Michael Schur was the most important person in television comedy in the 2010s. After serving as a writer and eventually a producer for The Office, Schur went on to create or co-create the comedies Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. He’s the man behind the memes—responsible for American young adults falling in love with a band of small-town government workers, idiosyncratic police officers, an all-knowing not-a-girl.

I love Parks and Recreation and The Good Place (Brooklyn Nine-Nine has never landed for me, which, yes, I know and I’m sorry!), but I also can’t help but feel frustrated by them.

Schur’s shows take on big ideas: Parks and Recreation‘s cast of city government workers in Pawnee, Indiana serve as proxy for different views on government and its role in a society; Brooklyn Nine-Nine takes its setting of a New York City police precinct seriously enough to include episodes centered on race and police injustice as well as LGBTQ+ issues; the after-life comedy The Good Place’s entire premise centers around ethical philosophy as it explores what it might mean to be a good person. 

Along with Schur’s deft blend of heady topics and low-brow or absurdist comedy, all of his shows bustle with an optimism about how a better world is attainable if people choose it. I think (I hope!) I agree with this possibility, but the worlds of Michael Schur’s comedies make being a good person look so easy for you and everyone around you in a way I find noisy and difficult to return to.

These shows give the sense that the goodwill of individuals is enough to make things right. Characters like The Good Place’s Eleanor Shellstrop, when presented with the right information, will become a selfless, and yes, good person, and one by one society will begin to look like a pluralistic utopia (nevermind that the show doesn’t ask the same type of clearly defined moral progression of its joke-machine side characters, Tahani and Jason). Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope can break through Pawnee’s apathy with enthusiasm, charm, and a clear-eyed belief in what is right. Knope’s colleagues at the Parks Department and their folksy constituents don’t have to believe or even understand her worldview—they just need to trust her and cooperate. The NYPD isn’t harmful when we know that loveable goofs like Jake Peralta are among the ranks. The world doesn’t actually need to change if people’s attitudes do.

I don’t think this type of hope in people’s ability to learn or cooperate would bother me as much if I didn’t feel similarly let down in real life. I have seen a lot of public discourse (tweets) call for people to simply “read a book” in the face of 2020’s public and social turmoil, which I don’t think is a bad thing for people to do. But (in my opinion) many people read books, and (in my opinion) many people read dumb books or (in my opinion) smart books but (in my opinion) come to dumb conclusions about these (in my opinion) smart books. To hope for people to read and interpret the same information and come to the same conclusions seems like television optimism to me. It’s possible to get the joke without taking it to heart. Unlike Eleanor Shellstrop, most people already think they’re good and putting high hope in where they might go is not a way forward. Instead we’re all Tahani and Jason: one-note and stagnant. 

Michael Schur’s comedies are good shows (except Brooklyn Nine-Nine, fight me) and have been important developments in popular television comedy. They are critical and sentimental, serious and silly, seminar and youth group. But a big part of what makes them special is what makes them difficult. Going to Pawnee is going to the Good Place—places that look like the world I know until they don’t. I’m glad I’ve been there, but I wish I felt like I could stay.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    Nice reflection. Real life can get a bit messy. Heady theology and fervent optimism don’t always do so well against the day to day. It doesn’t mean they don’t have value or a place. Even if we all can’t be optimistic, one more believer should be something worthwhile.

    Reply

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