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Parks and Recreation: I Like You and I Love You

The following is a scholarly paper I wrote last semester on Parks and Recreation. In it I break down the show’s creation of its own Semiotic language which forms an audience short hand for the show’s six seasons.

Parks and Recreation

I Love You and I Like You.

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By: John Longo

Parks and Recreation: I Love You and I Like You

Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009- ) is a modern situational comedy airing on NBC and shares traits with renowned sitcoms such as I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57), Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-98), and The Office (NBC, 2005-13). However, the show transcends common generic labeling to represent a myriad of sitcom tropes including workplace, romantic relationship, and satire. This hodgepodge of comedic flavors has allowed Parks to break through the constraints of traditional television comedies and become a unique entertainment experience. The show was first conceived by creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels under speculation that it would spin-off the duo’s hit, The Office. However, Schur (who remains as executive producer / show-runner today) and his team quickly developed Parks into another idea completely; one that heavily quoted its predecessor’s narrative format. The show is a sister series to The Office sharing many personality traits such as the use of the faux documentary crew as a narrative framing device, quirky characters, an office setting, and even the same actors (actor Rashida Jones play Karen Filippelli on Season 3 of The Office and Ann Perkins on Parks). Unfortunately early reviews were not kind, with critics claiming the show and Amy Poehler’s main character, Leslie Knope, were poor facsimiles of The Office and Steve Carrell’s character, Michael Scott. Chicage Tribune writer Maureen Ryan said this of the show’s first season:

The biggest problem is that Poehler’s character, officious and dim parks bureaucrat Leslie Knope is as unappealing than she was in the first episode. Not once have I rooted for this strained character, who has more ambition than “The Office’s” Michael Scott but none of his child-like charm. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Poehler should be playing a smart if sometimes inept character –someone like Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” — not a female Michael Scott with delusional political ambitions. (Ryan)

Since that first season Parks and Recreation has transformed from a mild and banal Office knock off into its own fully realized series with critical acclaim and a small but vocal fan-base. The show’s writers and staff even admitted that their abbreviated first season did little to distinguish Leslie as a competent character and began a course correction in season 2. Schur admitted this folly in a 2011 interview:

The biggest things we changed were that, first, Leslie was reading to people—completely unintentionally—as ditzy. That was never our intention. We always thought she was really smart and good at her job. We realized we had screwed it up a little. (Heliser)

Eventually Parks reestablished itself and its main character transforming into a different sitcom than The Office. When comparing the central characters on The Office and Parks, Saul Austerwitz said, “Leslie is a gentler figure than Michael, in keeping with Parks as a whole, which is a politer, less gut-twistingly awkward version of The Office” (350). Austerwitz took this a step further and disputes Ryan’s original criticism of the show by saying, “As it grew from a shabby imitation of The Office into its own brightly pleasant, if not quite groundbreaking, creation, Parks and Recreation found its own voice in its cacophony of oddballs, each gloriously deaf to the world around them” (351).

Parks follows a group of government workers in Pawnee, Indiana. Poehler plays Leslie Knopp who at the start of the series is an optimistic, hardworking, slightly naïve, and at times frustratingly ditzy deputy director of the Parks Department. The show’s structure revolves around Leslie and her team dealing with mundane bureaucracy that perpetuates public apathy towards government. Further examination into the show’s narrative themes reveals that despite individual character evolution, its episodic narrative remains structurally the same. Utilizing narrative theory, we can further understand the meaning behind Parks and Recreation’s message. Furthermore when we view narrative theory via the lens of semiotics we can delve further into the meaning of the show’s related narrative principles. In this paper, I will use the basic tenants of semiotics to deconstruct the narrative structure of four episodes – Season 1, Ep.101: “The Pilot,” Season 2, Ep. 224: “Freddy Spaghetti,” Season 4, Ep. 410: “Citizen Knope,” and Season 5, Ep. 513: “Emergency Response” – in order to understand Parks and Recreations’ thematic message narrative structure and how contains semiotic signifiers that mirror classic sitcom traditions while creating something new and unique.

Narrative Theory: The long road taken.

Television narratives are a distinctive form of storytelling. In the modern age of television, fictional narratives are broken into two typical genres; drama and comedy (sitcom). Both of these categories can then be broken down further into subcategories of genre including science fiction, soap opera, workplace comedy, family comedy, etc. However, a show’s genre does not explicitly drive the type of narrative story being told, instead it uses genre as narrative set dressing. What this means is that a particular episode of a science fiction genre show and a situational comedy can both produce an episode of television whose story revolves around true love. For example the Season 5 episode of the television series Angel (WB, 1999-2004) titled “Smile Time,” written by Ben Edlund and Joss Whedon, featured a long awaited confession of love from characters Fred Burkle (Amy Acker) and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof). Story elements of the episode contained science fiction beats that fit the show’s motif, including the main character Angel (David Boreanez) being transformed into a puppet, yet the key beat of this episode was the confession of love. Compare this to the Parks and Recreation episode “The Smallest Park,” written by Chelsea Perretti, in which Leslie and Ben finally declare their love for each other at the opening a small park they have co-chaired the creation of. The main thematic beats are the same in both series, yet the episodic circumstances differ based on each show’s genre. What is most significant and unique to television narrative is the ability of a series to show growth and change over the course of its history. The longer a series lasts it has the indelible ability to shine a reflective mirror on society.

If we want to help others see the relationship between television’s stories and our culture’s values and assumptions about how we define reality, many of the elements of narrative theory need to be more functional. Even though television narratives are as linear as many novels, they exhibit several qualities that distinguish them from other forms of narration-notably a heavy emphasis on character development and continuous storylines that flow between episodes of a series. (Porter, et al 23)

Porter’s quote shows that we must look at television narrative theory differently than we do narrative in other major works of fiction such as books and television. Those forms of media are unique to their structure because their stories have a definitive end. Conversely, television tells a complete narrative story that can span seasons (years) with hundreds of individual stories that can be assembled into a larger narrative puzzle.

Parks and Recreation is an example of that type of program. While each episode relies on a basic structural format, the show is allowed room to breathe, learn, and grow. Parks’ main character, Leslie Knope, is a different character in Season 5’s episode, “Emergency Response” than she is in the “Pilot.” She is now a city councilwoman has found the love of her life, and is on the precipice of her wedding. This emphasizes the point that, in storytelling media, television narrative has the significant advantage of long term character development. Porter notes that this strength is what makes shows appealing to an audience. He says:

The regular viewer is interested in what happens to the characters-how they develop relationships, how they cope with various obstacles week after week, season after season. The more interesting television characters grow and change over time, creating layers of depth in their metamorphoses. We may even come to know these characters better than our own co-workers. (23)

Character development is a major factor in how we understand the message of a television series. The longer a show lives it becomes imperative that it has established likeable characters because eventually they are what drive the story forward; particularly in a situational comedy such as Parks and Recreation. Leslie’s rise to city councilwoman and subsequent marriage would be meaningless if not for the audiences understanding of Leslie’s past life experiences. Character development in television narrative creates a signifier to the audience which initiates understanding. It is an idea that is further explored when we look at narrative theory via the lens of semiotics.

Semiotics: Creating meaning in narrative theory

Little Sebastian, Duke Silver, and Mouse Rat. These three items are innocuous to a casual observer and in most instances are meaningless words strung together. But for the avid Parks and Recreation viewer, these phrases add a rich connotation to the audiences shared viewing experience. The writers of Parks and Recreation created meaning where once there was little or no significance. This is the very basis of semiotic discussion. Whether the writers of Parks realize it or not they have been using semiotic connections to cultivate their small but loyal viewership. They are using an invented linguistic short hand to create meaning where there was once none. In his 1985 paper, media scholar John Fiske describes semiotics this way:

Semiotics is grounded in the notion of language as a social fact, so it treats meanings as an essential part of social relations, and social relations as an essential part of meaning. Its main interest, then, is with the ways in which meanings are generated and circulated in a culture, and with the relationship of these meanings to the structures of power within society. (176)

The idea of meaning being created through social relations and in media is not limited to a series such as Parks and Recreation. Looking back into NBC’s sitcom history we see semiotic examples of meanings constantly created for audience that once seemed meaningless. The sitcom Seinfeld created semiotic meaning everywhere in the narrative. George Costanza’s (Jason Alexander) maligned social status is perpetuated throughout the show’s run, as is the notion that the four main characters are essentially despicable human beings. This characteristic manifests itself in Seinfeld’s series finale episode “The Finale,” written by Larry David, where the characters are put on trial and sentenced to a year in prison for the trivial crime of not being good Samaritans. The episode uses flashbacks, callbacks, and returning characters from the series nine year run to explicitly demonstrate character traits that had previously been implicitly applied. Viewers bore witness to their abhorrent behavior throughout the shows run, but in most instances these traits were funny and endearing character bits, not acts of criminal depravity. However, each bit of information learned about the characters created meaning. Seinfeld’s use of semiotics is not limited simply to implied viewer interpretation. The show also creates an explicit semiotic language, much like Parks and Recreation, to quickly connect viewers with sub-textual implications.

Turning life inside out, Seinfeld empties it of all emotional or intellectual content-all that hugging and learning-and keeps only the dross, making into a memorable potpourri of instantly recognizable details. Shrinkage. The puffy shirt. “Not that there is anything wrong with that.” Spongeworthy. The Pez dispenser. Fusilli Jerry. Festivus. The Bubble Boy. “Shiksappeal.”Mulva. The mimbo. The Soup Nazi. “Serenity now!” “They’re real, and they’re spectacular… Daily life was Seinfeld’s domain, and it was unquestionably the master there. It may have been about nothing, but that nothing grew until it seemed to include practically everything.” (Austerlitz 227-8)

Terms like the Soup Nazi, the puffy shirt, or even the phrase “Hello, Jerry” are meaningless outside of the context built by the content makers (Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld). But to a fanatic Seinfeld viewer the Soup Nazi has meaning, as does the puffy shirt, and Newman’s icy monotone delivery of, “Hello Jerry.” Television has an illustrious history of using aspects of semiotics to create its own language from Seinfeld to Parks and Recreation.

Fiske’s definition applies directly to the Parks and Recreation phrases described in the previous paragraph. In Parks’ world, Little Sebastian is a miniature horse/pony revered by the citizens of Pawnee. An example of this horse’s power is his ability to turn resident mans man Ron Swanson into a giggling man-child. The strength of this reference extends to the entire citizenship of Pawnee, Indiana. Little Sebastian’s power is a phenomenon, and leads to a secondary semiotic connection with a character considered the “outsider;” Leslie’s beau Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). Ben is a transplant to Pawnee via the Indiana state capital and is immune to the charms of Little Sebastian, stating several times that he “just doesn’t get it.” Ben’s reaction to Little Sebastian is telling, as he becomes the straight man; the audience’s stand-in. Whenever Little Sebastian is mentioned, referenced or mourned, the show’s “documentary” team finds Ben’s face in the crowd for his reaction, which is bewilderment even after he tells Leslie that he gets it; a necessary white lie to maintain the peace with the love of his life. Ben’s reaction becomes a secondary semiotic connection for Little Sebastian. It is a part of Ben’s character creating emotional depth, and whenever Little Sebastian is mentioned the audience connects the name with Ron’s blubbering giddy behavior and Ben’s perpetually flummoxed exasperation. These moments are part of Parks and Recreation’s minutia, but they also play an integral part in how the writers formulate and plot episodes, arcs, seasons, and the series. This is why we must apply semiotic approach to further understand Parks and Recreation’s continuous narrative.

Semiotic Language informs the Narrative Structure of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation episodes begin with a cold open. In many cases these openings are amusing asides that do little to establish the episode’s story arc. For example the “Pilot,” written by Michael Schur and Greg Daniels, opens with Leslie on a playground trying to conduct a survey of children on their enjoyment of the park, but then must remove a drunk who is stuck inside a children’s slide. This sequence is intercut with a talking head segment in which an invisible film crew is interviewing Leslie about her job. As Leslie describes the joys of government work we see what will become a hallmark image for the series, Leslie having to deal with unintelligent members of Pawnee in order to do her job more effectively. The point of this cold open is to establish the tone of the series and character. The story elements do not come until after the opening credits have rolled. At this point we are introduced to the rest of the cast, usually in the middle of a typical workday. This is where the genesis of the episode’s story arc is dispersed. In the “Pilot’s” case the character Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) acts as the dispatcher sending Leslie and her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) to cover a town hall meeting with Pawnee citizens.

It is important to pause for a moment and reflect on the semiotic signals that are established in the “Pilot.” The cold open is littered with signifiers. The obvious signifier is the use of the documentary crew as a framing device. The episode opens and we hear Leslie speaking. We quickly learn that she is speaking directly to camera as a surrogate for the metaphysical audience watching. In this moment, Leslie and the show are acknowledging the audiences presence and inviting them to actively participate. The next signal is also seen in the first shot; Leslie in a children’s park.

The setting is established; the image of Leslie in a park instantly creates a relationship for the audience that ties her character symbiotically to park iconography. The clothes Leslie wears, the way she acts, and the initial problem she faces are all semiotic tools that are meant to create multi-layered meanings within the episode’s first five minutes. Equally once the story elements are deployed we discern further meaning. Character dynamics are established not just verbally but via small interactions. When Ron asks for someone to accompany Leslie to the town hall meeting he is met with ubiquitous silence. Leslie’s assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) is subsequently drafted and voices displeasure verbally and physically, via body language displayed in the office and the town meeting sequences.

When we juxtapose the pilot’s start with season two’s “Freddy Spaghetti,” written by Dan Goor, we see Leslie and Ron once again holding a public forum this time discussing the show’s current equilibrium; the government shut down. This episode’s call to action is that the government shutdown forces the cancellation of the children’s concert headlined by Freddy Spaghetti. Leslie refuses to give up and decides she will fight the state auditors and keep the concert going. In both cases we see that the narrative elements utilized are dictating how the show’s audience should react and receive the message of the show. The show is establishing plot; government meeting/event – a problem occurs (the disequilibrium) – the characters must react.

Once again semiotic meaning is created in this sequence. “Freddy Spaghetti” is the 24th episode in Parks’ second season and the 30th episode combined over Seasons 1 and 2. The audience is familiar with these characters, and so are the creators (the writers and actors). Hence, in the opening sequence when Ben and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) are meeting with the heads of each government department to discuss cuts to the city budget, the audience understands why this situation makes Ron ebullient. The series has established a clear signifier for Ron Swanson, finely honed and cultivated through 30 episodes. He is anti-government and enjoys the mere thought of mandated budget cuts. In Ron’s didactic talking head segment he says, “I am an official member of a task force dedicated to slashing the city budget. Just saying that gave me a semi.” This fortifies Ron’s prevalent personality trait established in the “Pilot” when he tells the camera, “I don’t believe in government. I believe all government is a waste of taxpayer money.” Ron’s dream is to have all government privatized by corporations like Chucky Cheese. Ron’s apathy for his government job is a major character signifier so that when the audience gets to “Freddy Spaghetti,” it becomes the first time they witness Ron loving his job. This touchstone becomes a part of the long-form cohesive narrative story that Parks and Recreation is telling, and can only come about because of the basic semiotic understanding created and cultivated since the “Pilot.”

Continuing to look at the various aspects of Parks and Recreations serialized narrative; we come to Season 4’s “Citizen Knope,” written by David King, and Season 5’s “Emergency Response,” written by Norm Hiscock and Joe Mande. Both episodes pick up the long form narrative baton fermented in the “Pilot” and “Freddy Spaghetti.” For example, in “Citizen Knope” Leslie, is suspended from work because of her perceived illicit affair with Ben, whom we first see as Leslie’s antagonist in “Freddy Spaghetti,” and subsequently in “Emergency Response” Leslie is on the verge of marrying Ben. Each of these events is separated by a year’s worth of story and character development and at least two years from the events in “Freddy Spaghetti.” Because the audience now shares knowledge of the current equilibrium and character dynamics, they know that Ben and Leslie are meant to be a couple and actively support it. Where as Ben was introduced as a foil for Leslie (admittedly a foil with obvious intentions of becoming a love interest), he has now become her soul mate. This is a significant connection fostered over the course of several seasons and a major clue that semiotics plays a significant role in Parks’ overarching narrative.

TV History and Semiotic Narrative Relationships

We should pause here and exam the relationship dynamics on Parks and Recreations by comparing it to the classic sitcom, I Love Lucy. In this example we will look at how semiotic meaning can be passed down through decades of a shared television experience and archetypal relationship iconography. Leslie and Ben share many of the same characteristics as Lucy and Ricky (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz). The character of Ben is the prototypical uptight husband/boyfriend character who – when we first meet him – is Leslie’s superior. Their relationship is structurally similar to Ricky and Lucy; Leslie and Lucy are the show stars, Ben and Ricky their romantic foils. Ricky is a Cuban bandleader, who seems simultaneously exasperated and madly in love with his wife, Lucy. Leslie and Lucy share more character similarities. Both are ambitious women with dreams of grandeur. Lucy is handicapped by a chauvinistic 1950s culture that believed women to be a dainty second class citizen who were best left to taking care of the home and children. Viewed through cultural hindsight, Lucy is a pacifist demonstration against postwar idealism; that is to say the women must leave the workforce to the returning men. I Love Lucy’s narrative contains examples of this behavior, from “Job Switching,” written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Davis, and Bob Carroll Jr., in which Lucy and upstairs neighbor/landlord Ethel Mertze (Vivian Vance ) switch responsibilities with their husbands Ricky and Fred (William Frawley) to “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Davis, and Bob Carroll Jr., where Lucy attempts to audition for a cigarette commercial. Leslie is the beneficiary of women like Lucy who strove to become more than just a housewife. Leslie serves in an authoritative position, yet she still answers to men who have the ultimate authoritative roles (Ron, Ben and Chris). Leslie and Lucy are cut from the same archetypical character cloth and their adventures mirror each other as does its affects on those around them.

In the case of Parks and Recreation, Ron, Ben, and Chris all play an authoritative role similar to Ricky’s. In the “Pilot,” Ron is constantly badgered by Leslie to approve her proposal to renovate Lot 43. Like Ricky who refuses to allow Lucy to be apart of his nightclub show, Ron refuses to acquiesce to her harassment. When he finally agrees to her wishes it is only because a fellow male character, Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) convinces him. Flash forward one year and now Ben serves Ron’s former function as the visiting state auditor with a directive to drastically cut the city budget in “Freddy Spaghetti.” Ben, now the authority figure, is exasperated with Leslie when she decides to hold the children’s concert against his wishes in Lot 43; another semiotic call back to an earlier narrative plot point. Leslie deliberately disobeys Ben and holds the children’s concert which is not government sanctioned. This causes Ben to react negatively at first, before he ultimately helps her in the end. This situation directly mirrors Lucy’s many schemes. Lucy’s constant plots to get on stage and participate in Ricky’s band are a reflection of her desire to break the mold of her domineering male counterpart. In Parks’ case Ben is not yet Leslie’s lover, but they do share a sexual chemistry and he is in a position of authority over Leslie. Finally, in “Citizen Knope” Leslie butts heads with her third authority figure, Chris. Chris has mandated that Leslie must stay out of City Hall due to her suspension, but Leslie refuses to sit on the sidelines. So, like Lucy, Leslie defies the natural order of her male counterparts forming the PCP, The Parks Committee of Pawnee. The through line this episode is that in her absence Leslie’s group is constantly harassing the city to make local park improvements. The eternally optimistic Chris is now the antagonist for Leslie. Their battle is summed up nicely when Chris meets with Leslie regarding her various petitions. He relents and agrees to consider her group’s request after a contentious discussion. She then hands him a thoughtful Christmas gift – a Blu-tooth stopwatch that records jogging times – and follows that pleasant gesture by telling him “See you in hell.”

Parks and Recreation and I Love Lucy showcase the passion of its lead female stars. Their enthusiasm is effervescent bordering on annoying, but each one is also able to see their hubris and come to an understanding by the close of their episode. The difference between the dynamics of both shows, besides the obvious space-time aesthetic, is that the characters on Parks are given room to develop, where on Lucy the characters are formulaic and fully realized static relationships. The characters on Lucy are not allowed to change (save for the birth of Little Ricky); they stay in stasis until the final episode. Parks characters evolve; they fall in and out of love, get new jobs, have children, or move away. However, the similarities far outweigh the differences and there is a semiotic connection that begins in I Love Lucy that is translated 50 years later into the narrative text of Parks and Recreation. The signifier is the strong modern woman challenging the authority of a man as well as the relationship challenges with a domineering female lead and secondary male star.

Summary

The typical Parks and Recreation season (18 – 22 episodes) consists of individual stories, but interspersed throughout the narrative is usually a longer thread that is played out across a season or half season. In order to achieve the maximum enjoyment from this type of narrative it is imperative that the audience has the ability to pick up on the semiotic clues within Parks’ narrative. These clues are signposts telling the audience where they are in the story and subsequently the series. For example, in the “Pilot” it is established that the parks department requires $50,000 in order to build a park on the vacant lot behind Ann’s house (the initial catalyst for the series). In the final moments of the “Pilot” the audience is introduced to an oversized chart that dramatizes the amount of cash available in the fund. This chart is subsequently seen peripherally throughout the remainder of Parks first five seasons. It’s not always directly referenced, yet for vigilant – or even a lax – audiences its presence has meaning. The fact that it remains in the department’s office and is glanced over by the “documentary” cameras establishes a subconscious connotation with the audience. Its purpose is to visually establish that there is always a goal to be met.

Parks and Recreation has created a visual topography on top of its linguistic idioms. Its narrative structure bristles with semiotic meaning from its flaccid two-dimensional landscape. The series creates meaning via recurring set pieces – town meetings, City Hall, and parks, which when mixed with verbal signifiers like Duke Silver, Mouse Rat, and Little Sebastian produces an overarching meaning that translates into a deeper audience experience and association. “The way we see things is affected by what we believe” (Berger 8). This quote from John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing is a demonstration of what the visual and audible milieu of Parks and Recreation instills within viewers. Every frame, word, and sound creates an undiluted message that can be interpreted by the masses or the individual.

Conclusion

Unfortunately for NBC, Parks and Recreation has never been the ratings smash hit that every network hopes for. Even at Parks best, its week-to-week ratings pale in comparison to its predecessor, The Office. In this instance, the series use of semiotics and narrative collusion is a detriment to the show reaching a mass audience, yet it is precisely because of these elements that the show has found a small, loyal, and extremely vocal fan base along with critical support. Its approach to comedy is optimistic and almost saccharine especially when compared to more cynical shows about government like VEEP (HBO, 2012 -), however its central narrative structure remains as it enters its seventh and final season. While the characters have grown and changed, the premise remains the same; yet because of the affect of semiotics, Parks’ audience has a greater appreciation for the source material. Semiotics has proven to be an essential tool when examining the narrative structure of the post-modern sitcom. By applying the principles of semiotics to Parks and Recreation’s narrative structure we are better able to deconstruct the show’s core themes, which then serve as a perfect access point for understanding its audience’s reception. Using semiotic construction over the course of television history, we can simultaneously understand the subtle formula that Parks and Recreation employs to further sitcom tradition while also forging a new unique path.

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