‘Parks and Recreation’ and the problem of television ratings
NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” is going on hiatus as the hit show continues consistently suffers from low ratings. Now in its sixth season, “Parks and Rec” has been halted until 2014, except for a few new episodes in November. Reports suggest that NBC wants to push its new comedy “Sean Saves the World,” starring Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace” fame, in the Thursday night time slot. It’s easy to blame this on television viewership being down on the whole due to people preferring streaming their shows on their computers, and it’d make sense that a show that runs for six seasons is bound to lose steam.
But “Parks and Recreation” is an anomaly; even though it has never had fantastic ratings, it has always been highly-lauded by critics. The show has earned multiple Emmy nominations, as has Amy Poehler for her performance as protagonist Leslie Knope. The show finally won the TCA (Television Critics Association) Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy in 2013 after being nominated for four consecutive years prior. It was named Time’s No. 1 show of 2012. It has achieved a cult status among fans of the show. So why do its ratings continue to dwindle?
“Parks and Rec” is intrinsically set up to fail because it is inaccessible. It is difficult to get into the show without watching it from the very beginning. This makes it great to binge watch on Netflix, but nearly impossible to jump into when a new viewer catches it on television. “Parks and Rec” is a surprisingly sub-plot driven show; every character has personal, long term stories and relationships.
It’s impossible to truly appreciate Tom Haverford’s ultimate success with Rent-A-Swag, for example, if you never saw him continually fail in all his previous business endeavors. You won’t feel the overwhelming joy at Ben and Leslie’s marriage unless you’ve witnessed her horrendous dating track record and watched their tumultuous relationship come to fruition. You can’t fully comprehend Ron Swanson becoming a father unless you’ve seen his hard exterior turn soft and gushy for his girlfriend’s kids.
Furthermore, the show has an incredible amount of running gags that span the entire show’s entire run. The importance (and hilarity) of Ron wearing a red shirt, Ben freaking out on live TV, or Galentine’s Day will be lost on viewers who are not devout followers of the series. This problem extends to recurring characters like Tom’s business partner Jean-Ralphio, local news reporter Shauna Malwae-Tweep and news anchor Perd Hapley.
The humor in ‘Parks and Recreation’ is another difficult point of entry for casual comedy fans. It’s all character driven and the characters are extremely offbeat and quirky. Aubrey Plaza’s April Ludgate’s evil awkwardness can be off-putting, and people may find Chris Traeger’s relentless positivity annoying. The irony of a hardcore libertarian like Ron Swanson working in government can be missed by less politically-inclined viewers.
“Parks and Rec” completely deviates from common sitcom character tropes; the cool one (Jesse Katsopolis, Charlie Harper, Shawn Hunter, Barney Stinson), the funny one (Joey Gladstone, Jack McFarland, Screech, Eric Matthews), the relatable, every-man (Ted Mosby, Ray Barone, Cory Matthews, Leonard Hofstadter) are nowhere to be found. These characters work on other shows because they are familiar to mainstream television audiences and they are easy to understand. They tell the same, tired jokes and rely on canned laugh tracks. Meanwhile, “Parks and Rec” deals with real issues of local government, Leslie’s ongoing conflict with Jon Glaser’s Councilman Jamm, a bribe-accepting flip-flopper, is a direct parody of what is going on right now on the federal level. The constant social commentary adds layers of indirect humor which are not always addressed in modern TV comedies.
“Parks and Recreation” is suffering from the same issues as its spiritual predecessor, “Arrested Development.” Its complex characters and weird sense of humor aren’t as marketable as a generic sitcom and its cultish fan base are not the type of people to sit down and watch TV the old-fashioned way. The modern TV viewer seems content streaming their shows in bulk online. It’s this type of TV viewer that is watching critically acclaimed shows like “Parks and Rec.”
It is for this reason that fans are not actually watching it on TV. As a result, the show is being pushed aside to accommodate another trite “out-of-touch dad” sitcom. It’s a vicious cycle, one Netflix has begun to break by creating their own shows and reviving “Arrested Development.” Unfortunately, fans of “Parks and Rec” have to understand that the show was set up to fail from the get-go. It’s a surprise and a blessing that the show has even made it to six seasons. Count your blessings, Pawneeans.
Ryan Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.