In the landscape of television sitcoms, it appears that sweetness is winning out over cynicism. Where the jokey format was once overrun with cynical takes about everything from work to the human condition, now audiences are cheering on a more cheerful batch of comedies.
This was certainly the case in the episode of Parks and Recreations in which forever-optimist Leslie marries her true love Ben. In a two-part episode that was more sweet than sour, the two had to overcome a few obstacles (and some stink bombs) in order to say "I do". But the trials and tribulations were never very serious, and indeed they were never the point. Instead the hour hinged on the genuine affection all these characters feel for Leslie and for each other. Even Jerry.
Parks and Recreations might be one of the sweetest and most optimistic shows on television, thanks in large part to the sunny disposition of Amy Poehler's waffle-loving Leslie Knope. And it seems to be leading the trend of kinder, and yet still sharply funny, comedies.
When Parks began, it wasn't the happy-go-lucky show it has steadily morphed into. Instead, it bore the cynical fingerprints of The Office, which should come as no surprise given the backstage talent shared between the two shows.
While The Office has only gotten more cynical and mean-spirited in its old age, Parks realized it should embrace Leslie's quirky idealism instead of poke fun at it. That realization was the watershed moment when Parks went from being an unsure clone of The Office to one of the best sitcoms on television.
It might also have been a step away from cynicism and towards a more optimistic comedy landscape. Perhaps this shy away from the mean sitcom reflected society's exhaustion with bad news in the light of a bad economy and an even worse job market. Times were suddenly tough, so who wouldn't want a little optimism in their comedy?
You can see the trend all over the dial, not just with sister shows Parks and Recreation and The Office. The number one network sitcom The Big Bang Theory has even become a more kind-hearted show. While the early seasons of Big Bang made fun of the nerds awkward social skills and geeky interests, the more recent seasons have shown a group of friends who would do anything for each other.
Bringing Amy and Bernadette into the fold helped the show lose its isolationist slant and allowed the characters to make more connections with those around them. Certainly the show is still full of jokes poking fun at nerds, but now that the nerds have formed a stronger friendship family the jokes seem much less mean-spirited.
Looking into the past at Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, and even my beloved Arrested Development, you can see a trend away from cynicism in network television sitcoms. Shows like Community, Happy Endings, Raising Hope and especially Emmy clean-up machine Modern Family aren't afraid to be heartwarming, emotional, and downright sweet.
The cynical sitcom had its moment, thanks probably in large part to the irredeemable scamps on Seinfeld. However, too much of anything usually puts into motion an opposite reaction. This might explain why the new comedies on the dial from New Girl to the dearly departed Ben and Kate embraced sweetness in between rapid-fire jokes.
This is certainly not true everywhere, and on cable and basic cable the cynical sitcom still reigns supreme. I'm not sure anyone could look at a show like HBO's Veep or FX's filthy hit It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and say they were optimistic about the human condition.
Still, on network television at least, the pendulum has seemingly swung over to a kinder, gentler comedy style. Which is not to say these aren't still sharp and incisive comedies. Last year Parks and Recreations satirized political campaigns better than anything else on television short of The Daily Show.
Perhaps the pendulum will swing back, and maybe it will happen sooner rather than later. But watching Leslie bail Ron out of jail because she couldn't imagine a wedding without her grouchy, libertarian boss made me realize I like a show that can juggle comedy and happiness.
"I love you and I like you," Leslie says as part of her wedding vows to Ben. I feel the same way about Parks and about the sunny comedies that make us both laugh and smile.
What do you think? Have you noticed a trend away from cynical sitcoms? Do you like your favorite comedies with a side of optimism? Sound off in the comments!
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