Thursday, April 9, 2009

You keep using that word...

Does anyone else remember hearing that The Office was going to have a spinoff series? I think this was announced after last season ended. At the time they said the new series would premiere following the Super Bowl... Is this ringing a bell for you?

At first I worried about what this new show would do to the original. Specifically, I worried that this "spinoff" would follow the further adventures of Ryan. It became plain sometime last season that the show's writers (or at least B.J. Novak) believed Ryan, the onetime temp, was a much, much more interesting character than he actually was. On the other hand, I thought, Oh well, a spinoff starring Ryan is a show I don't have to watch, so that's a plus. But then I heard nothing more, and I forgot all about it... Until I started seeing ads, while watching The Office, for Parks and Recreation, the new documentary-style sitcom that premieres tonight. And I thought, wait a minute, is this that "spinoff" they were talking about? If so, I thought, it seems pretty plain to me that they made that announcement before they had any real idea of what they planned to write. Because this show is obviously not a spinoff. For one thing, Rashida Jones -- aka Karen from the Stamford branch of Dunder Mifflin -- appears in Parks & Recreation playing an entirely different character. That's against spinoff rules (Law & Order notwithstanding). In fact, it's a direct contradiction of the third definition of "spinoff" in the American Heritage Dictionary: "Something derived from an earlier work, such as a television show starring a character who had a popular minor role in another show."

I bring all this up because I just read Alessandra Stanley's review of Parks & Recreation in today's New York Times. Here's how it begins:
The czar had a winter palace and a summer palace, city mouse visited country mouse, and “Green Acres” was the rustic reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Spinoffs, like second homes, can be refreshing, and some have been quite popular even when they are not based on a geographic move like “Frasier” but a shift to the opposite sex, as in “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.” Above all, it’s important to remember that NBC’s “Office” is itself a spinoff of sorts, an American adaptation of Ricky Gervais’s original British series.
Is it just me, or does Stanley seem not to understand what a "spinoff" is? I know she has a reputation for getting things wrong. But still: she writes about television for a living, and yet she seems to believe that Green Acres was a spinoff of The Beverly Hillbillies, which it wasn't. Unless she's applying the second AHD definition: "Something, such as a product, that is derived from something larger and more or less unrelated; a byproduct." But a television review should probably be sticking to the industry's particular meaning of the word, no? (In fact, Green Acres was related to Hillbillies in much the same way that The Office and Parks are related -- more on that later -- but it was a spinoff in the technical sense of another show, Petticoat Junction -- or so Wikipedia says.) The "second homes" comparison is a pretty classic example of the NYT's tendency to forget that not everyone summers in the Hamptons (do you ever get the feeling they're doing it on purpose, just to toy with us?). But: city mouse and country mouse? What the... They're two different characters in the same story, for heaven's sake. Allow me to help out: Mork and Mindy. Joanie Loves Chachi. Lou Grant; Rhoda; Phyllis. Those are spinoffs. Your examples -- with the exception of Frasier -- are not spinoffs. And neither is Parks and Recreation.

Stanley was apparently trying to set up an "indoor/outdoor" theme so that she could go on to write this:
So there is really nothing shameful about an outdoor version of an indoor comedy. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” which begins on Thursday, is charming and funny in its own right and in its own way, even though it relies on the exact same mock-documentary format and deadpan parody as “The Office.”
First of all, I am of the opinion that a professional writer should never employ the phrase "the exact same." But perhaps the copy editor who should have fixed it was busy trying to figure out what "the czar" has to do with anything. Anyway, if you're wondering whether the review ever clarifies the relationship between The Office and Parks, I'll spare you the suspense: it doesn't. (For the record, that relationship seems to be some shared creative personnel and proximity in the NBC schedule.) The rest of the review is a slightly painful exercise in free association about women in sitcoms (and in politics, for some reason) -- an attempt to articulate why Amy Poehler's appearance in this one is groundbreaking. The longer you read, the less you're convinced that it's saying anything coherent. I don't recommend it.

I must have missed the customary flattering arts-section article about the show (by Dave Itzkoff) that ran a couple weeks ago. It clarifies things a little -- especially in its (intentionally sarcastic?) headline, "It's Not 'The Office.' The Boss Is a Woman."
Ask almost anyone at “Parks and Recreation” what the new series is about, and the answer, first and foremost, is that it’s not a spinoff of “The Office.” But the similarities are pervasive. Like Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, on “The Office,” Ms. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a clueless if well-intentioned middle manager who undermines her own ambitions and misuses street slang. And a glance at the “Parks” creative roster — from its producers, who helped create the American version of “The Office”; to the writers who were hired from their “Office” spec scripts; to the actor, the director and the editor who were all recruited from that show — will tell you that “The Office” is an undeniable part of the new show’s DNA.
Fair enough. But maybe the article ought to note that the "spinoff" misperception likely stems from the fact that NBC announced, a while back, that they were planning to roll out a spinoff of The Office. You know?

In fact, as Itzkoff tells it, what they were really planning could more accurately have been described as "to replicate The Office's success."
While [The Office's U.S. adapter Greg] Daniels and [The Office producer Michael] Schur spent months batting around ideas, they were also lining up cast members, including Rashida Jones, an alumna of “The Office,” and Aziz Ansari, of the sketch show “The Human Giant,” who were given few details about the project. “They were like, ‘It’s either going to be a spinoff of ‘The Office’ or a totally separate thing,’ ” Mr. Ansari said. “It could have been like, ‘Yeah, so it’s about you and Vin Diesel running a day care center together, and then at night you’re vigilantes, and you fight crime.’”
For what it's worth, I'm not really planning to watch Parks (even when I'm home, which I won't be tonight -- Holy Thursday and all). The commercials are a bit too "like The Office, but not as funny" for my tastes. But I expected The Office to be terrible, so who knows? As long as it's not about Ryan the Former Temp, I might give it a shot.


Katney said...

Everything you said--except at the end you said it's like The Office only not as funny. Well, that too, since to me it looks not as funny as The Office and I have never found the Office funny so that makes P&R seem particularly unfunny.

Sarah said...

I watched it, and was amused. I probably would've been more amused if NBC hadn't sandwiched it between two new episodes of The Office, because by the end, I was "mock documentary format and deadpan parody"-d OUT, and was nothing short of relieved by the time 30 Rock came on. I think Parks and Recreation would better serve its Office-loving audience by airing on a different weeknight.