It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Parks & Recreation became the happiest show on TV. Maybe it always has been, and viewers just didn’t get the joke through the first season and half of the second. I can’t say that it was the moment Leslie broke up with Dave, or the episode in which Chris and Ben showed up, or the first time Andy sung “1,000 Candles in the Wind.” But I know that somewhere down the line, this single camera sitcom about local government and Midwestern life became the highlight of my TV viewing week, rivaled only by the most nail bite-inducing Vampire Diaries and, of course, my favorite comedy of all time, Community.
Then Community came back for its fourth season, and it seems the show I used to love degenerated into everything Community once seemed to revile.
It’s not that I’m hate watching Community now. Because Jeff, Abed, Annie, and the others are still around, and because stellar writers like Megan Ganz hadn’t left yet, I feel the need to hang on, even as Annie becomes a weaker, more victimized version of herself, Abed degenerates into Basil Exposition, and Jeff takes his shirt off more than ever before. I half expect to hear a “Woo!” despite the lack of laugh track. And it’s not just that the characters are losing luster. The set pieces, no matter how grand (see faux Hunger Games and surreal Inspector Spacetime convention), lost their sheen. The world doesn’t feel quite so unique anymore. The last time I saw a sci-fi convention on TV, I was watching CSI while looking for a new pair of blue flats on ModCloth. And I’m pretty sure that throwaway CSI subplot (which, granted, did involve a large number of cameos by Battlestar Galactica cast members) was better than “Conventions of Space and Time.”
Don’t get me wrong. I had hope for Community, I’m still watching Community, and I have no plans to give up on Community, a show that’s inspired me in ways that would sound pathetic, were I to list them. But more and more, I’d rather watch a season of Parks & Rec than a new episode of Community. Community didn’t always directly poke fun at sitcoms; it subverted their tropes in a loving way rather than snidely commenting on the absurdity of laugh tracks and cookie-cutter plots. (Now they’re also following those sorts of plots, but that’s off the point.) Parks & Recreation, meanwhile, rarely pokes fun at anything, with the exception of Jerry, who gets more abuse than Charlie Brown in a game of football. The appeal of Parks & Rec, beyond the acting and the pratfalls and the constant callbacks, is its sincerity. This is a show about people you’d meet in small town Indiana, people with ambition that are still satisfied where they are. Leslie Knope is heroic, in some sense. She’s a politician with actual admirable values, a truly kind and caring friend we can only hope to relate to. Elsewhere, Jeff Winger is a narcissist, Britta Perry is delusional, Shirley Bennett is manipulative, and Pierce Hawthorne is all of the above. When put in the right hands, these traits felt real; you wanted the characters to understand their faults and grow beyond them. And sometimes, they did. But now that they’re stuck in the constructs of what feels like a fairly typical sitcom, the room for character growth is shrinking considerably.
I said this already, and I’ll say it again: I’m not giving up on Community. It’s still one of the cleverer shows on TV, and it’s still well acted and decently plotted and interesting enough to take up 20-odd minutes of my life each week. But don’t be surprised if my smiles are a bit wider, my laughs a little harder, and my tears a little more frequent over Parks & Recreation. Community, you had a good run as my favorite comedy. But those days are done.