“Parks and Rec” vs. “Community” [the devolution of TV comedies]

There are only two shows of which I’ve watched every episode from the very beginning – I have been with “Parks and Rec” and “Community” since the pilot of each aired. The two of them are my favorite shows currently on television. Before the end of their most recent seasons, I went back and forth on which I prefer. Now, however, the choice is clear. While “Parks and Rec” will always be near to my heart, “Community” is the better show, for one reason: it has not fallen into the trap that [almost] every other television comedy falls into eventually.

The inevitable devolution of a TV comedy (I’m going to start using sitcom interchangeably with TV comedy, and I know they’re two different things, I don’t care) is nothing new. It is well documented, particularly with recent shows. I’d say sitcoms usually peak around seasons 2-4, and then eventually become a shell of what they once were.

They fall into formula. The success they find during those peak seasons becomes a strict framework for script writing, eliminating any potential progress. Any character growth stops, and eventually the characters all become caricatures of themselves. Even “Seinfeld” and “Friends” – the top two comedies of the past twenty years, I’d say – saw this happen. Kramer became the “crazy one,” Joey became the “dumb one.” Instead of being characters with these tendencies that allowed for jokes, the characters become the joke itself. Joey is funny simply because he’s dumb, there’s no joke development – put bluntly, the writing becomes lazy.

I hate to say it, but “Parks and Rec” has suffered the same fate. Season 3 is, arguably, the best TV comedy season of all time. I cannot speak highly enough about that season. It was extraordinary. And people took notice. It was heralded by critics (even though fucking Melissa McCarthy beat Amy Poehler for an Emmy, seriously how the fuck is that even remotely OK?). But the success led nowhere. The fourth season should have been just as great – Leslie’s campaign offered amazing material. But capitalizing on the success of the third season, the writers chose to coast. Ron become the “manly one,” Tom became the “swag one” (I couldn’t think of a better word for this, but you know what I mean), and, as sad as it makes me because the trope is so unbelievably worn out, Andy became the “dumb one.” The characters are the jokes – whatever Ron says is funny (or is supposed to be funny) just because it’s Ron saying something manly. Tom is funny just because he’s being an idiot. There’s no drive or growth behind the characters anymore. Even with a “shake-up” plot like the election, the show became static. The characters didn’t progress.

And that’s why “Community” takes the cake. Because, in it’s third season, the characters haven’t devolved. If anything, they’ve evolved. I’d argue that at the start of season 1, the study group all represented simple one-dimensional caricatures. By the season 3, each is put in storylines that wouldn’t be possible of their season 1 selves. You think season 1 Annie could have broken Abed in his own dreamatorium? Or season 1 Shirley even consider opening a sandwich shop with Pierce? “Community” has come leaps and bounds from where it began, and refuses to let its characters or their storylines remain in one place.

I know it seems unfair to compare season 3 of “Community” with season 4 of “Parks” because we all know as a show ages, it is supposed to get worse. Coupled with the fact that I just called season 3 of “Parks” the best sitcom season of all time, it’s actually kind of ludicrous of me to make the comparison. But I’d argue it was the fact that “Community” has shown such overall growth from season to season, and the promise of continued growth, that gives it the edge.

Of course, that continued growth seems unlikely now. With the removal of Dan Harmon as showrunner, I fear season 4 of “Community” will have the same fate as season 4 of “Parks” – a shell of what it once was, trying so hard to recreate the magic of the previous season, but coming up short.

Still, “Community” wins out. I like to believe in the hypothetical of what season 4 could have been. Because I’m an optimist. Right?

As a consolation prize, here is my favorite moment from season 4 of “Parks and Rec”


-Ben Cosman