‘The story of this story is that it won’t stop developing": the Media in Parks and Recreation

I love Parks and Recreation the way Ron Swanson loves honor and meat. It satisfies my need for whimsy and my odd desire to interpret a twenty-one minute sitcom as though it were a novel — say Winesburg, Ohio, a classic Midwestern tale in which Sherwood Anderson slowly introduces his townspeople and makes the community his main character.

Like Winesburg, Pawnee, Indiana has a personality, and the writers of Parks and Rec have made sure to develop layers of the town’s civic life. We know about and have specific opinions on: the sewage department, the library, the hospital, Park Safety, Animal Control. We’ve learned about the councilmen, the corporate masters, the Christian Right. And some among us might be able to tick off at least three Pawnee watering holes.

“I think the most exciting thing to me about criticism of the show is when people talk about Springfield. I honestly feel like if that could hold true for the run of the show, that would be my greatest dream. I mean, how many characters do they have on [The Simpsons] that recurred? They must have hundreds and hundreds of characters. And the joy of it is that you don’t need explanation for them when they show up.”

Ever try to think about what a map of the Simpsons’ Springfield would look like? I know you have. Well, I’m starting to imagine Pawnee’s dimensions, too, wondering whether it has a Russian district or a burlesque house. Much of this can be credited to the show’s creators, including Michael Schur, who was recently interviewed by the A.V. Club:

P&R’s best recurring characters are the town’s Kent Brockmans, the media personalities Shauna Malwae-Tweep, Joan Callamezzo, Perd Hapley, and the radio duo Crazy Ira & The Douche. And while there have been some excellent, in-depth articles about the politics of the show, its satire of shallow media is worth looking at as well.

In the recently completed Season Three, a handful of episodes focused on the unprofessional, sharky, naïve, lovable media characters, and with Leslie Knope entering the elective fray, they’ll have an even larger role next season. “Listen, when you run, even in a local election, your life becomes an open book,” a political recruiter tells her in last season’s finale. “So if you so much as stiff a waiter on his tip or use a government stamp for personal mail, it will come out.” This moment felt like it was straight out of The West Wing and the story arc promises some heightened drama. But then we remember that the media members who will be scrutinizing Leslie are laughably inane, and that her campaign trail will lead straight through The Pawnee Journal, “Pawnee Today,” and “Ya Heard with Perd.”

Leslie has conflicted feelings about the media, and the writers introduced this theme in Season 1, Episode 3, “The Reporter.” Shauna Malwae-Tweep, played by Alison Becker, comes to city hall to write an article about the pit behind Ann’s house and Leslie tells the camera, “She writes for The Pawnee Journal, which is kind of like our town’s Washington Post.” As always, Leslie exaggerates, but Shauna is a Woodward-like figure, snooping for tips on all of Pawnee’s various scandals and -gates.

Becker — who played a financial news anchor in The Other Guys and stars as a TV producer on ESPN.com’s “Mayne Street” alongside Nick Kroll, Ben Schwartz and Aubrey Plaza — has an insinuating smile that makes the character.  She’s out for gossip, even if it’s unrelated to the topic of her story, and in this episode she scoops Andy’s drunkenness, Leslie’s food poisoning, and the fact that Ann is on the pill. “Shauna is in the conference room and she’s writing a really bad article and it’s going to destroy us all,” Leslie blurts.

But even though she’s scared of the tiny local newspaper’s coverage of the pit project, Leslie also sees The Pawnee Journal as a possible propaganda arm. “The press is a weapon,” she tells Ann, “and you can use it to kill people or feed people.” Later, she tells Shauna, “We’re trying to turn a dangerous eyesore into a beautiful community park and a positive article could go a long way towards making that happen.” In subsequent episodes, Leslie energetically dictates entire ledes to Shauna, and in “Media Blitz,” she commandeers Shauna’s tape recorder and shouts: “This just in. Harvest Festival. More like Harvest Bestival. The park’s department has planted the seeds and now they’re harvesting the rewards.”

Just as Democrats may consider Talking Points Memo a friendly platform for them, Leslie sees TPJ as her department’s booster. In Episode 2:21, “94 Meetings,” she attempts to save an old gazebo from being torn down by the wife of Sweetums founder, Nick Newport, Sr, and she wants Shauna to write the story:

“I need you to get this word for word. Gazebo, more like Gazoinksbo. She may be a former beauty queen but today she’s the king of destroying history.”“Can you maybe just talk normally.”“Ok, fine. Gazoinksbo.”

Here, we find out that The Pawnee Journal is, in fact, owned by Sweetums, so Shauna can’t proceed with the article.  Sweetums’s manipulation of the news is a throwaway here, but corporate control is a target of the show, as Michael Schur told The AV Club: “There are certain things that shouldn’t be, in my opinion, tied to financial gain, and the news is one of them. The news is a public service. It’s a way to inform people of what’s going on in their world.” Even as Leslie tries to use the newspaper to advance her causes, The Pawnee Journal barely informs.

While the paper is an ineffective spin machine for Leslie, “Pawnee Today” with Joan Callamezzo is her Public Access nightmare. When Joan is introduced in Episode 2:1, “Pawnee Zoo,” she seems like an underprepared deer-in-the-headlights, which makes Leslie’s explanation of the show — “It’s kind of like the Meet the Press of our town.” — even funnier. Joan, played by “MadTV” alum Mo Collins, preens and prattles and seems relatively harmless, but it becomes clear that she’s biased, and she argues that Leslie’s staging of a gay-penguin wedding obviously crossed the line.

More Bill O’Reilly than David Gregory, Joan becomes a vicious Foxbot in subsequent episodes. I make the comparison to Fox News not just because Joan constantly criticizes the dorky, over-achieving public servant I root for; just like Fox anchors, she also asks “Have you stopped beating your wife?” kinds of questions. In “Media Blitz” she says, “Today’s guest is Leslie Knope and she’s going to tell us how this year’s harvest festival is going to bankrupt the city.” And in Episode 2:12, “Christmas Scandal,” when Leslie is accused of sleeping with the mythically sleazy Councilman Dexhart and appears on Pawnee Today to refute the charges, Joan begins the segment, “Sex. Drugs. Possibly Rock and Roll. We’ll find out today from the woman at the center of the Dexhart sex scandal, Leslie Knope. Leslie, when did the affair start?” All this with the passive-aggressive, octave-raised pleasantness of a Gretchen Carlson.

More specifically, “Pawnee Today” mirrors “The O’Reilly Factor” when Joan brings on a body language expert from the tabloid The Pawnee Sun to analyze Leslie. “Look at the way she’s smiling at [Councilman Dexhart] and then almost unconsciously touching her hands to her hips,” he says. “It’s like she’s sending him a message saying she’s ready for childbearing.” This reporter seems to be a parody of Tonya Reiman, O’Reilly’s in-house body language guru. Meanwhile, Pawnee Today also features glib captions like “Ben Wyatt: Human Disaster,” and Joan Callamezzo’s temper is O’Reillyesque. After Leslie and a park ranger (played by Andy Samberg) stonewall her questions in the episode, “Park Safety,” Joan rips into them: “Don’t you ever f*^& with me like that again. This is Pawnee F*^&ing Today. Did you know I bumped a cat that can stand up on its hinders for you?”

Because of incidents like this one, Leslie realizes by the middle of Season Three how powerful and frightening Joan can be.

“Look, we need to focus,” she tells Ben. “We still have the Pawnee Today interview.

“Well, is it too late to cancel?”

“Yeah, it’s too late to cancel. Joan Callamezzo runs this town.”

In the first season, many of the jokes were based on Leslie overstating the intrigue surrounding her little department. She seemed naïve and paranoid and we and the other characters knew better than her, knew that no one in Pawnee was paying attention to her park kingdom. In Seasons Two and Three, that was turned on its head. Leslie, it seems, was right all along. The podunk newspaper, the pathetic Local Access station number 46, and even the piddling NBC affiliate, WYMP, really were out for blood. Instead of laughing at her and at the sleepiness of her town, we get to laugh at the implicit criticism of the media. In “Harvest Festival,” Joan Callamezzo says, “I don’t think I’m being unprofessional when I say that I was really hoping for more tawdry scandals,” and it’s more engaging to watch Leslie go toe-to-toe with her ridiculous adversaries than it is to watch her imagine them.

“[B]ecause we’re making a show about a town and about a government, when the opportunity arises to maybe make a point or two, or at least raise an issue for discussion, we always like to do it,” Schur said.  “A large point […] was to say, ‘If the media would just cool it and stick to reporting facts and informing people, instead of trying to be sensationalistic and grab ratings, then I think the world would be a better place.’”

Like The Colbert Report, Parks and Recreation makes that basic point in a gut-busting way. It skewers the asinine antics of those who think Eyewitness and Exclusive and Edgy are more important words than Informative.  And when Leslie outwits the Callamezzos of the world, as she always does, we get the pleasure of watching an honest person outduel a Limbaugh. In Pawnee, blowhards lose eventually.

I interviewed Jay Jackson, who plays the good-natured scandal monger Perd Hapley, about the show’s attitude toward the media. Jackson was a staff reporter for KCAL in Los Angeles before he started acting (he’s been a reporter on Dexter, The Closer, The Mentalist, and in Fast Five).  Jackson also owns a business called Los Angeles Reporter’s Clinic, which helps people break into local news reporting, so he knows his way around a mic.

“Today’s news is about titillation and sensationalism,” he said.  “Prime example is the Lindsey Lohan drama or the Casey Anthony trial. Those stories have no direct impact on most viewers, but they’re the most watched stories. You ask the average person about the debt ceiling issue, which directly impacts just about everyone in America, and you’ll get a blank stare. So, the Parks reporters embody the journalist who is all about the ‘tabloidesque’ news and reporting.”

We certainly see that kind of reporting from Perd Hapley, whom Jackson describes as “somewhere between Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sean Hannity. A person who takes himself too seriously but mostly says nonsense.”

The audience was introduced to Perd early in the second season during the Councilman Dexhart scandal, and he immediately became a favorite. “The story of this story is that it won’t stop developing,” he declared with trademark Local News theatricality. “The mystery woman who met with Councilman Dexhart last night appears to be a government employee named Leslie Knorp [sic].  According to unconfirmed reports in The Pawnee Sun the two bent an elbow in this local watering hole, and though they left separately, no one knows where they woke up…together. Perd Hapley, Channel 4 News.”

Though Perd contributes to the gotchya atmosphere surrounding Leslie and the department, he seems to do so without malice. Leslie turns to him to do damage control and suggests to Tom that the media-shy Ben can withstand his show because “Perd Hapley is a big softy. It’ll be a puff piece.”

Perd’s character is a comment on the herd mentality of the media and the damage that conventional wisdom can do when that wisdom is arrived at uncritically. We see that point made clearly in “Media Blitz.” Nick Kroll’s shock-jock character, The Douche, uncovers a secret from Ben’s past, and Shauna confronts Leslie about it: “Oh come on. The Douche broke the story wide open.” Later in the same episode, Joan Callamezzo and Perd both trumpet the misinformation about Ben. The narrative has solidified and the truth matters less than the flashy consensus.

More important than any social point, though, the media characters are plain hilarious, and the writers trot out The Douche and Perd for the sake of goofiness. We find out that Perd’s been a local institution for decades and that he had a flattop in the 80s. We listen to his bumbling openings like, “This is where the controversy of this story gets even more controversial.” And we giggle (I giggle) when he appears on the episode, “The Telethon.” With caffeinated morning show cheer, he declares, “It’s 6:04 am, I’m Perd Hapley of Channel 4 Eyewitness news, and the story of this next dance is that it’s called The Worm.”

My last question to Jay Jackson, a fine dancer indeed, was in the form of a statement. I told him I loved his character and wondered to what extent Perd and the other media figures will factor in next season’s story line. “Well, we just shot the season opener,” he told me. “And I can promise you the Pawnee journalists will have a huge role this season.”

Ya heard it here first.

I’m looking forward to that the way the journalists look forward to Pawnee’s next public outrage. And one of the best features of Season Four will undoubtedly be the way Leslie deals with these reporters. “Stupid Media,” she said in “Harvest Festival.” “Let me tell you something. Freedom of press is for the birds.”

David Wanczyk can also do The Worm pretty well.

‘The story of this story is that it won’t stop […]