Mark Harris on TV Comedy
''The Office,'' ''The Middle,'' and ''Parks and Recreation'' are the best places to find commentary on current events
When I read the results of poll after poll showing that Americans are tired of ”politics,” my heart sinks a little. To me, complaining about politics while professing great concern about important issues is like saying you really enjoy food, but you’re absolutely disgusted by the notion that somebody cooks it. Like it or not, ”politics” is, more often than not, the means by which the things you care about get done. (Really, what are the other options — wishing? Magic? Group hugs?) This kind of namby-pamby ”partisanship is yucky” thinking is now entrenched in pop culture, where there is currently no higher praise than to say that a piece of entertainment ”doesn’t take sides.” Even at this year’s Oscars, which were dominated by The Hurt Locker (in my opinion, a deeply, complicatedly, richly political movie about the staggering psychological toll of the Iraq war on American soldiers), presenter Colin Farrell felt compelled to extemporize dopily that ”it wasn’t left or right, it was just one man — it was beautiful.” As if to say that had the movie represented some kind of discernible take on the war — which, by the way, it does! — its merits would wither away.
So I’m delighted to report that of all things, good old-fashioned network TV comedy, which has the ability to react to real-world events much faster than movies, seems to be getting political anyway. It happened in March on NBC’s The Office, which used the birth of Jim and Pam’s baby — which Pam was frantically trying not to deliver until after midnight in order to guarantee herself one more fully insured night in the hospital — to make a point that, just a couple of weeks before Congress passed the health reform bill, couldn’t have been more timely or (I use this currently dirty word with joyful enthusiasm) partisan.
This particular episode was scripted by Daniel Chun, a producer-writer who, not surprisingly, cut his teeth on The Simpsons, where politics has always, for some reason, been more permissible than in live-action television. That’s changing, even if the changes are sometimes most effective when they’re at their subtlest. Take, for instance, The Middle, ABC’s beautifully written and acted, underheralded family sitcom — and a show that, to admit my own bias, I expected to hate, since many of the political views of its star Patricia Heaton are about 8,000 light-years to my right. I’m not sure exactly how Heaton and the show’s creators — veterans of the lefty-populist ’90s classic Roseanne — found common ground. But what they’ve come up with — a portrait of a rancorous, economically struggling Indiana family of five — has an unmistakable ideological undercurrent all its own. It’s both church- and gay-friendly, and also one of the few shows on network TV to take place in the current, real economic universe — the one in which you can’t afford most of what you want and the future seems to exist just over the edge of the next cliff. On The Middle, the ramifications of the country’s financial collapse are plot fodder almost every week, and the show’s decision not to let you forget it is absolutely political, even if Heaton & Co. would probably prefer I just said it was really funny. Which it is.
My favorite current take on politics, though, is in a show about politicians that (appropriately, I guess) almost nobody seems to want to watch. If you are not among the six or seven people who have checked out NBC’s Parks and Recreation, can I persuade you to give it a look? The show’s heroine, a small-city civil servant played by Amy Poehler, keeps a picture of Hillary Clinton on her wall, but you suspect that what she admires is the hair, the pantsuit, and the girl-power vibe, not the big ideas or hard words. Leslie loves the idea of elective office; she thinks ambition is cool; she has a bedrock conviction that politics itself is awesome. Sadly, her day-in, day-out decision-making is somewhat hindered by the fact that she has absolutely no coherent ideas or belief in any particular policies except the ones that might allow her to keep her office or make people like her. Leslie occasionally remembers to mouth some garbled syllables about public service and making the world a better place. Mainly, though, she’s just terrified of losing the gig. Also, she wants to be president. People who hate politics couldn’t find a better embodiment of why they hate politics. And people who love politics, like me, will laugh just as hard. Watch with me, haters; consider it an act of bipartisanship.