Like many other TV fans, I was very saddened by the end of NBC’s Parks & Recreation earlier this year. It felt in some ways like the end of an era; many considered Parks to be one of the last remaining great sitcoms, and at the very least it marked the official end of NBC’s multi-decade dominance of the sitcom genre. The Peacock network opted this past year to end its once-popular Thursday night “Must See TV” lineup, one that had traditionally featured the network’s best comedy shows, instead refocusing its primetime schedule around a slate of (largely unsuccessful) dramas. While Parks & Rec finished its run on Tuesday nights due to this shift, it had spent the bulk of its lifetime as part of that Thursday night lineup, sandwiched in between other modern gems such as its sister show The Office. However, the collapse and final demise of NBC’s comedy empire is not the only era that may have ended with Parks & Rec.
Centered around its eternally sunny protagonist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Parks was unique in a modern landscape where so many sitcoms have shifted to depicting unsympathetic, Seinfeldian characters whose failures we don’t mind laughing at. Shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia offer up gleefully terrible human beings for our viewing pleasure, knowing that the audience will feel nothing but amusement at watching their deranged adventures. This makes for fertile ground for comedy, and Sunny‘s brilliant creative team executes their premise flawlessly.
With Parks & Rec, however, this mean-spirited nature is nowhere to be found. When Leslie and the gang suffer setbacks, it isn’t funny to the audience but rather genuinely upsetting. These aren’t caricatures of horrible people; these are fully-developed human beings, each tailored perfectly to their respective actors to create the illusion that we really are just acting as a documentary crew observing their daily lives.
Sitcoms traditionally have applied this kind of heart to their characters until recently. The half-hour comedy format was seen as serving two purposes for audiences: to make them laugh, and to give them an escape from their everyday lives. What better way to do that than to turn on the TV and watch a group of people that you feel as though you truly know hang out for 30 minutes? The recent trend, however, seems to be taking much of the “heart” out of the genre, creating a more cynical (though arguably funnier) final product.
Should sympathetic characters be phased out of sitcoms in favor of characters that are easier to laugh at? This is something I’d love to hear others’ opinions on, as personally I have no answer for it; I love sitcoms that make me care about the characters, but I also love ones that are essentially just rapid-fire joke machines. Feel free to leave any thoughts in the comment section!