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How ‘The Wire’ Influenced ‘Parks and Recreation’

Looking at bureaucracy and elections through the lens of television.
 
 
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 In a game of TV critic merry-go-round, Time’s James Poniewozik  catches something interesting in an interview Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan did with  Parks & Recreation producer Mike Schur:

Another tidbit from the interview that struck me was Schur’s saying—prompted by a question from Ryan—that the show would love to be a kind of comedy version of  The Wire. I don’t want to overplay that quote; he doesn’t seem to be inflating the show so much as saying that  The Wire is a standard to aspire to, and maybe that  Parks would like to create the same kind of broad civic world, within the context of a less realistic network comedy. And  Parks, as Ryan says, has a much more optimistic outlook than  The Wire.

But it’s interesting to see that in the light of our discussion yesterday of David Simon’s disappointment about  The Wire’s reception since it’s gone off the air: that it seems to be remembered more as an entertainment than for its specific view of social institutions and the drug war. It’s pretty plain that The Wire did not change American drug and policing policy, but this is also a little reminder that there’s more than one way for a show to be influential. If a show like  The Wire has made a little NBC sitcom slightly more thoughtful about how institutions and communities work—that’s not exactly changing the world, but it’s something to be happy about, anyway.

I agree that would be a legacy that’s both entertaining and constructive, especially if it means that more shows look for the realistic drama in existing institutions.  Parks & Recreation is different from most shows in that it draws its comedy from lowering stakes rather than artificially jacking them up. The first major conflict the show dealt with was trying to fill in a hole. One of the biggest collective tragedies the characters have experienced was the death of a mini horse. The show doesn’t make fun of the characters for investing so much in relatively small things. Instead, it respects them, and the show’s signature mix of comedy and kindness comes from that framing. If part of Schur’s goal is to use the show to explore more of Pawnee’s bureaucracy and institutions, that’s also a good argument for Leslie winning the City Council race so we can see more of city government.

It’ll be an interesting question whether other shows start drawing the same realistic drama from existing institutional imperatives. That’s probably an easier thing for comedies to do than dramas, if only because the networks have conditioned us to expect such big stakes in the latter. If the President’s mistress isn’t knocked up a la Scandal, a small child isn’t in horrible danger, or the world isn’t at risk, shows seem to feel they’re not doing their duty. I’ll be curious to see what comes of the show that The Wire’s Ed Burns and Amber Tamblyn are supposed to be working on about a school: it’s not in the pilot cycle this year, so we’ll have to see what happens. But one of the consequences of  The Wire having a lot of journalists and novelists writing episodes (in additional to the different perspective they brought) is that it’s not like the show spun off a huge number of TV writers who are now selling shows of their own. Its creative influence might be less clear to trace, but Schur can’t be the only one who’s looking to  The Wire as an influence, and interpreting that influence in clever and surprising ways.

 
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