Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Television’s ‘Parks & Recreation’ Problem – Los Angeles Loyolan.
Like most college students, I’ve got enough on my plate to do without watching too much television. Hulu makes it easy enough to keep up with the shows I want to see without worrying about catching up on critical darlings far into their later seasons.
Of course, students aren’t the only ones who can’t get into long-running series very easily. The television landscape is becoming more and more serialized, and with that change comes less opportunity for viewers to follow a show that has developed its characters and backstory fairly thoroughly.
The problem with this dynamic lies in the programs that don’t quite hit their stride until later into their runs. No one, for example, would argue that the earliest episodes of “Community” are the strongest in the series, but those who tuned out when they got bored missed the show’s transformation into one of the buzziest among younger audiences.
However, no program showcases this difficult problem better than one I caught up on this past winter break: “Parks and Recreation,” the Amy Poehler-led NBC sitcom that, now in its fourth season, has never managed to land the high ratings it deserves. The show debuted in 2009 as a midseason replacement and something of a spin-off of “The Office,” NBC’s biggest sitcom hit, and was summarily ravaged by critics. The first season only lasted six episodes, but the ratings were, at the time, good enough by NBC standards to warrant a second season pickup.
As soon as “Parks and Recreation” returned to the air in fall 2009, the show had transformed from an ill-conceived spin-off to a fully realized program in its own right, filled with funny, realistic characters and heartwarming, hilarious plotlines. However, ratings quickly took a tumble even as reviewers continued to lavishly praise the show. By the end of the third season, the show finished 116th highest-rated show on television, behind series like “COPS” and “Skating with the Stars” – not exactly a good sign.
NBC continues to be in bad enough of shape where renewals for shows like “Parks” are far more certain than they should be, but eventually the low ratings will have to be acknowledged. While programs can do their best to draw in new viewers and increase their audience, ultimately the poor quality of the early episodes may forever keep shows like “Parks and Recreation” from being hits.
This is what I like to call “The ‘Parks and Recreation’ Problem” – shows that peak any later than their first seasons are doomed to a few low-rated seasons before their hardcore fanbases are disappointed by the programs’ inevitable cancellations. However, shows that peak early often flame out quickly (i.e. “Glee,” “Heroes”) stick around far beyond their expiration date thanks to their passionate media followings, even as ratings erode.
What is particularly unfortunate about “The ‘Parks and Recreation’ Problem” is it ignores the ability of shows to grow and wilt over time. Audiences are equally to blame for this – who else could be at fault for the continued success of “Two and a Half Men” over such celebrated comedies as “30 Rock” and “How I Met Your Mother”? After all, services like Hulu and Netflix make it easy to catch up, so there’s no real excuse.
The core of the problem lies within the sheer variety of how much programming is out there and an inability on viewers’ part to take on too many must-see series. Unless a series can strike fire in the very early episodes and keep stoking the fire for the first few seasons, it’s likely that network television will be plagued by “The ‘Parks and Recreation’ Problem” for quite some time.