The Office, Parks and Recreation, and the National Pathos

In January 2009, I gathered with my classmates in high-school to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama. There was a collective anticipation in the air that things are about to seriously change. One of the principles that Obama ran on was that change through political action was possible, the government wasn’t some immobile beast only set on bailing out banks as it had the months prior, it could work for the people too.

Four months later Parks and Recreation (P&R) began airing on NBC. The first season was a little rough, but by the second season the show really hits its stride (if you have never seen it I recommend simply starting at the second season). P&R introduced the American public to Leslie Knope, an ever optimist busy-body who was the very embodiment of what people thought Obama would bring to American politics. Played by Amy Poehler, she was a refreshing redefinition of what it means to be a boss in the workplace, especially compared to her predecessor: Michael Scott of The Office and what he represented to America.

Adapted from the popular British version, The Office began airing on NBC in March of 2005, three months after the second inauguration of George W. Bush. By this point Bush had already introduced such words as “misunderestimate” and “nucular” to American English as well as a slew of phrases today coined as Bushisms. He was a president who would often stumble over his own words in the manner in which one would read a speech off hastily written notecards. In these aspects, and many more, he embodied everyone’s incompetent boss across the country. In television, this manifested in the ever awkward and inept Michael Scott, as played by Steve Carrel. The Office was a huge success from the start.

Michael Scott was everything people laughed and cringed at in their bosses. Nary is there a moment for the viewer to breathe—either from laughter or embarrassment—when Scott would attempt offensive impersonations, make an absurd request, or just crack a bad joke.

The Office continued for nine seasons until 2013, well into the Obama years. In 2011, during the seventh season, Steve Carrel and thus Michael Scott left the show. Carrel’s contract was up mid-season, but the show’s tone had also changed. It was the hapless existence portrayed in The Office’s first four to five seasons that extruded comedy and made the show so successful. The seasons just before–and after–Michael’s departure are largely forgettable as the show shifted its narrative from the foibles and follies of Michael to Jim and Pam getting married and building a family. I believe this shift was in some part due to the pathos of the incompetent American leader fading and being replaced by a more positive, capable, one as embodied Obama and reflected in the character of Leslie Knope. Overall, we can read this as a shift from a negative to a positive outlook.

Parks and Recreation ran seven seasons ending in 2014 with the final season taking place in the year of 2017. The ever optimistic outlook of the show displayed a parallel universe where the nature of congress wasn’t obstructionist and where, in more than one episode, challenges could be overcome through compromise and mutual agreement.

The Office has been making a resurgence in the recent years. The show’s subreddit, /r/dundermifflin, is surprisingly active despite the show being off the air for over five years. I think a large part of it is the meme-able and gif-able moments but also that we have another—only more grossly—incompetent leader at the helm of America. It’s fun to laugh at despair and The Office provides a cultural baseline through which to do that. P&R provides meme-able moments too but they frequently carry a positive voice.

These shows were both media reflections of the national pathos, the feelings for those times. I posit here that the extremely popular late 90’s sitcom “Friends” backs this up more by how it embodied the complacent “end of history” attitude of the 90’s. Other posts about Friends have been written with this direction. The Office could only have been successful during the Bush years via a character like Michael Scott. P&R could have only been successful during the Obama years, where the protagonist is optimistic and charismatic. When a future candidate from the left party makes it to the White House it would be interesting to see if P&R ever makes a resurgence. Until then, what show could possibly better define the years we are in today?