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?”