Battleground’s first crime is that it’s unfunny, and sometimes painfully so. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s Hulu’s first attempt at original programming, and is not very good. It’s an Office knock-off, which, sure, fine. The setting is what made me watch it in the first place: a political campaign. I’ve worked a few campaign cycles (that’s what we call them, cycles! Lingo! And ‘08 Obama and a bunch of Congressional races, if you must know) and it's an environment just begging to be mocked: a high-pressure workplace of mostly strangers thrown into practically living together, working seven days a week and trying to sleep with each other on the eighth. What’s shocking, and this goes for Parks and Rec too, is Battleground’s second crime of not even understanding the basics of a political campaign.
Sure, it’s not essential to get everything. Comedy is about maximizing the ridiculous, and it’s not like The Office needed to really be about a paper company to be good. But from the scene at the beginning of Battleground where an volunteer has to beg his way onto the campaign, and every single campaign scene in the surprisingly clueless Parks, I figured that Hollywood Funnypeople could use a guide as to What Campaigns Are and What They Are Not.
Volunteers Are Meat for the Grinder
In dealing with volunteers, your Campaign Official is like a stripper, and the volunteer is the slightly drunk middle manager. You need to make them feel like this experience is for them, and if they could just do one more thing for you, then that would make it even better. This can be mailing envelopes, entering data, phone banking, or that Champagne Room of volunteer activities, knocking on doors (in their own neighborhood!). You need them as a way to boost your stats, although you really don’t need any one volunteer individually. So, Battleground, this means that you do not mock your volunteer, and more importantly, you do not have him sit in on high level strategy meetings! But, at least Battleground acknowledges that people do the heavy lifting on political campaigns, for free! And yes, that jab is directed at you, Parks and Rec. I know Ann Perkins was designated Knope 2012’s Volunteer Coordinator, but even for her this is an abysmal outreach job into Pawnee. Surely Leslie has one devoted Superfan out there, willing to call every number in the phone book twice over and register convicted felons who just got put back on Indiana’s voting rolls.
More Important Than Volunteers Is Money, Money, Money
Let’s do a quick, partial tally of Knope 2012’s spending, shall we? We’ve got an opening event at the ice hockey rink, multiple television ads, focus groups, rented bowling alleys, free food, studio time at Double Time Recording, and so on, yet we haven’t seen a single fundraiser to pay for any of these things. This is where that realism thing comes in: I mean, it could be funny to stick Leslie in a small, closed room with nothing but a list of phone numbers to call potential big time donors for hours once, but to do it every day, like an actual candidate has to, would be a drag.
Battleground, for all it’s weaknesses, addressed money issues right away, and hopefully it’ll show the never-ending compromises and half-promises politicians at that level (in Battleground, the candidate is running for U.S Senate) have to make to get the endless levels of money you need to compete. But even in a small place like Pawnee, these things cost money and add up. I'm not saying it has to consume your world, just like I’m sure dealing with vendors for the Harvest Festival would be a bigger IRL hassle then it was in the Parks-verse. Just please, have someone donate something to Leslie, even if it’s only Entertainment 720 SwaggerCash.
Campaigns Are About Issues
If you’re a fellow hardened campaign veteran, maybe you’re chuckling at that header. Campaigns are about advertisements, the issues have been settled way beforehand, etc. Well, sitcoms are about why people choose to do the things they do. And for these shows, campaigns are ways for them to show what they aspire to be…which is never really made clear. Leslie’s long list of things she is pro- has been a great joke, but how about maybe discussing one of them? In Season One/Two she wanted to build a park, in Season Three run a successful festival, and now she’s running for office to do what, exactly? I mean, everyone on Parks and Rec is talented enough that it could just get away with saying “Pawnee is wonderful” a thousand times over, but why not let there be an actual issue in Pawnee that Leslie has to have an opinion about? That’s what happens in real life.
And Battleground’s problem here is something that other shows, like Showtime’s terror-drama Homeland, struggle with, for reasons I’m never quite sure. Are you familiar with the terms ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’? Because these shows, which deal with politicians, sure aren’t! It’s shocking to me that writers actually think they can create anything approaching a politics recognizable to Americans without at least addressing the fact that 99.9% of all political candidates for all political offices are of one of these two parties. Not that it has to be a central issue, but going back to The Office, imagine eight seasons in that we didn’t know these people sold paper, that they were just generic business-people. Besides allowing for highly marketable tie-in products, specificity makes things real, and more importantly, funny. Maybe the writers think that it will only expand their audience if they keep things as vague as possible, but I mean, The West Wing lasted seven season with Ds and Rs, so I don’t think it’ll be a dealbreaker.
Again, these are comedies, and comedies don’t necessarily have to reflect the complexity of buying ads in multiple Neilsen point regions or the drudgery of entering endless reams of data at the end of the every single Godforsaken day. But those are just details, even on the big picture things, these shows are getting it wrong. The Candidate got it right. The 1972 film starred Robert Redford as a no-shot Democratic Senate hopeful, getting the nomination because of his family name and trying to reconcile his political beliefs with actually winning. It captures the sense of ego and self-grandeur that comes naturally with running for office, like when Redford and his campaign manager force their way into a TV station:
People desperately needing to pretend that they know what they’re doing, that’s what campaigns are all about. They convince themselves that what they’re going to do is going to help everyone around them, even if it’s clearly only going to help themselves. Battleground isn’t a very good show, but it could improve by remembering that. Parks and Rec is a very good show, and one that’s not entirely bound by this arc. The campaign will end, Leslie will win or lose, and life in Pawnee will go on. But while it’s passing through, it’d be nice if got things right.
David Meir Grossman lives in Brooklyn, writes about music for Tablet, tweets about whatever here and rarely Tumbls here.
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