By Barry Neenan
This year, I caught up on a beloved piece of modern pop culture I had been missing out on, and watched through the entire run of Parks and Recreation. And it was… fine. A solid B Minus. Pairs well with pork chops.
The show loses major points, and my respect, because of Jerry. And if you’re a fan, and just chuckled to yourself that Jerry does indeed suck, that attitude is the exact problem.
Brooklyn 99 is easily one of my favourite shows, and I imagine it’ll sit comfortably as my favourite sitcom for quite some time. It builds beautifully on what Parks and Rec already accomplished. And to approach Parks and Rec having already seen its successor is to see its flaws in sharp relief.
Not to say Parks and Rec is a bad show by any stretch – it’s a good show. It’s popular for a reason. But it’s also far from the perfect product it’s made out to be, and its most serious flaw is how it treats recurring character Jerry Gergich. (I know his real name is Gary, but I’m sticking with ‘Jerry’ partly for simplicity and partly to preserve the sweet Catholicism pun in this article’s title.)
Jerry suffers one humilation after another. Designating one character as a luckless chewtoy is nothing new; in fact, it’s one of the oldest and simplest tropes in writing comedy. But what makes Jerry notable is the sheer scope of his pain, and how this pain is entirely undeserved. It’s not just that Jerry is clumsy and generally unlucky – it’s that his colleagues actively abuse him. This, again, is a classic sitcom trope. But within the framework of Parks and Rec, this approach is actively harmful to the show’s dynamic.
Let’s say there are roughly two ways to write characters in a sitcom; as caricatures, or as real people. Father Ted (our country’s greatest cultural achievement) is built on caricatures. Dougal and Mrs Doyle may be perfectly nice, but we accept their suffering as long as it’s funny. It may be more cathartic to see Ted suffer karmically for his own poor decisions, but we’re also capable at laughing at, say, Mrs Doyle falling repeatedly through a window. The fact we’re seeing a kindly Irish widow in pain doesn’t register as a moral concern. The show presents her as fictional, and we accept that.
Contrast that to a show like Scrubs. Although certainly not lacking in cartoonish moments, Scrubs is populated with real people. They have real histories, explore real relationships, and suffer real tragedies. The show deftly balances zany comedy with genuine character drama, and when it drops one of its many, many, many emotionally devastating scenes, the audience has a genuine response. As far as our stupid heartguts are concerned, these people we’re watching may as well be real.
Parks and Rec exists in an awkward space between these two points. While many characters are entirely cartoonish, most notably the Labrador-esque Andy, much of the major cast are hybrids of caricatures and real people. Leslie Knope is a driven and inspirational politician, but she’s also an overgrown child whose diet is mostly sugar. Ron Swanson is a libertarian, meaning he adheres to a cohesive socio-political ideology, but he’s also a libertarian, meaning he lives alone in the woods and believes whatever the writers think would be funniest.
Jerry Gergich is just… a dad. Who works at the Parks department. Through sheer accident, Parks and Rec has created one of the most vivid depictions of the modern everyman I’ve ever seen. And then pushes him down the stairs as a joke.
There is nowhere near enough caricature in Jerry’s makeup, or the makeup of the show at large, to write off all the abuse he receives as zany hijinks. When these characters come together in a solemn or heartfelt or loving moment, the audience is expected to have emotional investment. When they hurt each other, we are also expected to have emotional investment. Except Jerry. Jerry exists in this bizarre blind-spot where his pain is treated as purely humourous. And the show never really explains why.
It’s telling that the one character to show consistent kindness to Jerry is Ben, who functions as the show’s outsider. Hating Jerry is as natural and unquestioned as loving Li’l Sebastian. Only Ben offers the audience a surrogate in asking why. An answer is never offered. The comedy is well-written and well-executed, but the core is rotten. It only lands if you’re as cold to Jerry as the other characters are, and there’s really no reason to be.
What’s especially vexing about this is that Jerry is written as a friendly, self-sacrificing, and generally likeable guy. Contrast this to a more flawed character, like Tom. A typical Tom plot goes as follows:
-Tom agrees to help someone
-Tom’s ‘help’ turns out to be selfish, and ruins the event
-Optional: Tom is yelled at
-Tom is ~super sad~ about how much he sucks
-Wronged party apologises to Tom
-Tom ends episode happy despite damage caused
Notice anything off with that? Tom often behaves amorally, but isn’t punished for his actions. After acting poorly, he’s the one who gets the apology, rather than giving it. Though it’s easy to write off thanks to Aziz Ansari’s charismatic performance, Tom is a straight-up jerk. And jerks are perfectly acceptable targets for sitcom suffering, because they bring it upon themselves.
If it were up to me, I’d consolidate Tom and Jerry into one character. [Ed: I have omitted the crude drawing of a cat-mouse hybrid which accompanied this article.] I would remove Jerry entirely and lay his suffering at Tom’s feet. Tom does something terrible, and others mock him – a very simple dynamic. As it stands, Tom and Jerry represent exactly how the moral centre of this show is off-kilter. Tom is a jerk everyone inexplicably loves. Jerry is a sweetheart everyone inexplicably hates. It’s almost funny. Almost.
The show comes tantalizingly close to addressing this exact imbalance in the episode simply titled ‘Jerry’s Retirement’. Jerry retires. This catches everyone by surprise; there is a montage showing that he mentioned it more than once, but no-one ever listened. (Are you laughing yet?) As Leslie forcibly inflicts her idea of a good last day on Jerry, Tom finds the office dynamic shifting under him. Ron explains that every office needs ‘a Jerry’, and with Jerry himself gone, Tom is filling that vacuum.
Near the episode’s end, Tom reveals to Ron that he was the Jerry in his home town, which is why he is so terrified of resuming the role. A better sitcom would make the obvious connection; Tom knows what it’s like to be bullied, and hence apologises to Jerry for the abuse. This act of redemption could then be the emotional and practical climax to the episode, inspiring the other Parks employees to treat Tom, their new designated chewtoy, more lightly in future.
Instead, Ron – after stating to the camera that he will not help Tom, in what is a typical Ron Swanson moment of saying one thing and then doing the opposite – re-hires Jerry. Rather than relaxing with his family, Jerry returns to the office part-time, purely to spare Tom from the office’s apparently inevitable miasma of bullying. Jerry immediately trips over a chair. The episode closes with Ben theorising Jerry’s wife only loves him because she has a brain disorder. Roll credits.
This episode is also a clear example of what the show thinks solves this problem; the compensation Jerry has in other aspects of his life. One episode takes pains to assure us, via an amazed doctor, that Jerry has a very, very large penis. The epilogue grants him an absurdly happy ending that lasts for decades. And every so often, we are reminded that Jerry’s home-life is nothing short of heavenly. As he says himself,
“I know I didn’t achieve all my work goals, but, Leslie, I don’t care. Because for me, the best part about working in the Parks department was that I got to be home every night with my family at five o’clock. And to me, that’s what mattered most.”
This is all well and good. Some of the sting is taken out of Jerry’s pain when we know he’s thriving outside the office. He doesn’t suffer endlessly, like, say, Ol’ Gil from The Simpsons. But this misses the actual problem. It’s not that Jerry is sad. It’s that he’s suffering active, uncomfortable abuse from people the show expects us to consider sympathetic. Jerry’s wife or future or giant penis do not address the fact that his supposed friends treat him like garbage. And that, in turn, is a garbage thing for garbage people.
This may seem like a minor issue – Jerry is far from the lead character – but it spirals out into a larger problem. Everyone hates Jerry. Everyone, including otherwise kind characters like Leslie and *fingerguns* Chris Traeger! These characters have genuine arcs with genuine emotions.
Am I meant to hold Leslie accountable for how she treats Jerry? Then I don’t think she’s the kind, decent person the show claims she is. There’s nothing stopping her bringing this cruel attitude to future employees as she climbs the political ladder – and indeed, the Season Six finale shows her doing exactly this, with Jerry still dragged along with her. Am I meant to write it off as comedy? Then why not write off all the harm the characters do to one another? Andy abused his girlfriend’s trust for weeks by pretending to be disabled – ha ha, what an adorable japester! You see what I’m getting at here. Some shows can balance weighty dramedy with amoral cartoon hijinks. I don’t think Parks and Rec is one of those shows.
Unlike Brooklyn 99.
It’s easy to see P&R’s DNA in B99 (acronym-heavy sentence, lol.) Ron becomes Holt. Leslie becomes Amy. Tom becomes Charles. And Jerry becomes Hitchcock and Scully. B99 has two Jerries, and that’s an improvement. Because they’re friends.
Scully in particular is a caricature – he sings opera, he drinks from his thumbtack mug, and he speaks French specifically because his parents once abandoned him in Paris, Home Alone-style. Hitchcock is somewhat more grounded, but demonstrates the other potential solution; he’s terrible. Hitchcock is the squad’s morally worst member, and much of his pain is his own fault. When he’s forcibly excluded, it’s because he inappropriately overstepped his bounds; unlike Jerry, who is excluded by the department for… being alive.
But more than that, they have each other. They’re inseparable, and when a jab is aimed at them, it’s usually aimed at both. The squad’s insults wash off of them, because even if they’re alone, they’re alone together. Their friendship is surprisingly wholesome, with the two gross, middle-aged New York detectives hugging on-screen. Compare this to Jerry, whose destined role at work is to be the sole ostracised employee, and whose two nicest coworkers are Ben (with whom he barely interacts) and Donna (who only bullies him most of the time). B99‘s cast dynamic is much stronger, because the squad never seems cruel for insulting Hitchcock and Scully. Their criticisms are perfectly valid.
It’s not bullying. Jerry’s treatment is.
If Parks and Rec is your favourite sitcom, this piece is unlikely to sway you. And again, I am by no means claiming it’s a bad show, or that isn’t worth checking out. But it’s telling that, instead of actually rewatching ‘Jerry’s Retirement’ for this article, I just skimmed a transcript. For me, this show will always been the faltering prequel to Brooklyn 99; something that needed to come and go before B99 could be as good as it is.
Also, Brooklyn 99 is a sitcom where the characters literally fight crime, and frequently tackle druglords and mafia members into piles of garbage. Beat that, Friends.