'30 Rock' and 'Parks and Recreation': Two opposing views of the world in which we live

Season finales always have the potential for surprise. I was struck by how low-key, for example, Justified chose to close out a superbly acted season; I was a little disappointed that it withheld the pleasure of a good old Western shoot-out that would have forced Raylan Givens to give in to his held-in-check violent side and dispatch one or two of the season’s memorable antagonists. Similarly, last night’s 30 Rock surprised me for the almost bleak finale it presented, which  found Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy miserable for most of the half-hour, with a cheerful smile-face pasted on at the end so that the sitcom didn’t make a full transition into the drama of despair.

Poor Liz, having spent all season working so hard on her lonely single life and the frantic work of trying to coax Tracy back to TGS, was denied the pleasure of a summer vacation in the Hamptons, doing some gardening, “wearing shapeless clothes,” and listening to educational tapes of “Spanish for Older Women.” And Jack, his wife still being held prisoner by Kim Jong-il, was reduced to a creepy-woeful fantasy life of imagining Kenneth as his absent Avery.

I’m not saying this 30 Rock wasn’t funny — it was, frequently, with all the little touches that make the show satisfying, such as Jack’s casual mention of his “morning shower Scotch,” the courtroom headed up by “Judge Dredd,” and the always welcome return of Chris Parnell as the gleefully corrupt Dr. Spaceman. What I’m drawing here is a distinction: 30 Rock increasingly reflects a pessimistic view of the world, in which the laughs arise from people who are constantly thwarted.

Meanwhile, look at this week’s Parks and Recreation — not, I am pleased to emphasize, in its season finale. (Believe me, I have seen the upcoming episodes and they are great.) This half-hour continued Parks and Rec‘s trend to being the sunniest, funniest sitcom to promote the idea that people ought to treat each other with respect and, if possible, love. Radical!

The main plot involved Leslie Knope’s rivalry with Parker Posey’s Lindsay Carlisle Shay, her opposite number in the neighboring town of Eagleton. The source of the bad blood was that, five years ago, Leslie turned down a job offer at the more posh Eagleton that her then-Pawnee-BFF Lindsay later took, betraying an agreement they’d made.

P&R got a lot of humor out of the contrast between these two women and the two towns. Like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler makes the most of tiny moments. There was, for instance, the priceless look on Leslie’s face when she attended a Eagleton public forum and is shocked that the demure citizens applaud each other when they get up to speak. By contrast, of course, Pawnee residents are irritated fruitcakes who snipe and whine.

(Quick aside: Did anyone catch the canny cameo by Simpsons writer-producer Mike Scully as one of the speakers at the Pawnee public forum?)

The real heart of this episode, however, was the celebration of Ron Swanson’s birthday. Having dreaded anything the perky Leslie might plan for him, Ron was shocked and pleased to see that Leslie had taken the time to think about what would most please him. Not the wild wingding she’d thrown for her pal Ann, but rather a quiet night alone, with a big steak, a big tumbler of Scotch, and videos of such manly fare as The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

The contrasting worldviews presented by 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation — one arch and essentially cynical, the other earnest and essentially optimistic — are each valid, time-honored approaches to comedy. (Compare Arrested Development to The Andy Griffith Show: both classics; both polar philosophical opposites.) Right now, however, I’d have to say I’m leaning more toward admiring the way Parks and Recreation is cutting through a medium overrun by cynicism to present a view of the world as it ought to be, a decent place. With lotsa slapstick and laughs.

Twitter: @kentucker

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  • Nia

    I think Tina Fey is trying to fade 30 Rock out. Clues to this may be her and Jane’s pregnancies, Tina’s book, Tracy having a kidney transplant, Baldwins admission that the show was ending. It just seems they all decided to take care of important things while inacting their plan B’s.

    I love 30 Rock and hope that it sticks around longer!

    • Erin

      I agree-I’ve been getting the feeling more and more that 30 Rock won’t be around much longer. I liked last night’s epsisode-definitely not one of my favorites, but it had it’s moments.

      • Matt

        Agreed, it had its moments, but I thought it was strange given that it lacked one-big storyline and the “oomph” you normally find in a season-closer. I adore 30 Rock, but I think that the show doesn’t have more than a couple of seasons in the tank left (which is fine – 100+ episodes is a great acheivement).
        I was wondering what if anyone here also shares my views that the Tracy-Jordan and Jenna characters are becoming a parody-of-a-parody-of-a-parody(I know 30 Rock is supposed to be a zany comedy, but no matter how crazy a character, there needs to be some identifiable component to his/her personality, so as to allow the audience to empathize).
        I felt that the Tracy scenes and lines were truly bizarre tonight (even kind of sad), and the Jenna/Paul storyline never sat right for me either; not because of their avant-garde relationship, but that it seems to run counter from Jenna’s personality; remember when she used to pine for marriages/high-profile relationships (she said she would marry Jack “in a heartbeat”). I wish that shows like The Simpsons and 30 Rock launched a “silent reboot”, where they would re-focus storylines on the relationships again; during last night’s episode, even Liz exclaimed her frustration that Jenna is her “closest female friend”, but it used to make sense, because Jenna used to be semi-relatable; I think they can make more episodes if they put the focus more on the relationships and characters again, while still keeping it zany.
        Whew! Sorry.

      • Mac

        30 Rock has worn thin. Because the writers refuse to show any sentimentality, it has become a parody of itself. For longtime watchers such as myself, it has become predictable: the most outlandish situation is what’s going to happen. Har har.

        Parks and Recreation has found it’s groove and hasn’t painted itself into a corner – it can be outlandish and sentimental (but not overly sweet) and often surprise it’s audience.

        Community is great, it just has to be careful not to follow 30 Rock into constant absurdity.

    • M

      I read that she did not write much of the show this year because she was busy with her book. I’m wondering if next year will be better if she is back writing because overall this year was a let down. There are always funny moments, but the storylines have not been great.

      • Mad Max

        Common consensus is that 30 Rock was solid this year. There are others that share your view I’m sure but this year has been great.

      • joblo

        I agree with @M. This year has really been the most uneven, unfunny, and unpleasant season of 30 Rock. The plots have become increasingly ridiculous and the jokes have started to wear thin. It has gone, in one season, from one of my favorites to something that I’m not only watching out of habit and feel no compulsion to get to quickly. I hope that Tina and the writers can recapture some of the old magic otherwise I’m not sure I’ll be back long. The season finale, which was mediocre at best, was actually one of the funniest episodes in months, which is sad. Solid this year? Only if you were not paying attention to the previous stellar seasons.

  • Tim (@rural_juror)

    Loved both of the episodes and I’m so happy that I get to see Amy Poehler and Tina Fey back to back. I hope NBC keeps this arrangement this fall in some way.

  • GV

    Excellent point, Ken! Last night’s episode of P&R really solidified what I love about this show- it’s incredibly funny, but also incredibly human. I find comfort that the characters actually care about one another- despite their differences.

    • katie

      Very true! P&R is the funniest comedy on tv now. I don’t think this has been a good season for 30 Rock.

  • AlyssaG

    I think the contrasting world-views of these two shows effectively reflect setting, too. New York versus the Mid-West. I appreciate both outlooks and love both shows.

    • danrydell

      Exactly. NYC is not the sunniest town. They would’ve burned that fence down in a second. It’s about Lemon trying to “have it all” in a town and business that won’t let her.

      P&R is, first of all, a P&R department in a small Midwestern town. Not a lot of cynicism there.

  • Aldo

    Good article. No mention of Community, best show last night.

    • Allison

      Community is a great show, but it doesn’t really focus on a female character – this article was a specific comparison between two shows that do.

    • Johnification

      I think the article focused on 30 Rock and Parks because they represent the two views more specifically, whereas Community falls somewhere in the middle – it’s a ridiculous situation-fueled show, with lots of cynical worldview, that’s ultimately held together by strong relationships and a subtle sentimentality that undercuts that craziness and cynicism.

  • JLC

    Apples and oranges. Perhaps one of the reason’s NBC’s Thursday night lineup doesn’t get the ratings it deserves is that all of its shows are so different, though awesome in their own right. No need to say that one is “better” than the other. They’re all good.

    • Bobby’s Robot

      Agreed – they’re both terrific in different ways. They actually compliment each other very well.

  • Casey

    “Parks and Recreation” is so close to perfection, but they just need to get rid of Rashida Jones. She has NO PURPOSE on this show anymore. Last night was a perfect example, 2 scenes where she just showed up and stood around. Axe her and then we’ve got a night of quality television.

    • Mikey

      I disagree. At first, her character Ann was a bit annoying, but the writers have started to flesh out the character more and make her more likable and the interactions between her and Leslie are really funny.

    • Olivia

      I completely agree. It’s not that she’s hurting the show she’s just not adding anything. What have her storylines been this season? I can’t even remember. I like Rashida Jones but she’s just kind of taking up space at this point.

      • Mandy

        It’s Ann who usually helps Leslie refocus and see things from a neutral perspective. She pretty much helps her reach for her dreams while staying grounded in reality and what’s important. Sorry about the dopiness of that last line but it’s the way the relationship comes across to me.

    • winston

      well, her conversation is what sparked the resolution, isn’t it?

      • Sara

        She’s like the Wilson of Parks and Rec!

      • AaronisThinking

        I think, actually, 30 Rock vs. P&R reflected something else last night. Liz realized Jenna was “(gulp) her closest female friend.” On P&R, though, Ann and Leslie have a strong, binding friendship that’s refreshing in its lack of catiness, bitchiness, or eye-rolling. They’re really committed to each other as friends and I would never want the show to lose that touch.

        Plus, I loved the failed Ann & Chris romance this season. I salsa your face.

    • ChristineOH

      She started out as sort of the normal one, as a foil to Leslie’s neurosis, but now that they’ve fleshed out Leslie’s character, she’s plays the crazy as often as the straight man. I like her. Who else would Leslie call to bail her out of jail???

  • jen

    I think both of these shows are great. Even better though is Community. They pack in so many jokes and inside references it is a joy to watch. The Office is really hard to watch. Like watching the slow death of an old friend.

  • Yolanda

    I actually paused 30 Rock in the middle of the show to contemplate this. P&R has heart and is hilarious. 30 Rock has the funny, tons of it, but its characters generally show a serious lack of heart, empathy, etc.

    • Mandy

      “has heart” – “that’s what people say about things that suck”

      • Jus

        lol@ Mandy ;)

  • Asha

    I love Parks & Rec because it feels like a show that could be about me and my co-workers. It’s something I can relate to just on a bit more eccentric scale. I will never forget the image of Ms. Knope lunging across a garbage pile at her new old nemesis.

  • Francisco

    The contrast was jarring to my wife and I. We watched both episodes back to back and 30 Rock suffered for it. The laugh lines were there, but it totally killed the feel good aura of Parks and Rec. Strangely I was so angry with the episode of 30 Rock and I typically love the show!

    • Mark

      Your anger with “30 Rock” must be like mine, upon coming across someone who uses the pronoun “I” where “me” is correct. There’s something about knowing that even fans of “30 Rock” and “P&R” have woeful educations that is indeed jarring. It is upsetting to I.

  • Shannon S

    Parks and Rec is without a doubt the best comedy on TV right now. Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson has become one of my favorite characters of all time. Just watching his facial expressions as the panic set in on what he thought would be a torturous birthday event, was worth an Emmy nomination alone…if not a win. If you’re not watching this show you’re really missing out.

    • Drea

      Totally agree! Nick Offerman is freakin’ hilarious. The whole cast clicks perfectly. Even Rashida Jones, despite the naysayers. She is a perfect foil for Leslie.

      • LOL

        Leslie wouldn’t be quite the same without Ann Perkins. Don’t mess with the show. We like it the way it is.

  • simps

    Great catch on the Simpsons writer cameo. I like to think that this is a nod to the Springfield/Shelbyville rivalry that Pawnee/Eagleton are referencing.
    Both shows are great, as is Community (and I’m still enjoying The Office, but we all know its past its prime). Wish more Americans were aware of the awesomeness of these shows!

  • Zoe

    I feel dumb asking this, but can anyone explain the meaning of the ending of 30 Rock–Kenneth with the binoculars talking to “Jacob”? What that a Lost reference or something Bible-related? I just didn’t get it.

    • Rebecca

      It’s most definitely a LOST reference. Kenneth had a talk with “Jacob” earlier on when he said that he wasn’t done with Tracy yet much like how character were told that The Island wasn’t done with them yet on LOST.

      I’m pretty sure Kenneth is supposed to be Richard Alpert-esque. He’s centuries old, communicates with Jacob, and is something of a “slave” (in his Page position).

    • MK

      Tina Fey has been tossing a LOT of LOST refs in this year. I almost fell out of my chair when Kenneth did his Jacob thing! Hooray LOST!

    • Yeah

      Other great Lost reference this season: When Tracy was listing “crazy rich people who own islands” one of them was Charles Widmore.

  • Zoe

    Sorry: “WAS that a Lost reference…?” Typed too fast!

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