Parks and Rec

Pandering: Thoughts on fan service in Sherlock and Parks and Recreation

Sherlock Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for all of BBC's Sherlock, through series 3, and for early episodes of season 7 of Parks and Recreation.

Last year, while visiting my parents from out of town, I commandeered the television one evening to watch the premiere of Sherlock, season (or, as the British would have it, series) 3. Back home, my DVR was set to record the show, but I wasn’t taking any chances or even allowing the possibility that I might be spoiled on the episode before I returned to Alaska; I would watch the premiere live now, then watch it again back home—and again, and again, and, if my relationship with previous episodes of Sherlock was any indication, again.

Sherlock series 3 came with a lot of hype. Series 2 had ended two years prior, with the standard (but all too short) three-episode season ending in a cliffhanger. Some characters were dead, some only appeared to be dead, the lives of others had been presumably altered forever. Between January 2012 and January 2014, fans had plenty of time to speculate about what had happened, and what would happen, when (and if) we ever got a series 3.

In the meantime, fans lost their minds. They made fan art, fan fiction, Sherlock memes, slash fic that imagined Martin Freeman’s Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock as lovers. Fans created unofficial show tee shirts, pillows, bumper stickers—hell, I even had a Sherlock-themed iPhone case. Mr. Cinnamon Toastencrunch blew up, too, becoming the object of a million fangirl (and fanboy) crushes, earning the nickname “The Fanart-sherlock-on-bbc-one-33018448-500-355Internet’s Boyfriend,” and prompting gifs, tumblrs, a name generator (“Blubberbutt Frumblesnatch,” “Bandicoot Countryside”), and my favorite Extra Hot Great mini.

What I’m saying is:  Anticipation was high when Sherlock finally premiered, and I counted myself among those who’d been counting the days. But by the time episode one’s 90-minutes had rolled by, I felt distinctly let down.

“The Empty Hearse” opens with an explanation of how Sherlock survived his series 2-ending plummet off a building after the death of Moriarty—a pre-arranged scheme involving a bungee cord, a hypnotist, a Mission Impossible-style rubber mask, and a first-and-final smooch with Molly. This plan’s emotional manipulation of Watson (who was devastated at Sherlock’s death and whose life was irrevocably altered as a result) is tough to take—but we’ve seen before that Sherlock is more than capable of heartless emotional manipulation (or just ignoring other people’s emotions altogether).

sherlock

But then!  “Bollocks!” scoffs Lestrade in a voiceover. Because, you see, what we just witnessed wasn’t an explanation at all but a theory—one cooked up by good old Anderson, he whose mere presence at a crime scene makes the IQ of an entire city street drop. More theories follow, one of which is presented by a member of an actual Sherlock fan club, which is a thing that now exists in the world of Sherlock. “I don’t care how you faked it, Sherlock. I want to know why,” John Watson tells Sherlock about the faked death, and the line smacks of dismissal—the show’s writers themselves can’t think of a how, so they dazzle the audience with a few magic tricks then cluck disapprovingly when we want to know how they work.

tumblr_mnh8foruLx1rnm957o1_1280The fake-out explanations weren’t what had me feeling disgruntled, though, not on their own. The episode continues with Sherlock donning a French waiter disguise to surprise John with news of his undead-ness, at which point John attacks him.  There are insults for Watson’s silly moustache; yet another woman (John’s fiancée, Mary, this time) who “can’t help but enjoy the sociopathic little scamp,” as the AV Club recap of the episode puts it; obsession with Sherlock’s signature coat; and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke about putting Sherlock-related declarations on a tee shirt.

“[Show creator Steven] Moffat has a very direct and sometimes antagonistic relationship with his shows’ fans, whose attention he seems to equally crave and hold in contempt,” that same AV Club recap describes. Watching the series 3 premiere of Sherlock, I felt that connection almost tangibly. Moffat seemed to be holding his viewers by the hand, practically cackling as he gave us what he thought we wanted.  Like the high school wannabe, longing to fit in with the kids who are, like, totally into Swedish death metal, Moffat betrayed a sort of me-too-guys-I-get-it-too! desperation to be seen as in-the-know when it comes to fandom. At the same time, the neglect he gave many of the emotional beats of the episode (well described in that AV Club piece) made the fan-service parts of the show feel shallow, like half-hearted attempts to identify with why loyal viewers bothered to watch the show.  Moffat seemed to understand that his viewers liked Sherlock tee shirts and slash fic, but he didn’t seem to get why.

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Parks and RecreationCut to two years later, and I’m watching the first episodes of the final season of Parks and Recreation. This last season is set three years after the conclusion of season 6, in 2017—the year that also happens to be the season premiere episode’s title. Things have changed in Pawnee, Indiana, most notably the relationship between Leslie Knope and her one-time foil-slash-mentor Ron Swanson. But plenty of other things have either stayed the same—or settled ever more firmly into their goofy grooves.

Lots of final seasons indulge in call-backs to fan favorites.  Beloved guest stars return, familiar characters turn up for a last victory lap, old jokes are revived.  Now halfway through its final season, P&R is no different. The first episode alone had Megan Mullally back for one last appearance as Ron’s nemesis/ex-wife, Tammy, and an appearance by former talk show host Joan Callamezzo. Later episodes bring back Perd Hapley, the Jerry-Gary-Larry-Terry joke, Ron’s beloved claymore landmine, familiar locale JJ’s Diner, and a nameless janitor who, years after his first appearance in season 3, episode 16 (“Lil’ Sebastian”), is still dancing his way through City Hall to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.”

This all smacks of fan service, just as much as Sherlock’s shout-outs to tee shirt slogans do. After all, who else is going to appreciate these call-backs? Why would the writers include these references, if not to get a grin of recognition out of the audience? Yet when P&R shows Donna and Tom indulging in a Treat Yo’Self day (a call back to season 4, episode 4, “Pawnee Rangers”), I wasn’t put off; instead, I found myself laughing, delighted to find that the two friends still practiced their indulgent ritual and happy to see the writers pay homage to this detail.

treat yo self

So, what’s the difference? Why is obvious fan service okay in one circumstance and not in the other?

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World-building can be a delicate thing, especially as a show is just beginning. You have a core of main characters you want to introduce and a specific locale they’ll likely spend most of their time in, and you have to convey all that to your audience in a limited amount of time—say, half an hour once a week, or ninety minutes just three times a year. If you’re talented and lucky, you accomplish that, and then you can start building out from there.  You get beyond the walls of the Parks and Recreation Department offices and outside the door of 221B Baker Street.  You introduce Jean Ralphio and the Douche, Mrs. Hudson and Sally Donovan. You get a sense of the streets the characters roam, the restaurants they frequent. The crime scenes they investigate.

Tom Sell-oink

The writers of P&R have built Pawnee, Indiana, into a familiar place (even if it is populated with soda-swilling goofballs who collect celebrity pig dolls and demand that Twilight be included in the town time capsule). Seven seasons have given them room to explore the entire town, not to mention the city next door (boo, Eagleton!), and the citizens that populate both. Over those seven seasons, the writers have created a rich history that’s based on its characters’ decisions and desires, their crimes and circumstances, their feuds, relationships, setbacks, and triumphs.  And after all this time spent in Pawnee, as viewers, we understand the importance of every town icon—not just as a source of entertainment for us, but as something meaningful to the characters we’ve grown to love.

So when someone trots out a Lil’ Sebastian reference, we get why every single Pawneean sheds a tear—and we also completely understand Ben’s utter bewilderment. When Craig mentions his therapist, Dr. Richard Nygaard, we’re happy to hear the good doctor is still helping the people of Pawnee with their emotional problems. These shout-outs are rooted in the history of a town—okay, a fictional town. But the beauty of a fictional town is that you don’t have to move there to feel like you’re one of its citizens. Everyone of us who tunes in to P&R is a part of Pawnee.

Which is why, I think, the fan pandering of P&R succeeds where Sherlock’s fails. P&R looks to itself for its jokes and references, while Sherlock looks beyond the fictional London where its characters live and work to the outside world—the real world. P&R’s callbacks to The Pit, Snakejuice, and Galentine’s Day reward its viewers’ memories, while Sherlock’s depiction of Sherlock fan club members speculating wildly over Holmes’s faked death plays on fans’ knowledge of something outside the show.

P&R’s references invite you into the world of the show. Sherlock’s, meanwhile, leave the show’s world—the place fans presumably want to be—to reference things its fans created.  It’s the difference between knowing a joke because you’ve been in on it from the beginning and making a similar joke in hopes that you can seem like you’re in on it, too.

dancing

And it betrays a fundamental understanding of why fans like a particular show—and why they create art and GIFs and tee shirts based on the characters they love. We watch to be transported. Just as immersing ourselves in a great book can take us to a time or place we’d probably never encounter firsthand, watching a television show with a richly imagined world populated by complex characters transports us in the same way. And when the show ends—when the season or even the series is over—we long to be transported, still. We use our own imaginations to extend the story; we make art or write fanfic that pays homage to the place we long to be and the people we miss.

I won’t stop watching Sherlock. It managed to course-correct with series 3’s next two episodes, and I still have high hopes for series 4. Meanwhile, P&R is taking its final victory lap, and if this review is any indication (I haven’t seen the most recent episodes yet), it’s still hitting just the right notes when it comes to fan service.

Friend Shipper

Daryl and CarolI’ve been listening to Slate’s podcast recapping the latest season of The Walking Dead (available to Slate Plus members only, sorry guys), and an exchange that took place on the first episode between host Mike Vuolo and Chris Wade caught my attention:

Vuolo: I think that [Carol’s] relationship with Daryl is fantastic because it’s not quite a sexual relationship, it doesn’t feel romantic, it doesn’t feel even sister-brother; it just feels like a pure friendship.

Wade: “Companionate”? Is that a word?

Vuolo: Sure, why not?

Wade: They see something in each other that makes things about this world better. Yeah I think it is great; and it is one of the few moments of subtlety, which I always appreciate in The Walking Dead. Of not having to spell out, like, Oh, they are together. And they don’t seem to need to have any kind of definitions because both of them are realistic enough about what’s going on right now in their world to know that just caring for each other and, like, caring about each other’s well-being more, perhaps, than anyone else is enough to be important and help them live this terrible life they’re in.

(I think my attributions are correct, but both of those dudes’ voices sound similar.)

This is something I think about a lot: the state of friendship between male and female characters on television. As much as movies and television shows get dinged for not passing the Bechdel Test, they can be just as guilty of what I’ll call the Harry Burns Fallacy, after the assertion made by Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally—that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

On T.V., the Harry Burns Fallacy rings true. It’s rare to see an unrelated single man and single woman have a relationship that’s anything other than romantic. Even if they start out as just friends, somewhere down the line they’re sure to end up in bed together, dating, and/or married. It’s telling that on a show called Friends, four out of six of the titular friends ended up in romantic relationships together.

I’m not anti-romance. Trust me, I’m as big a shipper as the next gal. I will tell you now: No one on the face of this planet wanted Parks and Recreation’s Ben and Leslie to get together more than I did. I was actually sorta into Spuffy, and I pulled hard for Cophine. I would see a Science Bros movie in a hot second. And I do not give shit one about Dean-or-Jess: I was a Logan girl all the way (go ahead and hate; I’m standing firm).

But I’m also a die-hard friend shipper. While the romance and companionship of dating and marriage are an essential part of life and have provided compelling storylines on a billion T.V. shows, there’s something to be said for friendship between a man and a woman. Like all great friendships, close lady-dude friendships are about what Chris Wade eloquently described as “see[ing] something in each other that makes things about this world better.” But when you’re friends with someone of the opposite sex, you get the added bonus of radically shifting your perspective: You learn things about the opposite sex you wouldn’t otherwise gain access to, but without the pressure or possibility of something sexual happening.

So many male-female television friendships culminate in romance, though—as if the only value in different-sex friendships is the possibility of “something more.” Sex and marriage, particularly on television, are portrayed as the ultimate connection between two people. As a person in the world, though, I know that there are connections that go just as deep between friends, whether they’re two gals, two dudes, or two people of the opposite sex. What’s deeper, I ask you, than caring about another person’s well-being more than anyone else’s, or helping another person live this life?

That’s why I hope Carol and Daryl remain friends. I won’t lie; I once shipped them. And there have been clues that something romantic may have passed between them. But as they’re portrayed at the moment, they represent a rare animal on television: the man-woman friendship that’s “just” a friendship. There’s mutual respect between them. They’ve both watched the other change and grow. They’ve developed an ease with each other that isn’t charged with sexual tension. In this season’s second episode, when Daryl hops in a car to chase down the men who abducted another friend, Carol jumps in, too, and the tone of this partnership is less I can’t bear to be separated from my lover and more I got your back, bro. “Just friends”? There’s no “just” about a relationship for which you’d risk your life, romantic or platonic. And the only “something more” I need is more friendships like this one on T.V.

Television's Baby Problem

“Can’t we have ONE representation on t.v. of women who want work and a relationship but don’t want to become baby-making machines? YEESH,” I grumbled to a friend over Google chat last May. I was up in arms over the Parks and Recreation season five finale, an episode that featured what my friend referred to as the “who-is-pregnant woman hunt.” Over the course of the finale, Andy discovers a positive pregnancy test and makes it his mission to question every female character on the show to find out who’s knocked up. Though the mother-to-be turns out to be Ron Swanson’s girlfriend Diane, the pregnancy hunt awakens the baby-making impulse in the show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope. For the first time to the audience’s knowledge, Leslie talks with her husband about the inevitable family they’ll eventually have.

“Leslie’s never even mentioned an interest in having children!” I bitched. “She seems so career-focused (not that you can’t want both a career and kids). But the whole start-a-family thing came out of nowhere! I know that relationship woes/marriage/babies are the traditional progression for most sitcoms, but I just kind of want to see ONE that doesn’t go that route.”

A year later, Leslie would end season six pregnant with triplets. I spent subsequent days ranting inarticulately about why this was a terrible decision on the part of the show’s writers, until the AV Club posted “The trouble with triplets: Leslie Knope’s babies and a problematic sitcom trend,” in which Libby Hill takes issue with Leslie’s career accomplishments being “retconned into being merely preparation for having children.”

In her essay, Hill also traces the evolution of the sitcom heroine and notes that, for characters like Leslie, who thrive in the workplace settings of their comedies, “the feminist struggle often gets murkier with these characters. Unlike their ’70s foremother, each of these characters ends up with (at least one) child by the end of their show’s run." We’re living in the “can women have it all” era but, as Hill posits, when it comes to television, “The question is, must women have it all.”

Last week, Homeland’s fourth season premiered with two episodes that brought viewers up to speed on events in the life of the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). After a couple of sometimes wobbly seasons, Homeland’s season three landed its ending: Though Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) had outlived his usefulness, his execution was gut-wrenching, and it finally freed Carrie from go-nowhere romantic storylines. This was a welcome change because what’s always been unique and, frankly, awesome about Carrie from day one is that she’s crazy-good at her job. Emphasis on the crazy—but the ability her bipolar disorder gives her to make connections no one else sees is exactly why she’s so good.

When the show was exploring the parallels between Carrie and Brody—who, after being held as a prisoner of war for eight years, was turned by al-Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts back in the U.S.—it was at its most interesting. But the show went a step further when Carrie and Brody became romantically entangled and, as a result, spun its wheels a bit. The writers seemed invested in this relationship, while as a viewer, I was drumming my fingers, waiting for each episode to get back to the good stuff.

Now in the wake of Brody’s death, Carrie still isn’t home-free: She’s got a Little Brody to contend with. By last Sunday’s second episode, the show seems to have decided how Carrie’s going to deal with motherhood; “Trylon and Perisphere” ended with Carrie taking a hardship posting with the CIA—a decision that any viewer understands is at least partly an excuse for Carrie to leave her infant daughter in the care of her (somewhat reluctant) sister.

I ought to be grateful. Presumably, with Carrie in Pakistan, the show will mostly dispense with the baby plot, save for a few U.S.-to-Pakistan Skype calls. So why am I not more excited about this depiction of a woman on television choosing career over family?

“A baby isn’t just a plot device,” Sonia Saraiya wrote last year in an AV Club recap of Homeland’s season three finale, “it’s a life-altering small person that will change everything.” Yet too often a baby is thrown into a plot as a device to demonstrate that when a female character puts career at the center of her life, she’s not only sacrificing family; she has to become the momentary villain as she chooses work over her offspring.

“Trylon and Perisphere” finds tiny Franny Brody thrust upon her mother by a sister who seems convinced that if Carrie just spends some time with her baby, she’ll discover her maternal instinct. Instead, each scene between Carrie and Franny seems designed to give Carrie (and viewers) a chance to close the Brody chapter—and to demonstrate what a bad mother Carrie would be. In one scene, she allows her mother to reminisce about Papa Brody, admitting that she tried to be happy when she learned she was pregnant, though “with his being gone can’t remember why I had you.” In another harrowing scene, Carrie comes this close to drowning her daughter during a routine bath. When Carrie departs for Pakistan with a tearful but sterile goodbye to baby, she’s not so much choosing career over family, the show seems to say, but admitting her ineptitude.

In August, Huffington Post ran a piece by Bri Seely (“What It Really Feels Like to Be a Child-Free Woman”), who—having no desire to raise children—recounted asking to be sterilized year after year, only to be told by doctors, “You’ll change your mind.” This is the overwhelming response to most women who say they want child-free lives. “You don’t know what you want,” we’re told again and again. “You’re too young to make that decision, you’ll think differently when you’re older.”

Television perpetuates this depreciation of a woman’s agency when it takes away a female character’s ability to even make this decision. As a career-oriented CIA agent who also lives with a disorder that has genetic component, it seems unlikely that Homeland’s Carrie would put “have a baby” at the top of her list of life goals. Yet she has unprotected sex—of course—and ends up pregnant—of course. And, this being television, there’s no question of abortion; on T.V., women rarely have the option of terminating a pregnancy, especially if they’re the protagonist of the show. (This is less true on cable, and if the character in question is an unmarried adolescent or young woman, she’s more often allowed to consider, or even have, an abortion.)

Likewise, at the end of Mad Men’s first season, the character who would come to represent the breaker of glass ceilings, the ur-career-woman, Peggy Olsen, naturally ends up pregnant. It’s a rite of passage, the show seems to say, that she must weather before she can earn the right to a career. Mad Men’s second season deals with the fallout of this pregnancy. Like Carrie, Peggy gives her baby up; Peggy also suffers the stigma of being a “loose” woman as her family accuses her of seducing the man who knocked her up and the priest at her church urges her to confess her sins. While a modern perspective on the show’s 1960s morals allows viewers to sympathize with Peggy’s predicament, in the world of the show Peggy nevertheless becomes something of a momentary villain for choosing career over family.

A baby doesn’t even have to enter the picture, though, for a woman’s agency to be taken away. How I Met Your Mother’s career-oriented Robin Scherbatsky is adamant about not wanting kids, a position that contributes to the end of her relationship with Ted and that remains consistent throughout the show—until season seven’s twelfth episode, in which Robin first believes she is pregnant, then discovers that not only is she not having a baby; she’s infertile. Once again, choice is quickly taken out of the picture. Robin’s reaction to the news that she can’t have a baby is to grieve, a natural reaction for a lot of women—including some who have never wanted children—but given the circumstances and the character’s history, it’s hard not to see this as another version of “you’ll change your mind some day.” Either you will change your mind, the message seems to be, or the decision not to will be taken away from you.

There’s room on television for all kinds of stories—for every story, including Robin’s, Peggy’s, and Carrie’s. And there’s room for a story like Donna’s: Jenny Slate’s character from the charming movie Obvious Child may or may not ultimately want children, but when she discovers she’s pregnant, she makes a decision that puts career (and independence) over family. She makes the decision, and she’s not punished for it or made to look villainous.

But that’s film. Television isn’t quite there yet. And on T.V., all too often, a baby is a plot device. It’s the culmination of an all-too-familiar trajectory. No matter how little a female character’s initial story arc might have to do with babies, in most shows, once the writers run out of ideas, she’s going to find herself faced with a pregnancy. Isn’t the simple inevitability of that progression one more way television seems to say that a woman just isn’t interesting enough outside of her childbearing abilities to sustain an audience’s interest? On T.V., it isn’t enough to work for the CIA, become the most powerful woman in an advertising agency, or have a fulfilling career in journalism. On T.V., women can have the whole pie—career, relationship, and baby—but they can’t opt for just one slice.