A trio of shows replace snarkiness with good humor
With a faltering stock market and an unprecedented mortgage crisis percolating in the background, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur started crafting the pilot for their local-government-set series, “Parks and Recreation,” in the fall of 2008. They envisioned their heroine, Leslie Knope, as a smart, capable official, hopeful that her perky persistence could accomplish change in her town.
Two seasons later, the economy continues its bleak downward march, but star and producer Amy Poehler has turned Knope into a force for positivity and made good attitudes seem fashionable again. In fact, “Parks and Recreation” — as well as other optimistic shows like “Modern Family” and “The Middle” — are providing audiences with an antidote to mean-spirited sitcoms and gritty primetime dramas, but without the Pollyanna-ish twist.
By making cynicism a dirty word, these shows have achieved the impossible task of pleasing audiences and critics simultaneously, which might be because a sunny outlook just feels so different on TV these days.
“There’s a lot of comedy that’s mean and cynical in the world, and there always has been,” Schur says. “If people are responding positively to our show, it may just be because it’s a little more rare. I think, in general, people like seeing happy people.”
Shows with a generally edgier view of the world that come to mind include “Two and a Half Men,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Rules of Engagement” and “Family Guy.”
Schur brushes off the notion that the country’s economic woes might have helped push audiences toward the show, but “The Middle” executive producer Eileen Heisler embraces the idea.
“I think we’ve benefited from the failing economy,” Heisler says, adding, “It was very important to us that (the characters) were struggling. Then the country followed suit, and it became more relevant.”
“Modern Family” executive producer Christopher Lloyd acknowledges that the climate in the country might have played a role in his show’s initial success, too.
“We premiered at time when there was a general malaise in the country, and so I think (viewers) were ready for something a little more optimistic,” Lloyd says, adding, “Having said that, I think audiences are way more savvy, and they would be the first ones to reject us if we got very preachy or served them up a dish of ice cream every week.”
All three shows zigged when everyone else zagged, perhaps as a direct reaction to darker, more hostile comedies that usually pique critics’ interest.
As for ratings, “Modern Family” ended the season as the third-highest-rated scripted comedy on the air — just below “Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” — and is the most DVR’ed show on the air. “Parks and Recreation” and “The Middle” have more modest ratings, but they’ve both built in viewership since they debuted in 2009.
“It seemed like comedy on television had gotten to a toxic level of snarkiness. That didn’t meanthat we wanted to veer into sentimentality; we just wanted to have some real emotion and some real heart in the show, and unapologetically so,” Lloyd explains.
It’s been pointed out that short-term declines in the economy rarely affect the TV industry’s output, simply because the development cycle can’t move quickly enough to keep up with such fluctuations. However, these days might be different, according to TV historian Tim Brooks.
“If you go through a prolonged period of economic distress — and it seems everyone’s debating that now — it can eventually seep into shows,” Brooks says. “(Auds) will want to have some touch with reality but at the same time be encouraged by what they see. Television is an escape in a lot of ways.”
Emotion was a key ingredient to creating Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) in “The Middle,” Heisler says.
“We started out really believing that these people were wish fulfillment in their own right. Stuff comes down the conveyor belt, and they deal with it with hope and love. They don’t always have nice couches or carpet, but they have a life you should long for,” Heisler says.
Maintaining hope isn’t exactly edgy, but it’s important for fixing interpersonal relationships, raising a family or simply wading through the bureaucracy of local government.
Schur says it’s a constant fight to not yield to cynicism. “You have to risk not seeming cool,” he says. “I think sometimes that hip and cool is the enemy of progress.”
Heisler agrees that trying is half the battle, which is why Frankie constantly questions herself about whether they’re working hard enough.
“They’re really trying and often failing,” she says. “Sometimes Frankie looks around and says, ‘Are we being really lazy?’ ”
Although TV comedy is still trending cynical, “Modern Family,” “The Middle” and “Parks and Recreation” represent three voices that are rejecting a universal stereotype: that cynics are somehow smarter.
“We were very concerned with keeping (Knope) away from cynicism and sarcasm and the kind of traits that are normally associated with high-achieving smart people,” Schur says. “And it’s hard because it’s a natural inclination for comedy writers to go in that direction.”
Lloyd agrees that cynical comedy can be really funny, but it’s just one way to make people laugh. “I’m laughing, but I’m also feeling a little threatened or a little bad about myself,” he says with a chuckle. “There might be another experience where you’re laughing but you feel renewed at the end.”