Who Needs Reality?

Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope Amy Poehler

The devolution of the mockumentary in shows like The Office, and now Parks and Recreation, interests me.

The fake-reality comedy form has become, through audience familiarity, simply another film-style choice. The premise that The Office and Parks and Recreation are documentaries — well, that faded long ago into the audience’s unconscious. There are a million things in both P&R and The Office that would never happen in front of a documentary film crew; people would never say or do those things when they knew they were being filmed, and a camera would never be around to capture them in the unlikely event they wanted to. Not to mention that if The Office (now at the end of its fifth year) were the product of a documentary shoot, it would be the longest and most expensive single shoot in the history of film. But that’s OK.

Back in the fifties, George Burns talked to the camera in The Burns and Allen Show. Nobody asked, “Hey, how can he be a character in a situation comedy and still know he’s in a situation comedy?” Today’s mockumentary shows are not different from that — they’ve added a shaky camera, that’s all.

But that’s everything, since the shaky-cam updates the tradition — an ancient one, going back to Shakespeare’s asides; the gloss of modernity may be what we need in order to believe in characters we otherwise, in this cynical time, might not. It breaks through our defenses.Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope Amy Poehler 2

Speaking of character, the complexities of P&R lead character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), mid-level Pawnee, IN municipal government bureaucrat, continue to fascinate. Sympathetic figure, or complete buffoon? Both! Her failure to carry out the blackmail of the zoning commissioner last night was sheer, pathetic ineptitude (she ended up with a glass of water thrown in her face, while she poured out a torrent of apologies) — but it was also a sign of innate goodness. When she later says to friend and confederate Ann, as if it were a confirmation of her moral fiber and not merely of her incompetence, “I didn’t have it in me to do that,” she’s actually speaking the truth. She wanted to do it, and that sucks, but it’s also true that her ineptitude in the situation was a direct result of a core decency. She’s not cut out for politics, and part of the reason is that she’s not a horrible enough person to be cut out for politics. So Leslie is a floor wax and a dessert topping — and I find that believable, and unusually layered for a situation comedy. That’s the real reality.

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