Saturday, April 18, 2009

New Sitcoms Reflect the Philosophies of Their Networks: "Parks and Recreation" and "Surviving Suburbia"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

I've been hard on NBC in the past, but it's certainly justified. The network, once known for its massively successful Must See TV lineup on Thursday nights, is now essentially out of ideas. In the last few years it has repeatedly rolled out new shows, many of which were cheap copies of existing hits, that seemed tone deaf to what viewers wanted. NBC's complete lack of success (frequently locked out of the weekly list of Top 20 shows) led to a decision to turn over its entire 10 p.m. weekday time slot to a talk show.

Meanwhile, the philosophy at ABC couldn't be more different. The network that put the mind-bending "Lost" on the air has dedicated a huge portion of its fiction slate to shows that are genuinely ambitious, putting twists on traditional formulas.

When viewed through the prisms of the networks' recent track records, their new sitcoms, "Parks and Recreation" (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Surviving Suburbia" (ABC, Mondays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern), make total sense.

One of NBC's biggest sins of late has been its penchant for airing ill-conceived knock-offs of existing shows. ABC had a hit with "Dancing With the Stars," and Fox scored solid summertime numbers with "So You Think You Can Dance," so NBC decided it would be a good idea to toss out "Superstars of Dance," which drew deservingly low numbers. "The Bachelor" has been a warhorse for ABC, spawning a sea of similar shows, so NBC offered up the creepy and offensive (and poorly rated) "Momma's Boys." Just when you thought the network couldn't get any sillier, it debuted a carbon copy of "Hell's Kitchen" starring that show's mentor, which promptly tanked so badly that the network pulled the plug weeks into its run. It feels like NBC has given up trying to develop new shows, instead mechanically ripping off hits in a misguided effort to achieve similar success. In fact, NBC ended up with all three spots on my spring list of shows I was least looking forward to seeing, with two of the entries scoring very low ratings ("Kings" and "Chopping Block"), and a third not living up to expectations ("Celebrity Apprentice").

The one bright spot for NBC has been that on the most important television night of the week (for advertisers, and thus for the networks), Thursday, its lineup of single-camera sitcoms, while not highly rated in total viewers, attracts good numbers in the all-important 18-49 demographic. But NBC couldn't even get Thursdays completely right, kicking off this season by replacing "Scrubs" with the spectacularly horrible "Kath & Kim," which was rejected by audiences and critics alike.

With "Kath & Kim"'s season mercifully over, NBC filled its spot with "Parks and Recreation," which is another example of the network simply playing copy and paste, this time with it's own successful formula. Created by "The Office" executive producers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, and serving as the vehicle for Amy Poehler's transition from "Saturday Night Live" to a prime-time comedy, "Parks and Recreation" is, to be diplomatic, heavily influenced by "The Office." Shot in the same single-camera, faux-documentary style, and working in the same area of low-key laughs based on discomfort rather than broad set-up-punch guffaws, watching "Parks" feels like watching "The Office." (I'm talking about general atmosphere, not quality.) Which means that, by definition, "Parks" will never be the innovative eye-opener "The Office" was (and often still is).

Judged on its own, "Parks" is a mildly amusing half hour with some potential to get better. The comedy is centered around Leslie Knope (Poehler), an ambitious but clueless deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie is Michael Scott, only dumber and less likable, mainly because where Steve Carell brings a warmth to his dim-bulb boss, and his character often gets to redeem himself in the end, Leslie is far colder, and, at least based on the first two episodes, she always loses.

Leslie leads monthly informational forums for the town's citizens, which she thinks is an honor, but we find out from her right-wing, anti-government boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), that she is the only one willing to do them. After a local nurse, Ann Perkins (the funny Rashida Jones), complains that her boyfriend Andy (Chris Pratt) was injured in the giant pit at an abandoned construction site near her house, Leslie gets roped into agreeing to visit the site and impulsively promises to turn it into a park. (She then tells the camera, "This could be my Hoover Dam.") It won't be easy, since Ron later tells the camera that he doesn't believe in government, so he doesn't support the park idea.

She also isn't going to get much help from her co-worker Tom Haveford (Aziz Ansari, who isn't working far from his funny lazy intern on "Scrubs"). Leslie thinks Tom is "Libyan," but he tells the camera he is a "redneck" from South Carolina. Tom is more concerned with graft (we overhear him on a phone call explaining how to get around his gift limit of $25, and in the second episode he tells a series of subcontractors that if they get the park gig, he expects a "favor" in return) and getting laid (he hits on Ann at the meeting when he hears her boyfriend is incapacitated). Leslie and Ann also doesn't get much help from Andy, who is a lazy, selfish, using, free-loading, wannabe musician. Ann is oblivious to Andy's horribleness, which is hard to swallow, even in the heightened world of "Parks." (After watching Jones be so funny and vibrant opposite Paul Rudd in "I Love You Man," it's hard to accept her as such a doormat.) The only person who marginally wants to help Leslie (and knows how impossible her task is) is city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider). Leslie says things are complicated between them because they slept together, but in his interview, Mark forgets at first that it even happened, later realizing that they had indeed hooked up once five years earlier.

"Parks" may be a knock-off of "The Office," but the problem is not that fact, per se, but the ways in which Leslie is a far less funny, likable or interesting as a lead character than Michael is. When Michael brags, you see the insecurity below the surface, and it makes you feel bad for him. When Leslie says, "It's a great time to be a woman in politics, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi," it's more off-putting than one of Michael's searching rants on why he is good at something. When Leslie calls Tom a "Libyan," she comes off as an ignorant bigot. When Michael makes a racially insensitive remark, you know he's trying to do the right thing, even though he usually doesn't know how. I think it's important that despite Michael's failings, his branch makes money, whereas Leslie seems to suffer no such success.

In the capable hands of Daniels and Schur, and with a gifted cast with reliable comedy actors like Jones and Ansari, "Parks" certainly has its moments. And, moving forward, I'm sure the stories will tighten up a bit and the characters will find their footing. But so long as Leslie is the bland and distant lead, the sitcom will never be able to reach the level of its Thursday night neighbors "The Office," "My Name Is Earl" and "30 Rock."

As I watched the debut of "Surviving Suburbia," for the first few minutes I was amazed. It's not that I thought it was terrible or great, but rather I couldn't believe that I was watching a 1980s-style, mutlicamera, traditional, family-based sitcom on network television, and that it was on ABC of all places. The episode starts with Steve and Anne Patterson (sitcom veterans Bob Saget and Cynthia Stevenson) sitting on a couch watching television (ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," of course) with their adorable pre-tween daughter Courtney (G. Hannelius, and no, I have no idea why she doesn't have a full first name). When Anne notes how beautiful the dancers are, Courtney says to Steve, "You should dance with mommy," to which Steve replies, "You should go to bed." You just don't see this kind of sitcom on television anymore. Even the way Saget is uneasily perched on the couch, more posing than sitting in a way any suburban dad would, felt completely out of step with the more film-like, single-camera sitcoms that make up the bulk of the networks' comedies.

But then I realized that it actually made a lot of sense that ABC would be the network to air Surviving Suburbia." After all, it is the only show like it on the air right now. By offering up something so traditional, ABC is bucking current trends.

I still don't know if "Suburbia" works. It is funny at times. And on the surface, it is really old-fashioned. Steve's aversion to doing favors for his neighbors puts him in the pantheon of cranky fathers that runs from Archie Bunker to Homer Simpson. The main plot of the pilot, in which Steve accidentally burns down his neighbor's house after he reluctantly agrees to take care of his fish, and then lies about his role in the fire, resulting in Steve being lauded as a hero, was just wacky enough to fit into any traditional sitcom. And fellow veteran Jere Burns plays the quintessential somewhat wacky neighbor.

But there is a bit more going on in "Suburbia" than is visible on the absolutely conventional surface. I really like the little bit of an edge that Saget gives to his suburban dad (he is more interesting than the bland patriarch he played on "Full House"). While operating in seemingly family-friendly territory, the show isn't afraid to stray to more adult material, like when Steve takes advantage of his hero status to get sexual favors from Anne.

I can't say that "Surviving Suburbia" is one of my new favorites, and I'm not sure the laughs are as plentiful as I would like, but I do admire the effort, as well as ABC's commitment to cover new ground (even if it means finding space for forgotten old ground). While "Parks and Recreation" has accomplished writers and a strong cast, ultimately, it feels hollow, treading on ground that has been covered earlier (and better) by the show that immediately follows it on Thursday nights. The two sitcoms reflect the networks that air them. It will be up to "Surviving Suburbia" to be worthy of ABC's programming guts, and "Parks and Recreation" to prosper despite being a product of NBC's lack of vision.