Laughing all the way: Parks and Recreation

The Thinker by Rodin

No question about it: NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a funny sitcom! The NBC TV series will begin its seventh and final season next month. I on the other hand have just recently discovered it, and am streaming past episodes on Netflix.

I have found that I tend to binge on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes I will watch four episodes in a sitting, which is not a hard thing to do since each show is about twenty minutes when you take out the commercials. Then I will take a break for a week or two. As I get more and more into the series, I can’t seem to wait that long. Sometimes I watch it during the day. I just can’t seem to stop!

The series stars Amy Poehler as the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a “mocumentary” from the creators of The Office (American version). I have tried to get into The Office but it never took. Parks and Recreation on the other hand was easy for me to like, in part because it’s about the civil service, and I inhabited that world for thirty plus years. Granted that I was a federal employee, and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her crew are city employees, but it feels familiar. With the exception of Leslie, most of the people working at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department though fall into the stereotype of civil servants that spend more time goofing off than working. This is particularly true of their director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Despite the fact that he does almost nothing, he is hoping to become city administrator and then to get rid of his department. Ron you see is a libertarian, but not just a run of the mill libertarian, but a severe libertarian. He wants the parks contracted out to the private sector and would like these companies to charge kids to see ducks.

Leslie is just the opposite and basically runs the whole department with cheerfulness, aplomb and dedication. It’s just that her employees emulate her boss for the most part. They include her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a skinny and short guy of Indian ancestry but born in South Carolina with a green card marriage to a doctor from Canada but with a passion to run a nightclub. It also includes April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) whose job is to keep the public from seeing Ron Swanson, Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) as a large fifty-something career civil servant on the cusp of retirement and Donna Meagle (Retta) as a snappy, fast-talking black woman with an attitude. Hanging outside the office and occasionally inside it are ancillary characters Andy Dwyer (“shoe shine boy”), Leslie’s friend Anne and toward the later half of the second season Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), sent by the state of Indiana to help run city government, which had gotten badly mismanaged.

The mocumentary style is now well refined. The camera becomes an unseen presence that the characters interact around and with, although rarely explicitly. This gives us insight into the intimacies of each character and actually kicks up the level of entertainment. The comedy of the show of course comes from the interaction of these characters and the slow soap operas of their lives that continue incrementally from show to show. Individually no character is particularly memorable, but as an ensemble they prove most entertaining. They become more entertaining as you get to know each of them and their backstories.

Not every show is a hit but all are funny to some extent and some had me actually on the floor laughing hysterically. I watch these alone as my wife is not into mocumentaries, and it’s just as well because falling off your chair from laughter is kind of embarrassing, particularly when snot starts running out of your nose. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV series so there were doubtless many other funny TV series that I missed over the years. I can say honestly though that I have never laughed so hard at a TV sitcom in more than thirty years, since WKRP in Cincinnati entertained us for four seasons starting in 1978.

I am just starting the third season so there is plenty more laughter ahead. Most of the laughter evolves around Leslie, Ron, April and Tom. Some of the funniest episodes though involve characters that appear irregularly. Leslie’s boss Ron is a twice divorcee, one with the chief librarian of the city named Tammy (Megan Mullally). Ron and Tammy have a deeply dysfunctional hot/cold relationship. Apparently about once a season the writers invent a reason for them to come together again, and the fireworks that happen when they do are not to be missed. So far these shows have been the comic highlights of the series for me, but there are also many shows that individually are great gems. “Greg Pikitis” from Season 2, which was immediately followed by the first “Ron and Tammy” episode, were two back-to-back shows that had me laughing and careening off my chair and onto the floor. Both of these shows were particularly inspired and should have won awards for the longest periods of sustained and hysterical laughter. There are also a number of periodically recurring characters to enjoy, such as the smarmy skinny TV hostess of “Pawnee Today”, Joan Callamezzo.

As a portrayal of the civil service, the show largely goes for stereotypes. I haven’t worked in city government, but it was my experience that with a few exceptions most federal civil servants I worked with were focused, dedicated and talented. In Parks and Recreation the writers found more humor in portraying civil servants as dispassionate, web and text surfing bodies inhabiting desks. Leslie is the big exception, as was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), a city planner, who unfortunately left the show after the second season. Stereotypes aside, this is a comedy so laughs are the important metric. It’s nice though that at least some of the civil servants in the series come across as dedicated and professional.

In any event, the show seems to be hitting almost all of my laugh buttons. If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try. Season 1 is a little rough as the characters were just settling into place. Season 2 though should leave you fully hooked. Seven seasons apparently is all we’re going to get of life in the fictional town of Pawnee. I hope it’s not ending because the writers ran out of ways to make us laugh.

All the lonely offices

The Thinker by Rodin

In February I will celebrate my tenth year of working at my agency. As I near that milestone, it’s hard not to see that a lot has changed.  Some things have not changed at all. My building is still the same. The view out my window of the parking lot and (on clear days) the Shenandoah Mountains is still there. What’s missing is a whole lot of people. It’s like something out of a Beatles song:

All the lonely offices
Where did they all come from?

Ten years ago, my office was a bustling place. It was not completely full, but it mostly was. It was even fuller ten years earlier when I hear the cubicles put up in the hallway outside my office were also full. Today it is mostly silent. It feels more like a tomb than an office building. In an office, people are supposed to scurry past each other regularly and chitchat over the office water cooler. That was then.

The other day I had my annual physical. I sent a note to the only two people on my floor that might conceivably wonder where I was. “I’ll be in by 9:30. I doubt anyone will notice.” Of course they did not. One works from home most mornings until the traffic abates. The other takes advantage of telecommuting, so she often works from home. But when she does come in, I’ve been at work for a couple of hours already. And I’ve been there working in silence, with pretty much only the drone of the heating unit near my window for company. I figure I could arrive at work at 9:30 and say I’ve been working since 7:30, and absolutely no one would figure it out. I could play hooky pretty much every morning, but I am still up at 6:30 anyhow, and slogging into the office.

A few weeks ago, around 8 AM someone actually showed up at my office. She works in Denver and was visiting on business and making the rounds to say hi. It was good to see her but she was expecting, like, people to be around. I was pretty much the people.

What’s going on? Why are my days at work so empty? Part of it is incremental retirements. It’s one of these things you don’t notice because it is happening so slowly over many years. One day you look around and hardly anyone is there. Some offices still have names on the door. Many of these names are from people who are retired, in many cases years ago. Many often have official occupants, but they are part-time occupants at best. They prefer the convenience of working from home because there is no commute. And here in Northern Virginia, commuting is often a slow and painful hassle. It’s not so much for me, since I am only three miles away. I don’t mind having a place to go to during the day. I’m much more productive there, even when it was bustling, than I am at home with a whiny cat and noise leaching from my daughter’s bedroom.

The office is disappearing, and I for one am sad. It’s not that the work has gone away. It still gets done, but much of it is done via telecommuting, usually from home. They are easy enough to chat with via instant message or telephone, but they simply aren’t in the office with me. They are becoming disembodied voices on the phone. Many of them feel about telecommuting the way NRA members feel about their guns: they’ll give it up when I pry them out of their cushy home office.

What’s missing is the social life, hitherto an important part of working in an organization, and I believe a key reason why work became meaningful. It’s nice to chat with a colleague on the phone, but it’s not the same as having them down the hall for a random chat. Talking to someone face to face is a high fidelity experience. An instant message is like a telegram. Without interacting with them face to face regularly, I’m less likely to learn about their hobbies and their struggles. They become dispassionate people, almost abstract. This makes it hard to know when there are things bothering them. They might be seething about something but it won’t be obvious from a text message. Even a phone call won’t necessarily tell me. However, while they may be seething, they often think that I am picking it up when I am usually clueless.

It’s the new virtual office and it has its benefits and its downsides. But I also miss, how shall I say, the dearly departed. I miss most of those now retired people who I interacted with regularly. They are pretty much gone and permanently disconnected. It’s a shame because for the most part they were interesting people who I enjoyed getting to know. But they’ve moved on. For the most part I have no idea what’s going on with them unless they happen to show up for a holiday party or when someone else in the office decides to retire and they come to celebrate, and maybe not even then. These people who were once so passionately vested in their work, full of creativity and doggedness, have moved on. I hope it’s to a happier place, but for those of us left behind the emptiness is sad and getting sadder.

A space consolidation is underway. New people are supposed to move in and fill these empty offices but they have been saying this for years. It will be good to have more people around, but they will largely remain strangers even if I see them regularly, because their work and mine simply won’t intersect.

I have eighteen months or so before I join the retirees club. Maybe when I do I’ll find out where they all went. I am hoping that there is a party underway, and they invite me inside.