessive and dorky person) because by its seventh season Parks and Recreation had some of the most likeable characters you will ever come across. Even the “bad guys” (Councilman Jamm!) are lovable somehow.

Which takes me to my second insight.

The show is full of happy people

So often storytelling is filled with sad people. Stories are all about struggle, and for some reason we have come to equate that with finding life hard, with internal and external conflict. Think about the TV shows and books you like: how many involve characters who are doing it really tough, or are filled with people who are trying to bring each other down? It is as though we as a society equate difficulty and stress with worthiness and success. If someone is finding life easy and enjoyable, they are not ambitious or hard-working enough!

What an unpleasant way to be portraying the world.

What makes this more distressing is that stories are an important contributor to our social narrative and culture. What we see in books and on screen influences who we are as people, how we live as a society. Stories are a reflection of us all, they tell us about each other and how we treat each other, and how we see ourselves. If we keep portraying everyone as sad or nasty then that is what we will consider the norm.

I reflected on my own writing and apart from a single character in my first novel, my guys and gals are always struggling, are always butting heads with other people. Including nice, happy people is something I will be certainly bearing in mind in my future works.

So go and watch Parks and Recreation if you haven’t already, and if you have, start again and watch the show evolve from the first season.

Bask in the happy people.