Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Examining Parks and Recreations' Sense of Place

A strong sense of place sometimes can play a big role in a movie or a TV show. In the cases of films such as "The Shipping News," "Fargo," "Oh Brother Where Art Thou," or "Junebug," I've even heard the setting be referred to by the film makers as a character within the story.

Among TV shows, "The Office" has a pretty strong sense of place as well. In the show's title sequence, the three external shots of Scranton- a graying two-story skyscraper, a historic main street clogged up in traffic, and a glamorous "Scranton Welcomes You" sign with nothing very glamorous behind it- reflect the particular shade of gray that most of the show's characters have resigned their lives to. "The Office" legitimately feels like it's set in a small Rust Belt city and it adds to the show with its exterior shots, its water cooler discussions about the Scranton Strangler, and Dwight's side businesses of hay festivals and bed-and-breakfasts.

When Greg Daniels' follow-up was announced as a show about the trials and tribulations of workers at a city parks department in Indiana, I expected that the show would have a very strong sense of place because he did so well with "The Office." More importantly, because the show is set in a city hall and its characters are in the business of maintaining a sense of place, the show depends on convincing us that Pawnee is important.

It dissapoints me to say that almost two years later, I really don't know very much about Pawnee at all and I wonder if the show itself has put much thought into what Pawnee is and what Pawnee isn't. Complaints that palm trees have appeared in exterior shots weigh pretty heavily on the anti-place side of the argument.

Let's try to answer a few questions:
Is Pawnee a stand-alone metropolitan area or a suburb of a larger city?
What's its size?
Is it a city with a historic downtown or is it part of a larger sprawl-based pattern?

I assume it is a stand-alone metropolitan area because Pawnee has its own newspaper or the newspaper would be named after the bigger town. Considering every interview we see is conducted by the same reporter comes to the department, it's safe to conclude that the newspaper is of the small-town variety (think under 100,000) that employs only one or two professional reporters. The town also has a couple dance clubs. I've lived in a couple small towns (both had populations of about 50,000) and they both had dance clubs converted from pedestrian mall store front space. That's not out of the question, either.

Then again, the town has its own TV station and TV morning hosts. I could understand public access programming, but TV personalities and Regis-and-Kelly clones isn't really much of a small-town vibe to me.

As for the downtown issue, I don't see any skyscrapers in the background. Then again, I rarely see exterior shots at all.

I also doubt the writer's knowledge of the state of Indiana when you consider that Anne and Chris' relationship was almost killed by his moving back to Indianapolis. Virtually, nowhere in Indiana is more than two hours away from Indianapolis. The show acted as if he was relocating across the Atlantic.

I posted this on an IMDB message board and got some good responses. Here are the three best:

Response 1:"Sometimes smaller towns can have decently sized city halls, especially if they're historic. I always imagine Pawnee to be a decently sized town, but kind of in the middle of nowhere (stand-alone metropolitan area), which gives it that small town feeling. Maybe I imagine it like this because I'm from Minnesota and I know a lot of towns that have the same sort of atmosphere.

I do think it's a pretty big deal that he's going back to Indianapolis, though - even a two-hour commute is kind of long for a newer relationship. And I think Leslie's main loyalty is to Pawnee, not to Indiana, although of course I'm sure she has some state pride as well. But perhaps the writers avoid making a lot of references to Indiana itself because they want Pawnee to feel more universal - you know, like it could be Anywhere, USA, so we can all relate. But I did think Donna's "The Last Supper" featuring famous people from Indiana was pretty great.

Small towns have their own newspapers! They're small and usually supplemental (i.e., people from the small towns get them as well as a larger newspaper from a more urban center), and they're HILARIOUS. Seriously. My grandmother lives in a tiny farming town in southern rural Minnesota, and I always ask to see the paper when I visit her - they include things like police logs (which are filled with "2AM: called to city park to investigate noise complaint. Found pack of teenagers. Sent teenagers home with warning.") and notices about local marriages and deaths and events. So it makes sense that Shawna with the Pawnee paper reports on the goings-on of the Parks and Rec department - that's exactly the type of stuff that goes into local small town papers.

I don't know what it's main industry is, but I think Sweetums might have its headquarters there, and if they have a harvest festival, they're probably near a rural area."

Response 2:

"It is a little weird RE: the size of Pawnee. It's apparently big enough to have a local television station with two locally produced morning shows, and has its own radio station. I've always felt like Pawnee would be around 20-30 thousand people, but such a small city wouldn't have all of that. I'm from a city about that size in Wisconsin, and we do have our own newspaper (actually, a very nice one; it was the first newspaper in the state that had an online edition), but not local television stations (and the one local radio station would be the college station). For the most part, though, this show could be set in my hometown. It's one of the reasons I love the show so much.

btw, 2 hours may not be much (Pawnee is in Southeastern Indiana), but that could suck for a relationship, pretty much seeing each other only on weekends.

As for state pride, there's Leslie's "Go Hoosiers!" moment (no, Go BADGERS), and the references to Bobby Knight and Indiana's love of basketball.

I have a good friend who's originally from Indiana (not exactly sure where, but it's a smaller town), and he speaks with a Southern-ish accent. He sounds kind of like Woody Harrelson did on Cheers (who is originally from Texas, though). I do wonder if the characters on this show should have an accent similar to my friend's."

ETA: I was going through the cast, seeing where they're from originally. Nick Offerman is from Joliet, Il, which is another perfect Pawnee-like town (but it would be, in my estimation, quite a bit bigger). Chris Pratt is from Virginia, Minnesota.

Response 3:
"I always envision Pawnee to be similar to a town/city like Grand Island, Nebraska. The similarities are really stirking. nebraska is a pretty big state where almost the entire population (2 million) lives in the southeastern corner of the state. So most of the state's population is crammed in to one area much like Indianapolis, Indiana. Lincoln (200,000 people), and Omaha (500,000) are both right next to each other in the SE corner of the state. the next biggest city in the state is only about (50,000) and it is Grand Island... A city which is born almost out of necessity because there are no other major population centers throughout the rest of the state.... so the state needed a centrally located midsized city located off I-80... and that's what grand island is, and i'll bet that's what Pawnee city is supposed to be. Grand Island is about 4-5 hours west of the major population centers in southeastern nebraska FYI, kind of like Pawnee is supposed to be (though like the op pointed out... they flubbed the size of indiana. this makes sense in a state the size of nebraska, but in indiana you can get pretty much anywhere in 2 hours. heck, you can get from indianapolis to columbus ohio in under 2 hours too.) Anywhoo, Grand Island is very similar to Pawnee. They're completely cut off from the other big cities in the state so they have their own little small media center with their own nbc affiliate station, a couple funny local talk shows on tv, their own radio stations am/fm, a little bit of a night life and a mall, a nice capital building, a newspaper, etc. etc.... and because they are like their own little stand alone mecca out there away from the other big cities in the state... they have a nice sense of civic pride."

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