Why Aren’t People Watching Parks and Recreation?

Parks and Recreation- Season 6

Alex Russell

Remember when Liz Lemon was everywhere?

For a few years it seemed like you couldn’t load Tumblr or Facebook without seeing at least five Liz Lemon memes. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; 30 Rock was a tremendous show. It was a lot of things, but above all else it was the critically-acclaimed anchor to NBC’s very weird (but very great) Thursday night that included The OfficeCommunity, and Parks and Recreation.

The Office faltered late, as everyone knows. 30 Rock managed to do OK just because it was consistently being hailed as the best show on television. Community‘s story is still unfolding, but the fanbase is rabid enough that it will probably end up fine. But what of Leslie Knope and the Liz-Lemon-meme-worthy Ron Swanson?

Let’s tell it straight: People are not watching Parks and Recreation anymore. Numbers-wise, the show has done a little bit worse every season, especially after losing The Office as a lead-in. Everyone who loves Parks and Rec will tell you that it doesn’t really find its footing until the end of the first season, but America really disagrees. The first season held a huge percentage of Office fans, even though it debuted after one of the dumbest storylines in Office history (“Michael Scott Paper Company” was the lead-in episode for the pilot).

Season two of Parks and Rec is some of the greatest sitcom TV of the last fifteen years, but it did a little bit worse (between four and six million people per episode) than the weird first season. Second three — which followed the final Michael Scott episodes of The Office and was the first season with Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as regulars — did even worse, sometimes dropping below four million. The three seasons since have done worse in the ratings, and sometimes far worse.

A lot of this is on NBC. 30 Rock did even worse than Parks and Rec during its decline and even The Office, the one your mom liked sometimes, barely managed four million viewers a night by the end. Community seemed unstoppable, but it’s tanking this year in the ratings. Parenthood, once one of NBC’s most reliable shows, is doing the same.

Thursday night on the other networks? Fox has Hell’s Kitchen and American Idol. CBS has The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. ABC has Scandal. NBC’s support for its sitcoms is Hollywood Game Night.

It’s impossible to convince someone to definitely watch something unless they already might, but you really should be DVRing Parks and Rec. The show stumbled a little with an ambitious plot for main character Leslie Knope, but it’s still one of the only consistently funny, consistently great sitcoms on network TV. NBC renewed it for next year, but based on the competition and the current trend, Parks and Rec is dead in the water. Come stay awhile with it every week, like you would an elderly relative. Ron Swanson is still there Ron-Swansoning around, and that really should be enough to earn your 22 minutes a week.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: NBC

In Defense of The Big Bang Theory

Mike Hannemann

Here’s an argument defending why that show currently holds a one out of three thumbs up on my TiVo.

The Big Bang Theory can be a touchy topic to talk about. On the one hand, it’s the highest rated sitcom on TV. On the other, it’s been called incredibly lazy (and even offensive) television. I’d like to point out some word choice there because it’s crucial for my argument.

This show is a “sitcom.” Not a “comedy.” That’s an incredibly important distinction. The two can oftentimes be one and the same, but sometimes a show will draw a line in the sand and decidedly state what they intend to be. Sitcoms are rarely, if ever, truly great television. Cheers  and Seinfeld, yeah, these were sitcoms that redefined their genre. But not every comedy is a sitcom. I’m not saying that BBT is comparable to Archer, Louie, Parks and Recreation, or even Workaholics. A sitcom is a decisive format. There is an X, Y, and Z to every script. There’s even three set locations that most of the major scenes will always take place because they have to be built, on a sound stage, and filmed sometimes still in front of an audience. It’s popcorn TV. It’s something to throw on after dinner. In a landscape of Last Man Standing, Modern Family, The Middle, and Men at Work (TBS is really trying to produce sitcoms these days) my argument is simply that it does deserve to fall on the higher end of things.

Objection 1: The easy joke

Let’s call this one out right away: the most common criticism I hear is that show isn’t funny because it falls back on that stereotypical nerd joke over and over again. That guys who read comics can’t talk to girls and have no social skills and can speak Klingon. It’s the same joke that’s been done on everything, including The Simpsons (hell, that show created the mold many of the characters on BBT are based on). If you can’t get past this fact, stop reading. You won’t be able to access the better part of the show. If you can muster it up to roll your eyes at the softballs there’s something better there.

This is largely character based. Reactions to jokes are just as enjoyable as the comedy itself. The actors can deliver physical comedy and read lines the right way to make it more amusing when on paper it’s probably pretty brutal. You can forgive a comic or even a friend for making saying something stupid in jest if they’re likable. It’s what makes easy jokes OK. A lot of times, something isn’t funny because of the words used – it’s funny because that specific character said it. The more time spent with the cast, the more you appreciate that. More on this shortly.

Objection 2: Interest

Regardless of a show’s writing staff’s ability to write jokes, it’s far worse if they can’t write anything interesting. I would argue that a sitcom with lame jokes but an interesting setting is far more acceptable than a sitcom that’s just boring. A sitcom with puns and fart jokes that can hold your attention is better than anything ABC churns out where you can’t even remember any of the characters’ names by the end. BBT offers something to the television landscape to at least define itself as something with the possibility for stories that haven’t been done to death.

Set at a university and having a majority of the characters academic successes allows the writers to explore cliches in different settings. It’s a sitcom – it’s nearly impossible to think “this hasn’t been done before” but the new benchmark in the genre is “this hasn’t been done THIS WAY before.”

Objection 3: The characters

This is actually the biggest strength the show has going for it. People see the Sheldon character (Jim Parsons’ role that won him Emmys over Steve Carell on The Office year after year) and are immediately turned off. I’ll give ground on this. A lot of the focused on his eccentricities which you can compare to Seinfeld’s Kramer (at best) and Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel (at worst). It’s jarring and off putting – but it isn’t all that’s there. You have to get past this point.

The show wisely realized it couldn’t carry the same joke over and over again for multiple seasons and actually had characters grow and develop to the point where the joke couldn’t be made anymore. Hell, jokes made at the expense of others but all of the main characters are hugely successful over the course of the series run thus far. BBT doesn’t treat its characters as punching bags (well, not all the time) when it comes to real issues – just in the moment of the easy joke. As the characters develop, bits and pieces of lame easy jokes fall to the wayside for the better character driven humor. And better defined characters were added to the current cast.

I’m specifically referring to the women added to the show, this is another. As much as the early seasons relied on Sheldon being… well, weird, to attract viewers the staff added more female characters to the show. Non stereotypical ones that blended naturally with the developing cast. They’re a highlight on the show now and are actually written well. It isn’t the usual Chuck Lorre Two and a Half Men treatment. Sure, there are still stereotypes (it is CBS after all), but now there’s a fully fleshed out cast.

Closing argument:

I doubt this will change any minds as to whether someone will ever watch this show, but I offer this up as an explanation for the millions of people who do. This isn’t ground breaking television. Hell, it feels silly analyzing it this in depth (even though the AV Club does it weekly). But as far as sitcoms go, it’s on the higher end. It’s something to throw on if you have a bad day and just need some popcorn TV to relax. Get past the things people who don’t watch the show already know about it and you’ll find the reasons people do.

Setting the Tone for Sticking the Landing: CBS’s Approach to How I Met Your Mother

Mike Hannemann

CBS is probably the smartest network on television. Let me immediately clarify that sentence. Their programming isn’t the smartest – not by a long shot. It’s the reigning network king for primetime dramas and comedies, having dethroned NBC years ago. Personally, I devote an hour of my life every week to CBS, two sitcoms are all that interest me. And that’s even on the heavy end of the 25-35 demographic. There are no Facebook updates on Hawaii Five-0 or Sherlock. I don’t go to work and hear people talking about Survivor anymore. In five years? Well, who knows. My peer group may be super into CSI: Dubuque.

I can’t, however, insult the intelligence the network heads have for their scheduling. It’s solid and air-tight. Their dramas compete with the right dramas to win and they smartly place their comedies on nights where other networks won’t be able to compete in the big leagues. As much as I love Parks and Recreation, it’s always going to lose to Two and a Half Men. With no real education in this, I can’t really say that I draw these claims from technical knowledge… just a deep-rooted obsession with TV for the past 20 years of my life. Which is why finding out CBS’ approach to ending their second-highest-rated sitcom was so fascinating.

First, a quick recap: How I Met Your Mother is currently in a ninth and final season. It started as a low-rated test to see if TV audiences would take to a show with a mildly distinct and unique narrative structure – yet also one that could easily be drawn out for, well, nine seasons. It landed and turned into the network’s biggest sitcom after The Big Bang Theory (a quick check of the numbers also puts Two and a Half Men in that category). Like all popular shows, the network wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. But since creative minds finally have at least some say in when and how a show would end, a deal was struck to conclude in 2014. (Sidebar: Can you imagine what that would have been like 10 years ago? When, if even for a moment, network execs would stop and listen to the writers that enough is enough?)

The interesting part is how they’re going to do it.

HIMYM is going to end on March 31st, burning off its final two episodes. One of the highest-rated shows is going out in March, not May. Not with a big finale to compete with the other networks ending their seasons. Instead, on a date that is one of the slowest times of the year for television (the top three of course being November sweeps, February sweeps, and May). The crazier part is that this is in the midst of one of the biggest sporting events of the year: the NCAA tournament. A tournament that CBS airs. It makes no sense, on paper. But when you elaborate on it, it’s genius.

Not that the show needs the advertising, but being able to promote the finale during the tournament is huge. It was already going to be talked-about but now CBS is creating an island in the middle of the TV landscape for this to be the ONLY event. How many times do you think people are going to hear “How I Met Your Mother series finale event” during the course of March Madness? If it’s anything less than 12 per game, I’d be honestly shocked.

Let’s go back to the island metaphor. CBS is creating something unique for the show to land on. This is the only thing happening at the end of March. There’s nothing for anyone else to talk about… so why not talk about this? Viewers who didn’t care much for the show will at least have nothing else distracting them. It won’t be a big week because a list of shows are ending for the season – it’s a big week because one show, THIS show, is ending. And since it all ties back into advertising, CBS looks to increase that revenue as well because of it.

Finally, this basically leaves a spot on the bench to fill at the perfect time. CBS is known for having many comedy pilots that go to series and are canceled because… well, they’re awful (stay in your room, Rob!). But there are always shows with potential for greatness that never get the chance to get there. Creating a seat in the middle of CBS’s comedy lineup after coming off the wave of a series finale and into a wave of rising expectations for everything else ending for the season is the perfect spot to put something new in. Something (hopefully, a little experimental like HIMYM was) that deserves that little bit of an extra chance.

Network TV shows end in a lot of different ways. Some are critically acclaimed but end quietly, like 30 Rock did last year. Some shows are burned off during the summer with networks airing episodes just because they have nothing else to put on. And most end in May, competing with each other for every precious (if arguably obsolete thanks to streaming) ratings tick. CBS has shown intelligence in its programming tactics, and their willingness to take a chance to create a new standard on how you can use a show’s ending to help both creative and corporate parties is nothing short of brilliant.

But then I read about their potential spinoff How I Met Your Father that’s in pilot mode right now and I’m tempted to take everything I just said back.

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Step Into Our Office

Alex Russell

Welcome to the first post.

If this is your first time here you’d do well to start with our about page where you can read our purpose statement. If you can’t be bothered or have some other aversion to about pages, it’s simple: Reading at Recess is an uncalled-for response to the way people talk about culture. Tons and tons of people do it right. Tons and tons more do it wrong.

We’re just hoping to split the difference. Nothing’s set in stone yet past the start. Today we’re gonna talk about the newspaper of record covering a weird Adult Swim show, the web’s premier music criticism site loving a song that has less lyric diversity than “Around the World,” and just why everyone might be watching “America’s Most Watched Network.”

We’ll be back on Monday. We’ve got an argument about how last year’s game of the year isn’t a game, some resolutions about change in the new year, and a look at why Friday is such a television black hole for the major networks.

Welcome to this.

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