In this post, I’d like to focus on two outstanding comedies: Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. I recently held a Facebook poll on which was better, as they often get compared to one another. Part of this may be due to unfortunate pigeonholing, as they were both run and/or produced by prominent women in comedy (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, respectively), but they shared a ton of other similar ground. They were both quirky workplace sitcoms on the same channel (even sharing a broadcast night at one point) which approached a few related themes and ideas that were important to their leading ladies, albeit from very different angles. These shows were both beloved by critics and became cult hits among fans, yet somehow struggled in the ratings for most of their runs. Fey and Poehler were also longtime friends and SNL alums before either show was created. So there isn’t any ill will or rivalry here, just good old fashioned analytical comparison.
Because, for all those commonalities, the two shows obviously had markedly different tones, goals and styles of humor. That’s what makes them so fun to weigh against each other. Although I finished 30 Rock a couple years ago and just wrapped up Parks last night, I tried to eliminate recency bias and I think I’ve made a good case for the clear “winner” here. Again, no matter what opinion you have, I’m not trying to demean either show or any cast members, as they are both uniformly good and funny even at their worst. With that in mind, the following is my two cents on the matter, and my thoughts on which is better.
30 Rock was, besides the Simpsons, likely the greatest one- (or two-) liner machine in television history. It’s really just mindboggling. It featured extremely polished comedy in a playfully irreverent tone with a myriad of different styles and, in my opinion, it was always pretty consistent. Plus, it came first and paved the way, and had more episodes to boot. It was usually very on point with satire, parody, references and stylistic experimentation – more so than Parks, which rarely even attempted a few of those things.
Its anarchic tone and focus on laughs above all else made it effortlessly easy and amusing to watch. However, because of this it had intentionally paper-thin excuses for plots and repeated the same dilemmas and thematic ideas frequently, to very diminishing effect. Some dislike the early or later seasons because of supposed inconsistency in the writing, but I think the tone or character growth was never the main feature of the show. In fact, though they had a lot of charm and a few moving moments, its characters were fairly underdeveloped and broadened in pretty much every direction for the sake of the admittedly excellent humor. Not that they weren’t delightful to spend time with – both Tracy Jordan and Leo Spaceman have to rank among the best comedic TV characters ever. In the end, 30 Rock is breezy, hyperactive and deceptively brainy comedy comfort food.
Parks And Recreation was a show with vision, heart and purpose. Its writing and premise was intentionally focused on the minutiae of American life – people’s interactions, identities, disagreements and bonding, among citizens and city employees alike. Though it is dependably hilarious, it’s true that it doesn’t rely on the volume or density of gags that 30 Rock does.
Its world came first: the fictional town of Pawnee. Any and all humor, social satire or pop culture references organically arose from that town’s wonderful cast of characters. The personalities of these figures were heightened outgrowths of the actors themselves, which made them all the more believable. That led to a show where early 90s R&B, stoic woodworking, gruesome antiestablishment performance art, cameos by actual politicians and a slapsticky children’s program could all harmoniously coexist.
Furthermore, Parks moved at a more leisurely pace with its humor because some of the time, it was devoted to higher pursuits. Because of its friendly and emotionally accurate writing, it functioned as a dramedy, and, let me tell you, some of its best moments are utterly devastating. Whether sad, triumphant, or uncertainly poignant, Parks is undeniably moving when it wants to be, and if you haven’t at least come close to tears over its duration, I seriously doubt that you possess a heart. Even a somewhat bitter, cynical person such as myself found its emotional rollercoaster disarming.
Beyond that, Parks and Rec somehow restored the splendor of the now-tarnished and criticized “American dream” through its sheer good-natured idealism. It frequently made a point of encouraging and demonstrating the inherent nobility and grace in civic duty, or even just doing good work with people you love. In a TV landscape filled with clever, knotty and sarcastic satire & archetypes, Parks and Rec offered something more daring and ambitious than even the most meta Community episode: Humanity.
Every character on the show is respected for their worldview, albeit sometimes at odds with their contemporaries; unwaveringly themselves, and yet incrementally changing for the better due to the intervention of their friends. This careful, detailed three-dimensional expansion of who they are, what they want and where they’re at is remarkably robust for a sitcom and miles ahead of anything similar 30 Rock did.
Another way it bests its peer is in the plotting department. Even in modern sitcoms, the status quo frequently gets restored at the end of an episode or a season. That’s not true of Parks. Against all common wisdom, like Leslie Knope, it threw itself at seemingly impossible goals, utilizing every last resource and moving right up the ladder. Its seasonal arcs and episodic stories made sudden and rapid changes to the characters’ careers, and romantic and personal lives, and they did so in a very naturalistic, considered manner.
Because of this wonderful, honest writing, Parks was a refreshingly, potently kind and sincere show. It was never too cruel, too surreal or too unfocused, and it spread its riches everywhere, giving voice to all kinds of wacky yet interesting townspeople for the main cast to bounce off of.
Now, it certainly wasn’t perfect either. Anyone who watches it will tell you that the first season is a completely different, much lesser program, somewhat meaner and more nihilistic in attitude. It swiped a lot from contemporary comedy The Office, which the show built off of going forward but which didn’t have the meta ingenuity of 30 Rock’s show within a show. Also, later seasons of Parks saw the initially robust plotting repeating itself limply at times, while some of the characters became exaggerated and lost their purpose to a degree. But this is all proof that, as I said, Parks and Rec was never afraid to change and grow, as it jettisoned two potential main characters early on and added two new ones, giving it the creative boost that led to its masterful third season. It never really lost that knack, either, as it kickstarted its final season with another fantastic narrative and structural twist.
It must also be mentioned that Pawnee’s likable and varied townsfolk vary in quality as characters. Despite the show’s inclusive and respectful nature, a lot of them are intended for purposes of political and social satire, which the show was very hit or miss on, going far too broad or cliched just as often as it hit the mark.
By its very nature, the grounded Parks was not as visually or formally inventive as 30 Rock, instead sticking to its humble palette of faux-documentary ensemble comedy for almost the entire run.
So those are the pros and cons. I really enjoyed both shows, but I think one definitely sticks out for its artistic qualities. At its peak, before Parks and Rec even existed, 30 Rock was peerless. But now, its heavily temporally-based reference humor is starting to wear thin, despite its immaculate construction and solid character-based quips. In contrast, Parks and Rec’s potent character work, emotional heft and manageably small scale will hold up for quite some time. In conclusion, 30 Rock might be the better comedy. But there’s no question in my mind that Parks and Recreation is the better show.