The Girl from Pawnee
Jeffrey Sconce / Northwestern University
Back when NBC was still riding high, Thursday primetime was the jewel of the crown. Friends, Seinfeld, and ER were platinum tent poles that could support innumerable Single Guys, Sudden Susans, Carolines, Wills, Graces, and other young white urban professionals looking to balance the demands of a career, romantic life, and the big city. No more. Friends and Seinfeld are long gone, of course, and ER is finally exiting this season with a whimper rather than a bang. Looking back, the comedies in particular seem increasingly dated, transmissions from that strange reality we all only vaguely remember before Bush v. Gore, 9/11, Iraq, and Great Depression 2.0. Not only do the go-go ‘90s increasingly seem like a distant fever dream, so too does television itself. The hubris of Thursday’s “must see TV” now settles for the more workmanlike “comedy done right”—a promise of basic competence that comes with seeing your audience dwindle by two-thirds. GE once offered Jerry Seinfeld part ownership of the company to stay in production; now Tina Fey begs on the Emmys for someone, somewhere to watch her show in some format, any format.
Friends, Seinfeld, and their many less successful clones emphasized a type of magical urban thinking—cue Jennifer Anniston entering Central Perk: “Hey everyone, I’ve just been made the head buyer at Barneys!” “That’s great,” say her professional chef BFF, inexplicably-employed paleontologist boyfriend, and lunk-headed soap-actor neighbor. Later they all retreat to their legendarily gigantic yet affordable Manhattan apartments. The old NBC formula was one of fantasy-identification, especially for the demo so valued by the network: here is life in the biggest of the big cities—pursuing your dreams, finding true love, and making lifelong friends. Even George Costanza, the resident punching bag on Seinfeld, landed a few hot dates and spent a couple of seasons working for the Yankees. And Seinfeld as a whole, though it scrupulously obeyed its “no hugs” credo across nine seasons, nevertheless depended on that familiar sense of community so important to the sitcom’s history.
Given this heritage, what is most remarkable about the current NBC Thursday line-up is just how radically it inverts this formula. If ‘90s NBC traded in lifestyle fantasies of urban excitement, bottomless consumption, and witty sophistication, the new NBC aesthetic offers the more sobering prospect of such dreams deferred and denied. We are now invited to ask: Just how much would it suck to live in Scranton and work as middle-management at a paper company? “Comedy done right” is apparently open season on any constituency standing outside the upwardly mobile urban single in terms of class, taste, and geography. For the past four years, My Name is Earl has explored the comedy gold to be had in a white underclass denied access to education or proper grooming products, following the time-honored comic tradition of two downscale dumb guys, one of whom is just slightly smarter than the other. More toxic is Kath and Kim, NBC’s Americanization of the popular Australian series (which may or may not return for a second season). Admittedly, I’ve only seen about 2 and a half episodes, but from what I can tell, the premise appears to be that Kath, Kim, and Kath’s fiancé are all reasonably happy, upbeat, and mutually supportive people who—hilariously—remain completely unaware that they are in fact tasteless boobs so unfashionable and naïve that they should pray for the sweet release of death. In short, the program is a series of wardrobe jokes punctuated by scenes in a mall, made by and for people who would rather drink gasoline than be seen anywhere near a Banana Republic. The fiancée even runs a Sub shop at the mall, apparently because the idea that there are people out there somewhere who would eat Subs at the mall is so deliciously tasteless as to be self-evidently hysterical.
The American version of The Office triples down on the comedy of lifestyle abjection: pointless profession + self-delusion + Scranton = critically acclaimed hell on earth. Yes, it’s more complicated than that, and yes, it is often hilarious. But in the show’s fundamental architecture, Jim and Pam serve as surrogates for the network’s desired demo—young, ironic, and self-aware enough to realize that without their youth, irony, and self-awareness, they would become just two more middle-aged losers trapped forever in this particular circle of cubicle Hell. Much has been made of the differences between the BBC and NBC versions. While it is hard to express exactly, the Gervais version always struck me as slightly more philosophical in its ambitions—after thousands of years of western civilization, has it come to this? How did the world become so ugly, boring, and petty? The NBC version, on the other hand, seems to be less about our wistful recognition of shared alienation and more a cautionary tale for young urbans about not getting stuck in a small town doing unrewarding labor. In short, the America version maintains the characteristically American hope that a better life might be had somewhere else doing something else, while in the British version, we all make paper, all of us, forever, without mercy or exit.
And now the producers of The Office bring us the new Amy Poehler show. Here the premise is that some people, apparently of their own free will, live in Indiana and are stupid enough to take seriously a bullshit job at something as bogus as the Parks and Recreation Department. Hoping to prime the pump of snotty condescension for potential viewers of the series, NBC provides a link to the fictional town’s fictional website:
Pawnee is not a tourist Mecca, but this fact has made it a somewhat desirable location for those looking to get away from the crowds. Whether it’s taking in a community theater play in the park, guided tours of old Wamapoke hunting and burial grounds, or just shopping in a chain store on Main Street, there’s always at least one thing to do on the weekends.
Code words abound here, cuing the comic vignettes that will inevitably follow: “community theater” (talentless morons working very hard to excel in a laughable production of Mama Mia—one unlucky character deluded enough to believe he or she might really make it in the entertainment industry); “guided tours” (bored tourists shepherded through uninspiring attractions while listening to the comically misinformed narration of Poehler or a supporting cast member); “chain store” (see Kath and Kim, above). In an effort at some transmedial buzz, viewers are asked elsewhere to submit their ideas for solving the city’s “raccoon problem,” a Hooterville joke reminding us that one’s proximity to wildlife is inversely related to one’s access to a Jamba Juice, and thus stands as an index of shame.
Which brings us finally to 30-Rock, the exception that proves the rule. Here is the one last show that continues to explore the trials and tribulations of single and professional life in the Big Apple. TV critics and scholars love it (much more than the general public, it would appear). And why wouldn’t we? Despite the purportedly contemporaneous setting, the series has a strangely nostalgic feel to it, most likely because it celebrates both a medium and a world that no longer exist.
Like Mad Men (another critical/academic fave), Liz Lemon’s New York is a place where both New York and television are still important. Liz and her staff work valiantly each week to produce a new episode of television as if there was actually still an audience out there waiting for weekly installments of a television show. Despite all the in-jokes about corporate control, creative compromise, and systemic mediocrity in the age of convergence, the program verges on an almost CBS-like visit with “old friends”–not just the screwball genre it borrows from so liberally, but also the Dick Van Dyke Show, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, SNL, and even the “hey kids, let’s put on a show” genre of classic Hollywood. Much is made of the show’s clever self-reflexivity, but in truth, this plays more like flattery for a 30/40-something audience that still believes they possess superior knowledge about how the media really work, when in fact the new media environment is, for most of this audience, a terrifying landscape of alien platforms, obtuse genres, and incomprehensible practices. Beneath it all is a certain sense of loss—not only for the weekly broadcast television that once constituted the Thursday night block, but also for the social/political/consumer habitus that once attended that now distant audience formation—an irony that stopped just short of snark; a second wave feminism still relatively unchallenged by the “whatever” assault of “get over it” third wave punks; a literate reflexivity; intertextual stunt-casting; fast-thinking New York wit.
30-Rock is perhaps the last series to make it out of nineties New York, as if its transmission drifted out into space, bounced off Pluto, and is only now returning to earth. To find the new clever, the new template in urban fantasy, the new state-of-the-art in media-savvy programming, I think we have to move our sensibilities west like the industry itself did long ago. Imagine a teenage girl living in, say, Pawnee, Indiana. Who is likely to be the more compelling role model: Liz Lemon or the Ollie Girls? Which show and city model a better fantasy for what it means to succeed in life circa 2009: 30-Rock’s New York or Sunset Tan’s L.A.?
In the end, 30-Rock is a rather singular vanity project about one extraordinary and unattainable reality—Tina Fey as Tina Fey in the story of Tina Fey’s rise to Tina Feyfabulism in New York. Who else could pull that off? But a lot of girls could dye their hair blonde, secure gigantic breast implants, find another girl to help craft a perverse Doublemint Het-lesbian fantasy act, move to L.A., get a tan, get a job in a tanning salon, and then find themselves on a cable reality series spraying tan juice on C-list celebrities. And who knows where that might lead—a promotion into Hef’s harem, a gig on the Bad Girls Club, a chance to cry at the feet of Bret Michaels? And even if that’s all there is in front of the camera, the girl from Pawnee will still have the condo in Van Nuys, a couple of kids, and maybe even a generous alimony payment from her former Rock of Love line-producer husband. But most of all, she’ll have the satisfaction of knowing she showed all those hayseeds back in Pawnee that she understood the game, she really knew how the media really works—not in any overly clever Seven Sisters/wink-wink/Brecht light/Liz Lemon kind of way (that’s soooo nineties)—but in the much crueler yet honest realization that you are what you signify, that your worth is defined primarily by your access to commodities, visibility, attention, and envy. Who needs to be a neurotic self-doubting sexless brunette in New York (or even worse, a receptionist in Scranton) when you could transform yourself, as Baudrillard might say, into the “more blonde than blonde,” the “more vapid than vapid,” the “more L.A. than L.A.,” thus ensuring the success that comes with achieving a transcendent state of pure obscenity and absolute fascination. That’s a growth market, especially when compared to the dwindling opportunities available to East Coast wags and wits. And even when the girl from Pawnee hits thirty, and is for all intents and purposes useless to the industrial economy she helped sustain for a couple of years, there is always the possibility for maybe one last curtain call in externalized self-actualization. I hear Fox is casting for MiLF Island next week.
1. Central Perk: symbolic center of the old urban imaginary.
2. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope: poise, symmetry, boredom.
3. Tina Fey as Liz Lemon: Queen of a doomed empire.
4. Holly Huddleston (1/2 of the Ollie Girls): “I live in L.A., have a bitchin’ tan, and date Ryan Seacrest. What have you accomplished in life?”
I think you bring up some really good points here. I especially like your discussion of (low) class-based and taste-based humor. Shades of Christopher Guest abound.
I’m also curious about your concluding remarks. If the type of fantasy/aspirational identification employed by 90s NBC sitcoms now appears in reality television (and in NBC comedy was replaced by condescension), what do we make of reality television that simultaneously encourages condescension?
I also wonder if these two processes are so separate in 30 Rock, considering Liz Lemon’s life is a mess: among other things, she fails to purchase an apartment, she fails to have or adopt a child, she fails when she tries to go corporate, and she just can’t seem to shake free of the Beeper King. While it fits in with your description of fantasy identification encouraged by 90s NBC comedy through Fay’s star image (which you mention in your column), I would argue that it is much closer to the other shows currently on NBC when we consider the textual constructions of Liz Lemon alongside Fay.
Do you think NBC moved ever-so-slightly away from the unrepentant depiction of conspicuous consumption because HBO (and, to a lesser extent, Showtime) were doing it better? Sex and the City plus The Sopranos makes for a pretty potent one-two punch about the pleasures and dangers of heedless consumerism. Furthermore, having a premium cable package also means you get to conspicuously consume at the same time that you’re watching such consumption being narrativized. It might be tempting to say that Sex and the City is so 2004, but the announcement of a sequel to the feature film–despite the inherent cognitive dissonance of continuing the franchise after Cary and Mr. Big tie the knot–suggests that Depression 2.0 hasn’t yet dissuaded us from watching fabulous tales of shopping, punctuated by dirty (though certainly not witty) banter. And while I absolutely can’t recommend it on its own artistic merits, I thought He’s Just Not that Into You suggested a continuation of the themes, styles, and characters of “must-see TV.”
i have to buttress Jason’s point a little bit. One of the more successful sitcoms right now, over on CBS, is a virtual replica of Friends. How I Met Your Mother is this “90’s” aesthetic to a t. No, that style is not dead, but rather it is just dancing around, on premium TV and in the cinemas as well as on other networks.
I also want to add that Sconce goes a little too far in writing the eulogy of the 30 Rock system. I am 20 years old, and as forward thinking about the media as most on this website. I still wait for weekly installments of TV shows, unlike in your formulation that that audience doesn’t exist. and I am not terrified of what is happening in the “current media landscape.”
I think these two strategies are very much related, only with different inflections. Mythical and “real” places like Pawnee and Scranton exist to reinforce the imaginary surrounding urban centers like New York and L.A.–they become the “negative” examples that reaffirm the consumer/lifestyle fantasies attached to the “sophistication/culture” of New York or the “glamor/buzz” of L.A. Interested parties might look at Vicky Johnson’s new book on “Heartland TV” for more on this. Certainly the fantasy of an inclusive urban community still exists (although please note that the ‘Sex and the City’ posse are a generation older than most of their peers)–but I do think it is interesting that this more arch, bleak, and tragicomic vision of life beyond the big city has emerged so forcefully over the past few years–especially on NBC. Another way to think about this shift: Imagine a producer pitching a show today about a young woman, newly single, moving to Minneapolis to work in a TV newsroom. That show today would not be the MTM show, but “The Office” or “Parks and Rec.”
As for Tina Fey/Liz Lemon, I agree Lemon’s life is a comedic mess–but as Woody Allen’s films prove, stress and neurosis are key elements in the romance of Manhattan–the idea that one has to be extraordinarily tough and smart to survive in NYC (i.e. “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”). So I would still argue its a throwback–especially if we consider that so many of the problems Lemon faces are those of the “Friends” generation now in their late-30s, early 40s.
Thanks for a fascinating piece, Jeffrey. All of the commenters are right in questioning the demise of the young-white-urban-professional aesthetic and identifying its persistence elsewhere (reality shows, HBO, et al.), but it seems like Jeff’s point is less about its textual/narrative disappearance than its industrial one. With ever-dwindling ratings and shifting demographics, NBC executives are less likely to actively construct a particular audience bloc with big-tent, appointment programming than they are to try to get/retain our attention any way they can (did you know you can catch more of The Office at NBC.com?).
While reports of these damn kids today texting on the Facebooks of their Grand Theft Auto iPhones are often exaggerated, they do highlight generational differences in attempts to find “the new clever, the new template in urban fantasy.” In all fairness, the Sunset Tan cadre represents one outcome for the girl (or boy) from Pawnee who grew up on a steady diet of reality gameshows and the slumpy sensibility. The likelier model is the oeuvre of Adam DiVello (The Hills, The City), which teaches us older members of gen-Y stumbling out into the workforce that it’s ok to work unpaid internships until you’re 28, as long as you have dinner at the right places, go to the right parties, and look great doing it. Then, if you’re lucky, in 20 years a savvy Bravo producer will edit your storyline of Real Housewives alongside that of a slightly frumpier couple whose house overlooks a less desirable part of the golf course.
Although this article was written before Community became a part of NBC’s Thursday night line-up, I feel the show fits perfectly into this analysis of 90’s sitcom inversion. While it differs from Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, and the Office, which all focus on a work environment, it still exhibits the “new NBC aesthetic offers the more sobering prospect of such dreams deferred and denied.”
Community embodies this earnestly. Each of the main characters have come to this community college, a place that is never taken seriously as an institution and is the focus of much derision, because of some failure or mistake. The show is constantly commenting on how the students are embarrassed by the school and even the Dean, who spends most of his time trying to build up the school, admits that he looked down on the school.
The characters don’t live luxurious lives, there are no sprawling loft apartments or inexplicable careers. On the contrary, some of the characters, like Abed and Troy, still rely on their families for monetary support, Shirley can’t afford family vacations for her two sons, Britta can’t pay her rent, Annie lived above a ‘marital aid’ store when she was cut off from her parents and had to buy a gun for protection, and Jeff was evicted from his condo and forced to down grade his lifestyle.
The characters are not being set up for greatness. There is no great deus ex machina that will change their lives. While the show creates a wacky world full of fun adventures and movie parodies, the characters continue on with their lives. They stress about tests, their classes, and their futures. Community injects fantasy into a show that is surprisingly based in reality, which allows viewers to be entertained by a world that is similar to their own.
The article contemplates the fantasy elements of the 90s sitcom vs. the current NBC line up and how the changes impact viewers. Do viewers want to live in a world like Community? Where there is stress, embarrassing moments, doubt, and uncertainty? Or would they rather watch a form of “reality” where life looks glamorous and fun? I think this is where the heart at the center of Community is most effective. These characters are not going to gain fame in their world (Abed may be the exception), but they could succeed to achieve their own goals, however trivial they may seem compared to “commodities, visibility, attention, and envy.” The study group’s relationship as a family is the draw. The show works hard to make the audience invested in the characters, so that their success or failure on a test matters. With characters that are presented like real people that we would know, it is easy to find yourself identifying with them.