Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More than Just a Character

Check out this piece on Think Progress on the Influence of  Parks and Recreation.
 Here's a standout section:

But Leslie isn’t just likable—she stands for ideas more specific than the archetypes represented by Regan’s working mother [of Up All Night], Whitney’s committmentphobe [of Whitney], or Jess’s lovable kook [of New Girl]. That may be a limitation on the show’s ultimate audience, though I do wonder if a less surreal take on small-town public service could capture a wider viewership. But the point remains that Leslie has some problems that are inflected by gender, but the bigger idea she represents isn’t solely bounded by her sex. More lady shows could stand to have big ideas where the program’s perspective on it is tied to a main character’s gender, but not solely defined by the fact that she’s a woman. I’m all for explorations of femininity and what it means to be a woman, and I wish more male audiences were interested in those kinds of shows, or that the entertainment industry trusted them to be. But not everything every woman does is about gender and gender roles.
This is such a perfect sentiment. In this sense, Leslie Knope is a much more whole character than most other leads in comedy. Other sitcoms, like Up All Night, Whitney, and New Girl, are much more oriented toward pushing the light-comedy aspect of the show than anything else. Parks and Recreation, despite its broader context, is not outside of this sitcom norm. The MOON joined Model UN. Tom Haverford started an entirely ridiculous company, which bankrupts. Gay penguins got married. And this scene (linked because I'm not allowed to embed), in which Leslie and her crew walk across ice during a campaign rally might actually be one of the funniest physical comedy scenes written in the last decade. P&R is just as ridiculous when it comes to the funniness of sitcoms, but it also stands for something, and Leslie Knope is one of the most human characters, male or female, on television. It certainly helps that Amy Poehler is one of the most vocal comedians and feminists out there, but there are a lot of things involved in creating a show that is so fantastic.

Like Leslie, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) of Friday Night Lights had a similar role. While the show centered on a high school football team, and ostensibly, Coach Taylor, Tami's husband, she is a shining star throughout all five seasons. While she certainly could have remained in the background and just been support to her husband, Tami gets a job as the school counselor at East Dillon, and isn't afraid to butt heads with her husband over issues that the students are facing. She's a vocal advocate for students' needs, especially for troubled teenager Tyra Collette, who emerges as an independent and strong character of her own. Tami later becomes the Principal of East Dillon, and when her husband whines that he misses "the coach's wife," she snaps, "I'm still waiting for the principal's husband," and he apologizes. (BTW their marriage... fictional marriage... is perfect.) When a student from West Dillon comes to her for advice on an unwanted pregnancy, Tami discusses the girl's options honestly and openly, including abortion. After it comes out that Tami spoke to the girl before she got the abortion, a few parents lead a crusade to get Tami fired. Instead of resigning or backing down, she negotiates her way into becoming the guidance counselor at West Dillon high school. At the end of the series, Tami has been hired as the Dean of Students at a prestigious school in Philadelphia (filmed at Temple University HEYO), and after discussing with her husband, they decide that it's her turn for her career to be the dominant one. The Taylors represent the best of what Friday Nights is about, which is about strong advocacy for the high school students on the show. Each of them, Coach Eric Taylor and Tami Taylor have their niche students (Coach Taylor even helps a female student become an assistant coach in the last season... tears to my eyes) and abilities, but the fact that they have interests and abilities beyond the basics of their characters makes the show interesting and inspiring to watch. Characters that stand for something make for great television.

Also... just check out how endearing Tami Taylor is.

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