There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure

A few weeks ago I read a Guardian article that asked whether someone’s taste in books could predict dating compatibility. My first reaction was, “hell yeah!” If a bloke reads the same kind of books as me there’s a good chance we’ll hit it off. However the article contains comments from people who are extremely judgmental about others’ reading habits and this is where the whole idea falls down. First of all, frankly if a bloke reads at all, I’m interested, but mainly this pretentious distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” or “cultured” and “popular” art is a nonsense. What can you tell about someone who professes that Infinite Jest is their favourite book? That they may or may not have actually read Infinite Jest and that’s about it. What about someone who likes sitcoms? What if they are the same person?

Last week I was doing the “what shall I watch next?” thing, skipping from Netflix to Prime to iPlayer trying to settle on something and not quite feeling into anything. Netflix now has a suggestions button that will cycle through options based on previous viewing. The first few recommendations I had already seen elsewhere but then it came to Superstore, based on my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. Both excellent shows. But I felt like if something was along those lines and any good, I would have heard of it already? Schitt’s Creek was recommended to me multiple times by multiple people before I finally tried and yes, it does live up to its reputation. But I had literally never heard of Superstore. However the ennui had set in by then so I gave it a try. I could see the similarities to B99 and Parks, but thought it was a bit derivative, bit too fluffy and slapstick in places. A few days later and I’m crying as Jonah comforts Amy as she’s going through a tough time. Later I’m on the edge of my seat as a natural disaster befalls the store. But wait, this is disposable fluff telly, right? Well like most tv these days it is well written and well acted. It does have moments of silliness but also surprisingly deep themes, like worker’s rights, healthcare and immigration, which, by the way America, what the hell is wrong with you? The character of Amy (America Ferrera) has experiences that chime remarkably with my own life. Not totally – I did get married young and had a very similar divorce journey but didn’t get pregnant at 19 and sadly don’t have a Jonah (Ben Feldman) but still I found myself thinking “wow, that’s me” on multiple occasions. It is light, it is fluffy, it is silly, it is low-brow but it is also very good and I am loving it.

The whole idea of this artificial division and associated judgements is class-ist. I remember when I was in my early 20s, taking part in a quiz with some university friends. A lot of the questions related to opera, classical music, theatre etc and I was clueless. It’s not that I’m not intelligent, or that I don’t have good general knowledge, its that coming from a working class background gives you a very different cultural upbringing than those from the middle or upper-middle classes. That isn’t to say that I had no exposure to culture, quite the opposite – but traditional Scottish, folk and popular culture, as “low-brow” doesn’t have the same status or likelihood to appear as questions in quizzes, but it is as rich and fully rounded and as culturally significant as “cultured” culture. At the time I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of high culture, but looking back I realise that knowing your Wagner from your Puccini doesn’t make you a better person, just as knowing your Coronation Street from your Eastenders doesn’t make you a lesser person.

I have always liked the lyric from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee” (one of their best songs if you ask me)

“Time every journey to bump into you, accidentally
I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate
You smile, mention something that you like
Oh how you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like”

It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It is easy to hate on things, criticise things and make fun of them. I’m no exception, I’ve definitely engaged in that myself. By nature I’m a cynical person and I have strong opinions about a lot of things, A good judgy session can strengthen bonds and cement “us” vs “them” which as social animals we need sometimes. But expressing dislike, criticism or judgement about a tv programme/book/musician shouldn’t be the same as making judgements about the people who do like those things. The times when I’ve found someone who takes a more positive view of things, who talks enthusiastically about an interest or who I share an obsession for something with have been the most life-affirming and uplifting experiences in my life, far outweighing any camaraderie gained from a griping session. The pleasure gained from sharing a passion, sharing joy is a beautiful thing.

As we experienced lockdowns though the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of us watched far more tv and films than we did before. The arts got very little government support during lockdown, yet people continued to create, often going to great lengths to either re-package their output for an online audience, or undergoing rigorous testing, isolation and distancing measures to produce something resembling normal to us. From my own viewing habits alone, I’m going to guess that a lot of the content that has been consumed over the past year has been of the lighter, fluffier, “lower-brow” variety. It offers escapism, gives us laughs and loves when we can’t be with those who make us smile or who we desperately want to hug. It serves a purpose and it serves it well. None of us should feel remotely guilty for that.

It’s really not funny.

The other day I was disappointed by a sitcom and spiralled into a world of despair about the state of modern feminism.

The sitcom in question is “Out of Her Mind”, it’s on the BBC iPlayer and was written by and stars comedian Sara Pascoe. I like Sara Pascoe, I would go so far as to say I am a a fan – I have admired her turns on various panel shows, enjoyed her stand-up performances and even read her books. These books are quasi-academic looks at the female body (Animal) and sexual desire, relationships and sex work (Sex Power Money). Both are easy to read, enjoyable and offer some interesting perspectives. When I heard that there was a sitcom based loosely on the ideas explored in both these books, I was definitely interested.

I was disappointed. Granted, I’ve only watched the first 2 episodes, but still I was disappointed.

It started a bit weird, nothing wrong with that. Could be interesting, a bit quirky, 4th wall broken, ok, let’s go. Then it got cringy, desperate, a bit too self-serving and overly self-aware. I literally grimaced through 90% of it, and was mostly baffled through the other 10%. Then after 2 episodes I gave up and the disappointment set it.

I was disappointed that it didn’t go far enough to take us to the different, often challenging perspectives that the books did. I was disappointed that it wasn’t quirky enough, it used clichés in a knowing way, yet was still full of clichés. I was disappointed that it didn’t really SAY anything, I was mainly disappointed that it was about women talking about men, and women talking about their weight. Yes, it tried to do it in a different sort of way, but still…

When I was younger and discovering comedy, there was a distinct lack of diversity in the demographics of comedians around – they were white, they were male. But within that very white, very male group there was diversity of styles. Whether they were in sitcoms, doing stand-up or presenting gameshows and playing charming, joke-telling host, we could see the traditional, the classic, the edgy, the surreal, the slapstick, the dry, the storyteller, the one-liner. Billy Connolly, Russ Abbot, The 2 Ronnies, Fry & Laurie, John Cleese, Ben Elton, Benny Hill, Harry Enfield, Mr Bean, I could literally go on and on.

There were a few women comedians. Actually, there were 4 that I remember – French & Saunders did French & Saunders and one of them did Absolutely Fabulous, Victoria Wood had her tv shows and Jo Brand did stand-up. That was our lot. Jo Brand talked about being a woman. She talked about not having a man. She talked about her weight. Fair enough, that’s her thing. She was good at it. She was funny. She was literally peerless.

As I got older and had more power to view beyond the offering of the 4 tv channels I had been limited to growing up at home, I discovered comedians that I liked – Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, Dara O’Briain. I liked slightly surreal, meandering, there’s maybe a punchline coming but maybe not and who cares the journey through the story is funny anyway kind of comedy. Not sure if you could call it a sitcom, but The Mighty Boosh was revelatory to me. Still all-male, still all-white.

In the intervening years, the comedy field had become slightly more diverse, but we still had women talking about their weight or their (lack of) men (Sarah Millican, Katy Brand), Black and Asian people talking about being Black or Asian (Gina Yashere, Stephen K Amos, Shazia Mirza). If you were not white or male you’d better just talk about the fact that you are not white or male. That’s all we will allow you to talk about. White, male comedians get the full gamut of topics, styles and modes to chose from. They can do whole sets without mentioning the fact that they are white or male. Or their weight.

There were a few exceptions. Goodness Gracious Me took talking about being Asian to a whole new level, but was as much aimed at an Asian audience as the “mainstream” white British audience and was littered with Asian culture jokes that the rest of us were largely oblivious to. Smack The Pony was a group of women just being generally funny, it was ground breaking but who followed on that ground? Very few. More recently we have had Fleabag, lauded as the next big thing in feminist comedy. It was good, especially the first series, but I found the whole priest storyline of the 2nd series a bit weird and egotistical.

Incidentally, in writing this I did some google searches to recall names, check spellings etc.

If you search for “British comedians”, google helpfully displays a line of names with thumbnail photos along the top of the search results page. You can scroll right to reveal more. I had to scroll right past 15 men before I got to Dawn French and Jo Brand. Then past another 11 men before I got to Victoria Wood. 3 women out of 29. I had to go past 26 of them to find the first non-white person in Lenny Henry.

And sad but true, the suggested questions related to my search for “male British comedians”…

We might want to know who is the best, most popular, most famous? Ok, seems fair enough.

And for “female British comedians”?

We want to know who is the best, ok….and hottest? *massive eye-roll*

I feel like when it comes to other fields, I have almost compiled lists of great women that I want to introduce my daughters to. We have started on music – the eldest can sing along to Blondie and recognise “that girl that comes from Glasgow” (Lauren from Chvrches) and I have an all-female indie/rock-with-a-wee-bit-of-pop playlist that I put on in the car as often as I can get away with. They are discovering great female actors for themselves in the likes of Dr Who. Strides are being made, progress is evident, but somehow it still doesn’t seem enough.

I was disappointed in Out of Her Mind because I had higher hopes for something from Sara Pascoe, and I’m disappointed that now, 30 years after I started watching comedians on tv, the women are still only talking about their weight and their (lack of) men. I am disappointed that we still don’t have a great variety of women comedians able to turn their hand to any given style, without being judged on their looks, or told sorry, we already have one of your gender/colour and there isn’t room for any more. I want to see women being themselves, being surreal, doing puns and one-liners, telling hilarious stories, talking about anything other than being a woman, finding/losing a man or their goddam weight.

Disclaimer No. 1 – I have focussed on the UK, I know it’s a whole different ball game in America and maybe elsewhere but I wanted to talk about the situation at home for this post.

Disclaimer No. 2 – I don’t know all comedy. I don’t have the time to consume much comedy these days, so there will undoubtedly be women who I haven’t heard of who are fab. Please tell me about them!

Musings on re-watching two TV favourites – ER and The West Wing

Seems we have a double header this week with the old blog. This is what happens when I decide to recommit to my academic studies. Procrastination? Never. I simply needed a wee writing warm-up exercise…

Over the past 12 months I’ve re-watched the entirety of 2 of my favourite long-running tv programmes of all time – ER and The West Wing. Both shows had a profound impact on me at the time I first watched them. Now, going back and viewing them again, I re-lived those periods, yet saw them through the lens of some 20+ years of life and world experiences. This has left me with a maelstrom of ideas that won’t settle. When that happens, the only way I can calm the storm is to attempt to formulate them into some coherent thoughts and write them all out.

I watched ER when it first aired back in the mid-90s, when I was in high school. It stayed a continual presence in my life as I moved from Dundee to Sweden for a gap year (I was so obsessed that my parents recorded episodes on VHS tapes and mailed them to me every few weeks so I could keep up), then on to Glasgow and London for university. I kept watching it as I moved back to Glasgow for work, got married and the final series aired the year I gave birth to my first child in 2009. A full 15 years of my adolescence and early adulthood. I’m not sure if Channel 4 ever repeated ER, but I certainly don’t think I watched it again after that initial week by week viewing over a decade and a half.

Similarly, I eagerly tuned in to The West Wing when it came to the UK in, I think, 2001, a couple of years after it premiered in the US. This time I had a willing partner who shared my enthusiasm and when the 7th and final series ended, we purchased the full DVD box set (bye bye VHS, no-one misses you) and we did watch the whole shebang again at least once through, maybe more often. Those DVDs were left in his custody after we split, so I’ve certainly not seen any episodes for the past 5 years, although I’ll say at least 7 because after Child2 came along, late night telly viewing became a thing of the past.

Then hurrah and huzzah, Channel 4’s on demand service decide to make first ER available last year, then The West Wing came online last month.

It feels strange to talk about spoilers for 2 programmes that are over 20 years old, but with their appearance on free streaming in the UK I know that some people are catching them for the first time. If you haven’t seen them yet, by god please do, you won’t regret it. So I’ll maybe mention some names etc but I’ll try to steer clear of events and plot developments in the hope that you will discover them for yourselves and when you do, please let me know and we can share thoughts.

I started watching ER somewhere at the tail end of last year, and worked through the seasons as the COVID19 pandemic emerged, then spread, then took over all of our lives. I began The West Wing in the run up to the 2020 US Presidential elections, and reached the final seasons as results were being confirmed and a new era dawning across the Atlantic.


First impressions – how well they both stand up today. Although obviously dated in many ways – the internet isn’t really much of a thing, pagers are everywhere and people will insist on shouting into phones rather than texting when they are noisy environments. But in terms of drama that engages, camerawork that is impressively cinematic and characters that we can believe and invest in, it’s all still there. Now whether that’s a nostalgic view on my part and people, old or young, watching them for the first time today will feel the same, I don’t know. If that’s you, please get in touch to let me know.

Both programmes tackle the social issues of the day, often from polar opposite perspectives. We see staffers in The West Wing wrangle over legislating for gun control and how to tackle the never-ending war on drugs. ER sees the victims of gun crime and drug misuse up close in all their devastating reality. Political operatives in Washington come back time and time again to discuss the politically thorny issue of gay marriage, gay people serving in the military, yet in Chicago we see an often sensitive and nuanced portrayal of gay couples fighting for next-of-kin rights and dealing with the stigma around HIV & AIDS. I had actually forgotten just how many storylines in ER touched on HIV/AIDS. It was such a big issue in the late 90s, early 2000s. Today I can’t remember the last time it featured in a storyline on any programme I’ve watched recently. Some social issues endure 20 years later – poverty and inequality, racism, the problems inherent in the healthcare system in the US. Some thankfully do not, we have gay marriage legal in many places, treatment for HIV is so successful (in some rich, Western countries) that the virus can go undetected in carriers, outcomes unthinkable a few decades ago. Both programmes shed light on subjects that were often either taboo or widely misunderstood by the public, giving viewers a multifaceted insight into the societal, economic, political and personal dimensions of each of those issues. I for one, learnt a lot from both.

I can’t discuss either programme without talking about language. Both shows highlight, celebrate and elevate language. They revel in it and hit us over the head with it then allow us to bathe in it. ER is snappy, punchy, full of acronyms and short-cuts because time is of the essence. No-one has time to stand around debating the merits of their chosen medical approach, someone is about to die if they don’t act soon, so it’s all shouted orders, get outta my way, coming though, hand me this, shove that in there, STAT! Then the quieter moments by the bedsides, whispered pleas to loved ones, here’s my story, please help me, listen to me. If you can’t help, then please just listen. In The West Wing we still have the pace, the urgency, the critical decisions at play, but they can take time to sit down and debate the merits of their positions and frequently do. We are often treated to both sides of any given argument, pro/con, Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative, each delivered eloquently, intelligently and passionately. Sometimes the “opposing” argument is so persuasive you become unsure of your very values and question your own opinions. The characters all take such joy in language, articulation, debate and rhetoric. When Toby and Sam extol the virtues, dignity and potency of good writing and compelling oratory it’s enough to make me tear up. There is a musicality to the language used in both programmes, it has tempo, rhythm and timbre. Like music, it can take you places beyond the mere words, it can affect you, touch you, move you.

There are numerous actual speeches that show the brilliance of the writing and the delivery in The West Wing in particular, but I also like the exchanges between characters. Just listen to the rhythm.

Sam on exploration.

Another theme that runs through both shows is that of friendship and loyalty. I love a good programme about friendship and loyalty, see more recent examples in other favourites of mine – Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Both ER and The West Wing are large ensemble cast shows that rely on a core team of dedicated individuals to Get Stuff Done. Be that macro stuff like governing, or micro stuff like stopping a gunshot wound bleeding out. In each case, other people’s lives and livelihoods depend on it. They rely on each other, lean on each other, work best when all are at their best. Our characters each have their strengths, but together, they are more than the sum of their parts.

One area where there is a marked difference between the 2 programmes is in the diversity of cast/characters. From the get-go, ER was ahead of its time in showing a racially diverse cast portraying characters with multi-dimensional lives. The West Wing, markedly less so, being overwhelmingly white, however as with the gender balance of characters, it was likely a more realistic representation of the workplace settings of each show. Guest characters in ER were of all colours, backgrounds and nationalities. Guest characters on The West Wing were 90% old white men in suits. Interestingly, or certainly interesting for me, in my current profession as a sign language interpreter, both programmes had minor but significant characters who were deaf and their deafness was approached in very different, but I think quite refreshingly realistic ways. Marlee Matlin is incredible in The West Wing, not to mention the awesome Kenny.

Ok, I know this was referring to substitute Kenny, but it’s funny nonetheless

The West Wing is a bit thin on the ground with good female characters. Yes, we have CJ, one of the best female characters out of anything, ever, but while in the pilot alone we see Bartlet, Leo, Josh, Toby and Sam all establish themselves as individuals, it takes the whole 7 series for us to meet the same number of fully-rounded female characters, in CJ, Donna, Dr Bartlet, Ainsley and Kate. Even then, Ainsley and Kate are nowhere near the level of the main male characters. Other women come and go, but none are particularly well-written or given the opportunity to develop as fully realised individuals. ER, on the other hand, abounds with awesome women, too many from the 15 series to mention individually, but Abby is my favourite.

And the men. Well. If I go a bit soppy or inappropriate here, I’ll refer you to my previous post. I think I’ve said before that I live in a pretty much female-dominated environment. At home and and work it’s wall to wall women. It wasn’t always this way for me and I badly miss good, smart, funny men in my life. So in the sad absence of real ones in my vicinity, I turn to the fake ones on tv. Mention ER and most women my age or older will come over all faint at the thought of George Clooney as Doug Ross. When I first saw ER I was about 15 and I’ll admit, Doug Ross was a bit too much man for me. Carter was always my favourite – young, sweet, innocent but with a good heart. Seeing it now, at the ripe old age of 41, I can now fully appreciate Doug Ross. That probably makes me officially middle-aged. Carter is still my favourite, though. ER had an amazing ability to create such a range of personalities and characters, both men and women, straying from stereotypes and tropes and creating personas that were so varied and believably individual. In contrast, the characters on the West Wing, the men in particular, all have a similar drive, ambition and personal ethos that in some ways they are all similar, but by virtue of the combination of good writing and impeccable acting, they each have their own subtleties of identity and presentation. It probably says something profound and disturbing about me that I both strongly identify with and am deeply attracted to Josh. As with Carter, nothing has changed in that respect in the 20 years since I first got to know the characters. Yes, Sam is good-looking and Will is smart and funny (I know some people are anti-Will Bailey, but I really like him) but Josh is passionate, determined, principled, thoughtful and sweet. I’m a sucker for a voice/accent and Josh/Bradley Whitford’s is just somehow perfect.

Anyway, let’s move on…

Watching the full series so close together, especially ones with so many guest stars, I noticed all the crossovers, when regulars or guests from 1 would make an appearance in the other. Side note, I also rewatched Gilmore Girls during this time, but then there’s rarely a time when I’m not watching some Gilmore Girls, and Liza Weil does a superb turn in both ER and The West Wing in roles very different from Paris Geller but equally outstanding. Bonus double Gilmore Girls points for an appearance by Headmaster Charleston in the same West Wing episode. The Stars Hollow set also doubles for New Hampshire in a flashback scene in the West Wing but that may be geeking out too far…

I’ll admit I almost gave up on ER a few times, mainly when key characters left and the temptation grew in later series as the incidents and accidents befalling the staff, never mind the patients, grew ever more outlandish – the helicopter crash ffs – but I persisted and I’m glad I did. With the West Wing, I must say that this time round, the difference between the first 4 seasons and the 5th and 6th were much more apparent. I found myself thinking that this guy was being a real dick, that guy was behaving way out of character, then I remembered the change in writers and it made more sense. I never lost interest, though, and feel like things got back on track pretty quickly with some really good scenes and stories in those later series.

When I finished the 15 series of ER, it felt like the end of a marathon. I was ready for it to end and content with the way it did. Should it have stopped sooner? Maybe, but I did feel that towards the end, the quality of stories and realism picked back up again to the point where it did the previous 14 years justice. I may watch it again at some point, probably not all 15 series, but I’ll go back to County General again I’m sure. With the West Wing, despite going off the rails a little in series 5 and 6, I felt that the final series was a definite return to glory and I didn’t want it to end at all. I wanted to know how the new president got on, what happened in Kazakhstan, did CJ save the world, does Charlie eventually become president? In my mind, yes, he does. Of course.

In the meantime, I continue to live in the West Wing World thanks to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast hosted by Joshua Malina who was in it, and Hrishikesh Hirway, who is a fan. Impressively, they have many stars of the show as guests, who give insights into their characters and plotlines and offer some fun anecdotes about the making of the show. The podcast also delves deep into some of the themes and calls expert witnesses to discuss particular episodes – they consult a Rabbi on Judaic teachings referenced in one episode and speak to a military man who was instrumental in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” which as mentioned recurs as a theme through several West Wing episodes. I listen either thinking, “yes, yes, I noticed that too!!” or “huh, that’s interesting, I need to go and look into that some more…” It’s all done with a good sense of humour and is far more amusing that I have made it sound. I would highly recommend checking it out.

So it has been nice to spend a year in the company of characters who are so familiar and live through their lives and stories again. It was fun to realise I’d forgotten what happened in places and experience plots as if for the first time. It was also fun to remember snippets of dialogue just before they are delivered, anticipate the comedic plays and get drawn into the emotional dramatic scenes. Most of all these 2 programmes have provided a much needed escape from the real world, and isn’t that what good televisual entertainment should be all about?

Ok, what’s next?

7 Reasons Why I Love Parks and Recreation! (Or, Here goldfish, please stay and read this!)

I read a really depressing article recently entitled “Why People Don’t Read Your Blog” which basically advised to write as if your audience consists of goldfish with Attention Deficit Disorder. Keep it short, don’t expect people to invest any time in actually reading words, use pictures and lists. The latest idea swirling around in my head was something about how good my new-found favourite comedy programme Parks and Recreation is, but I was struggling to find the right angle on it, so taking the advice, here is a list.

Disclaimer – I know I am late to the Parks & Rec party and that there is a LOT of stuff about the show already online, I have read some of it, but not a lot, so apologies if you have read similarly themed pieces from 3 years ago.

Also, I’m going to assume you have watched the show, cos I don’t have the time or energy to explain all the characters and plots. Plus you should watch it. Now!

Oh, and one more thing (already I’m failing at the brevity thing, all you goldfish are long gone) I don’t watch a huge amount of tv, so it’s entirely likely that some other shows also have features mentioned below, I’m not saying Parks is unique, I’m just pointing out what I’ve observed.

Credit – the many friends who told me for years how brilliant Parks was, especially Zoe who had to put up with my many many messages as I eventually discovered this for myself.

1. Feminism

This is a theme that has cropped up in the few pieces I have read about the show. What I like is that it is subtly, rather than overtly feminist. I wouldn’t object in the slightest to an overtly feminist show, but I like the way Parks normalises feminist ideals. There are a few story lines that deal with feminist issues, such as when Leslie and April become trash collectors, or the attitudes Leslie faces on City Council, but for the most part it is just a naturally feminist show, where equality of status and opportunity are accepted. There are equal numbers of male and female characters, the lead is female, the others aren’t background characters or wives/girlfriends/love interests and the female characters have equal numbers, if not more of their own storylines. This shouldn’t be a big deal in the 21st century, but it is.

2. Predictability

It was all over the internet a little while ago that Gilmore Girls was being planned to make a return. I read a bit about it and came across this, in which a person allegedly new to Gilmore Girls watches some and makes some highly accurate guesses about the characters and storylines. Most of the comments are a) doubting that the person was indeed new to it and b) shocked at how predictable their beloved show is. Now, confession, I love Gilmore Girls, but it’s one of those programmes where it’s predictability is comforting and I don’t begrudge that.

Parks could easily have been the same. But it’s so not. There are so many instances where a story starts, and you have this preconceived idea about where it’s leading, and you’re ok with that, cos that’s how tv shows roll, we’ve all seen it a hundred times, but then it takes a swerve and you’re shocked out of your comfort zone. What I especially like are the times when it’s what DOESN’T happen that surprises you. When Ben and April go to Washington to work together, you fully expect something to happen between them to wreck both their relationships. That would happen in literally every other programme I can think of. But it doesn’t. There isn’t even the merest hint that it ever would. They even get stuck in a hot car together for a full day and all that happens is character development and a new take on their friendship. Sounds boring, but it was amazing in it’s freshness.

3. Friendship

I’ve read a few things where people involved in Parks describe it as being essentially about female friendship, that between Leslie and Ann. That in itself is a nice departure from male-lead programmes, or love-interest / love triangle / single white female programmes. But I also love the way it portrays male friendships. I think it shows them in a much more realistic, nuanced way. There is very little drama-for-drama’s-sake rivalry based on who gets the girl, or who is the lead alpha-male in the show. I especially like when Ben starts to become friends with Jerry/Gary/Larry. The way the relationships between the male characters develops is honest, natural and in keeping with the way men tend to relate and express themselves.

4. Age

I absolutely love that the characters are played by actors who are actually that age (give or take) and that they mention how old they are. Again, on the surface this doesn’t seem remarkable, but honestly, it is. Chris mentions his age a few times, and I think it’s pretty close to how old Rob Lowe actually is. Ben mentions a few times how it has been x number of years since his failed mayordom when he was 18, which again, I think is fairly accurate to how old Adam Scott is. And I am absolutely thrilled when during “Prom” Ben tells Leslie he never expected her to ask him to the Prom because they are “nearing 40”. No-one on tv ever admits to being “nearing 40”, far less a female lead.

5. Character Development

Over 7 series all the characters undergo significant developments, but where I think Parks really shines is what they do with April. She starts off as a surly teenage intern, designed to provide contrast to Leslie’s enthusiasm.  It would have been really easy to keep her in that role – it was funny, worked and continued to be necessary. It would also have been very easy to change April quickly into a Leslie-convert or use her marriage as a tool for overhaul. But what they did was keep the essence of the character, whilst very subtly and gradually evolving her into a more complex, interesting person. We end up rooting for her, delighting in the moments where she shows the compassion that somehow we all know is there.  It is a testament to the writing, but also I imagine the acting skills of Aubrey Plaza. It’s hard to portray teenage characters or coming-of-age stories without resorting to cliche but Parks achieves it.

6. Comedy

It’s funny. Actual honest-to-goodness laugh-out-loud funny. Which strangely, is rare for a comedy show. My favourite episode is The Treaty. Not only because I always really wanted to participate in a Model UN. I always see them on American tv! I would be in my element there. I took part in a similar thing when I was a student, I won a competition and got to go to Prague and do something along those lines. I won the prize for “Best Lobbyist”. So I love a Model UN episode. So many laugh out loud moments. April being The Moon. Andy stockpiling lions for Finland. Ben’s drop the mic speech. It verges on surreal and farcical and it made me remember this is a comedy show, not a political drama. I was getting annoyed at the portrayal of some of the political aspects of it, but during this episode I learned to let go. It’s Parks and Recreation, not The West Wing. Although it does still bug me that Leslie and Ben were taken in by Bobby Newport’s (surprise Paul Rudd!) campaign manager. Anyway, The Treaty is, I think, the funniest episode. But in true Parks style it stills manages to have some poingant moments too, when you see just how difficult it is for Ben to deal with being apart from Leslie and Leslie being torn between her campaign duties and her community work.

7. Personal Relevance to Me

I know that part of the reason I have taken Parks to heart is that so many of the themes are hitting a nerve for me right now. I have actually cried several times. Leslie’s struggle in a thankless job. Ben’s efforts to make his employees like and respect him. Some other personal stuff I’m not going to go into here. Not many programmes, far less comedy programmes have the intelligence, depth, insight and social awareness to touch people that way. On a related note, I read Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please recently, and cried through I think a good third of it. Saying that, I would heartily recommend it. That and Amy’s project Smart Girls. Some highly relevant and much needed encouragement and empowerment of girls that I hope my 2 daughters won’t need but fear they very much will.

Anyway, I digress. And I have strayed magnificently from that blogging advice, so I guess no-one will read this. Whatever.