How ‘Parks and Rec’ Transcended its Mockumentary Roots
NBC’s Parks and Recreation ended its seven-season run Tuesday night and will go down as undoubtedly my favorite sitcom of its era. Created as a spinoff of The Office by writers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, the first season mostly mimicked that mockumentary style and even slotted in the characters in very familiar tropes created by the show from which it was spun. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a Michael Scott-type — well-meaning but ultimately grating and not adored by her coworkers — and Aziz Ansari as Tom, Rashida Jones as Ann, and Nick Offerman as Ron slotted into the Jim, Pam, and Dwight roles cleanly enough, of course bringing their own personalities to the roles. The results… were fine. Looking back I actually quite enjoy those first six episodes of Parks, the primordial stew phase of Pawnee that would eventually evolve into a uniquely developed world, but there was a flatness not well served by the mean-spirited mockumentary style of The Office.
When the show returned for its second season, gone was Leslie’s contempt for the smalltown bumpkins she served in her work (and Ron’s ill-fitting suit) and in its place came a deep love, capability, and commitment to her work that Michael never brought the Scranton (and Ron’s signature tucked in polo). As Schur says in an interview with the AV Club, “we realized early on that Leslie is not performing for anyone. Leslie is completely authentic through and through, she doesn’t care what people think of her, necessarily, or whether she comes off as cool, or any of the stuff Michael Scott or David Brent cared about.” Thus, when Schur realized that Leslie did not need to be performing for a camera, the conceit that she was being filmed fell to the wayside.
When Daniels brought The Office to the United States, the mockumentary style was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is in the sitcom world today. There were Christopher Guest films, but mostly the filmmakers behind The Office were tasked with familiarizing the American audience with a new style of sitcom complete with new pacing and beats for laughter. To do this, the show had to be — and was — committed 100% to its style, even going so far as revealing the men behind the camera in the desperate later years.
Of course, people forget how well it just worked in the prime Steve Carell years. The mockumentary style was perfect for The Office because it was a show about people who were ultimately just co-workers. Yes, some become romantically involved, but it is really a rare occasion when the employees of Dunder-Mifflin hang out outside of the office. Mostly, the show leans on that awkward, distanced, stilted social relationship of co-workers. People who you see every day but don’t really want to be your absolute true self around. So, in order to inject realness and fullness, constantly being watched by the camera, the characters had to wink at the camera when someone else was looking away, the camera had to hide behind a plant to catch a clandestine conversation, the “documentarians” had to recount an experience in the interview portions. This is all to say that a strict adherence to that style was in the DNA of the show. Commitment served the narrative and the humor.
However, when Parks and Recreation returned for its second season renewed with the optimism and good feels that would come to define the rest of the show’s run, the inherent snark of the mockumentary form came to serve the show less well. So, the got rid of it — mostly.
Without the veneer of an actually documentary cooked into the narrative diagesis of the show, I’d argue that it would be more accurate to call Parks and Recreation’s style cinema verite than documentary. Cinema verite, translated directly to “truthful cinema”, is a style of documentary filmmaking that uses improvisation and an active camera to find truth in reality. Pioneered by ethnographic French filmmaker Jean Rouch and later adopted by American filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker as “direct cinema”, cinema verite employs a hand-held camera to present a simple, direct portrayal of events as they were seen, eschewing typical documentary techniques like voice over narration or text on screen. The goal is for the viewer to feel a closeness — a direct or true connection — to the material presented so they can decide how to interpret on their own.
Rather than strictly adhere to the mockumentary style and therefore make the camera operators characters in the world of the show, Schur and the Parks crew used that style of close access, direct looks at the camera, and occasional talking head sets ups without being forced to hide behind plants to catch intimate moments and feign a real documentary that ultimately would have hurt rather than helped the show as a whole. For example, when acclaimed indie director Nicole Holefcener wanted to shoot a Leslie and Ben’s first kiss in close-up, she could, and the moment is much more effective than it would have been had the characters been forced to acknowledge the existence of a camera.
Throughout seven seasons in Pawnee, the town and its characters become so built out, detailed, specific, and realistic that revealing itself as a documentary to expose its truth becomes redundant. Instead of a conceit, Parks and Rec has a style, and like any style should, it serves and enhances the narrative and performances. While the documentary conceit The Office distances the viewer and positions them as another member of Michael Scott’s audience, to share a look with Jim over the absurdity of the situation, the verite style of Parks brought the audience onto Leslie’s team, into her life, and established a closeness that came to define the viewers relationship with the show.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.