loving, and love in, workplace mockumentaries
As I write this article, I’m listening to the same YouTube video of “The Crane Wife” by the Decemberists on repeat. (To be fair, it’s a three part song that’s sixteen minutes long, but so far I’ve listened to it at least nine or ten times.) My junior year of high school, I played the same Mumford and Sons CD in my car every single day for three months until my carpooling buddy finally made me a mix CD and begged me to play something—anything—else. I’ve read most of the books I own multiple times; when I finished reading E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars” this summer, I instantly started rereading it. I am a person who tends to—once I find something I like—consume it over and over again. When it comes to TV, there are few shows more important to me than The Office and Parks and Recreation, which I’ve seen in their entirety—a combined total of fifteen seasons—a conservative estimate of five times each.
For the unfamiliar, some brief synopses: The Office, which debuted in the U.S. in 2005, is a mockumentary about the working and social lives of the employees at a mid-level paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania called Dunder-Mifflin. Under the dubious leadership of the usually well-meaning but often misguided boss Michael Scott, the workers fight, pull pranks, fall in love, and occasionally sell some paper. Parks and Recreation, which started airing in 2009 and was originally imagined as a spinoff of The Office, uses a similar single-camera mockumentary style, but with a more optimistic tone. It follows a group of employees working in local government in small-town Midwestern America under the enthusiastic leadership of Leslie Knope, the world’s most dedicated public servant.
Because the shows are separated by the span of a few years, I started watching The Office in middle school, while Parks didn’t start airing until I was in high school. This meant that when I started watching the Office, I didn’t get a lot of the jokes. My parents wouldn’t even let me watch the original British version of the show because it was too raunchy for a 12-year-old, so I’m still amazed they let me watch the (only moderately) less raunchy American version. As a preteen who had never had a job, I had no idea what it was like to work in an office, with cliques, tensions, or coworkers you liked, loved, or despised (my parents assured me that it was an accurate depiction of office life, but that didn’t matter to me). I liked the jokes and the pranks Jim played on Dwight and the ridiculous (albeit cringe-worthy) things that Michael Scott did, and I quickly fell for the central will-they, won’t-they love story between Pam and Jim.
Parks and Rec, on the other hand, started airing in the beginning of high school for me, when I was a little older and a little wiser (or at least better at getting jokes). I had still never had a job, but I understood better what it was like to try to collaborate with friends on group projects or in clubs, how frustrating it was to fail on projects that you cared about or how exhilarating it was to succeed. It took me a while to get hooked on the show—among fans, it’s pretty universally agreed that the first season is rough. I realized quickly, though, that it was so worth the short six-episode struggle. Part of the appeal of the show is that it is not focused on romantic relationships. It’s not that those were necessarily the main focus of The Office, but the core of Parks and Recreation has always been the female friendship between Leslie Knope and “beautiful tropical fish” Ann Perkins. Although a serious romantic aspect was introduced in the third season (and ultimately produced one of my favorite couples of all time), at its heart the show is about passion and friendship, grounded in the wonderful camaraderie between Leslie and Ann. Jim and Pam offered a vision of the romantic relationship I hoped to have in the future, but Leslie and Ann represented the importance of female friendship that was relevant to my life right away.
Both shows are equally capable of making me wince or weep in a single episode, and they can both be simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt. Despite this and their superficially similar styles, the two shows differ greatly in tone. This is particularly clear in looking at the “wedding” episodes of the central couples: Jim and Pam in the two-part episode “Niagara,” and Leslie and Ben in the aptly named “Leslie and Ben.” Jim and Pam’s wedding is a destination wedding, which they specifically chose in the hopes that it would deter some of their more oblivious and/or irritating colleagues from attending. Instead, the entire office decides to attend the wedding, causing problems galore: Andy tears his scrotum in a dance-off, Michael Scott tries to sleep with the bride’s mother, and the entire office organizes a dance routine leading into the ceremony, against Jim and Pam’s express wishes. Ultimately, though, they do have a version of their perfect wedding, as they secretly marry, alone on a boat going through Niagara Falls, right before the big church wedding. This symbolizes the tone of the show for me: the various coworkers screwed up a lot of things on the day of the wedding, but it all worked out okay in the end. Just like in real life, things don’t always go according to plan, but at the end of the day Jim and Pam got to affirm and celebrate their love, and that was all that mattered.
The Parks and Rec wedding, on the other hand, was totally different (and yet still entirely in character with the show). Deciding on the spur of the moment at a Parks Department-sponsored event to get married, Ben and Leslie hurry to pull together at wedding at the last minute, trying with the help of their co-workers to finish Leslie’s wedding dress and find a ring and an officiant. When it looks as though it’s all going to work out, the wedding is interrupted by another government official, who also happens to be the only unlikable character on the entire show. Resigned to getting married in a couple of months as per the original plan, Leslie heads back to the Parks and Recreation office to bring some work home. There, she finds a small, intimate ceremony set up with only her coworkers and closest friends—who, in this case, happen to be the same people. Leslie and Ben’s idea of a perfect wedding is one where they’re celebrated by and celebrate their friends and coworkers, whereas Pam and Jim’s perfect wedding is just between the two of them and focused on their love for each other. Again, it speaks to fundamental differences in the core of the shows. The Office is about individual relationships—friendships, enmities, love affairs—amongst co-workers in one building. Parks and Rec is about friendship and working together with people that you love—relationships that started as friendship but ended up more like family.
Parks and Rec for me is a feel-good show—a hopeful look at what a working life might be like. The Office is, at least according to my parents, a maybe more realistic depiction of what actual work life is like. I can see myself going through the struggles of Jim and Pam’s relationship, even as I hope a future relationship will be more like Ben and Leslie’s. The Office is a show that I spend about half my time wincing while I watch, and Parks and Rec I spend more of my time smiling. Even so, both shows offer a reassuring glimpse of what working life will be like—I may not be best friends with every one of my coworkers like in the Pawnee Parks Department, but even all the setbacks and ups and downs of a more realistic, Dunder-Mifflin-style office usually turn out okay in the end.
Furthermore, these shows mean more to me than just what my life might someday be like. When I think about these shows, I think of Thursday nights in high school watching shows with my family. Although I was too young to understand all the jokes when I started watching The Office, it ultimately became something that everyone in my family could enjoy together. I think of talking to friends at school on Fridays after a particularly exciting episode had aired, comparing our thoughts and feelings on various plot elements, or of excited texting with lots of exclamation points while the shows were airing. I think of my favorite episodes, the ones I’ve seen at least twenty times (for the curious, “The Injury” – Season 2 of The Office, “The Fight” – Season 3 of Parks). These are the episodes where I’ve memorized most of the lines, episodes that I sometimes just listen to when I can’t sleep because I know they’ll send me to sleep smiling, episodes that comfort me and never fail to make me laugh. I think of the number of times my roommate has come home to find me crying while watching Steve Carell’s last episode of The Office or the episode where Leslie finds out the results of her campaign for city council. I think about the philosophy of Treat Yo Self first expounded by Parks and Rec and now wholeheartedly embraced by myself and my friends, or the episode of The Office where Pam walks on coals and stands up for herself. I think about how happy these shows make me, and how they’ve become important parts of my relationships with my own friends and family.
The Office ended in 2013 with a generally well-reviewed finale after many complaints that it had dragged on for too long and lost its earlier magic, and the final (and, sadly, abbreviated) season of Parks and Rec will air in early 2015. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m hopeful—thankfully, the last season of The Office mostly redeemed the final few seasons for me. The sixth season of Parks and Rec ended with a huge twist that is sure to make for an innovative, interesting, and hopefully satisfying final season. But no matter how the last season goes, I know I’ll watch the episodes over and over again.