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6 Screenwriting Lessons from Parks and Recreation

A key part of writing for television is watching television. And learning from it.
Screenwriting lessons from tackles series past and present, analyzing them through the prism of screenwriting.

It was only a few months ago that NBC’s Parks and Recreation concluded its seven-season run. From absurd government action to now-iconic characters, the show offered us some of the funniest moments in recent television history.
Time to take a look at this amazing mockumentary-style comedy. Because time is money. Money is power. Power is pizza. And pizza is knowledge.

[As usual, I’ll be talking about the series as a whole. I highly recommend you watch the entire show before reading this post—it’s worth it.]

Lesson 1: Don’t let a format define your story

When Parks and Recreation started airing in 2009, a large amount of viewers quickly dismissed it as a “carbon copy” of NBC’s The Office. It didn’t help that both were basically made by the same people. Leslie was reduced as Michael Scott’s dimwitted protagonist clone, and the tone of the show was being described as “mean-spirited”. Its first season was promptly ridiculed and set aside.
Six years later, Parks now stands as one of the greatest mockumentary-style comedies ever to appear on TV. Sure, there have been a few lackluster episodes, but its (somewhat-)handheld format never shackled the series. One could even argue the series thrived in spite of it.
Co-creator Michael Schur explained back in 2011 why the show used the specific format:

We wanted this to be a mockumentary show because in the world of government, the difference between what goes on behind closed doors and what people present to the public is a huge issue. Plus, the single-camera format can be alienating, and the talking heads help us relate directly to the audience, and provide breaks in the action.

Notice how there is no mention of the mockumentary style as a narrative component. The idea is (or was) about contrasting what we see and what is said, not experiencing a fake documentary. This specific mockumentary format is only a “take” on the government world. It isn’t meant to be a story element in of itself (unlike, again, The Office).
Forget using the meta structure of a documentary crew as one of your plotlines. The hell with confessionals rooted in realism. We were treated with awkward and multiple angles, jump-cuts, and a less voyeuristic approach overall. Hell, we even saw our characters evolve right up to the year 2048. As long as it services them as well as their story, there is no “real” reason not have a camera present. In fact, the series almost completely abandoned its format in the latter-season episode “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” (7×10).
At the end of the day, Parks and Recreation was able (and willing) to grow out of The Office‘s shadow because it transcended the format it was born in. Similar style. Completely different world.
Learn how to move past the limitations of your own structure and style, or thrive within them.

Lesson 2: Supporting characters are as important as your main cast

Many comparisons can be made between Parks and FOX’s The Simpsons: talking heads (Perd Hapley/Kent Brockman), sex scandal-embroiled politicians (Dexhart/Quimby), rival towns (Pawnee/Springfield vs. Eagleton/Shelbyville). Both shows also brilliantly use the mob mentality. Citizens are easily swayed to vote against their own best interests on multiple occasions.
The overarching commonality however is that both shows excel in making their respective towns three-dimensional. Parks always tries to deepen Pawnee (and Eagleton), especially when it helps both story and humor. JJ’s Diner is as identifiable with Parks as Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart is to The Simpsons. The Gryzzl startup (and its CEO) were objects of ridicule as well as catalysts for conflict in the final two seasons. We learned of Dennis Feinstein’s existence several seasons before Jason Mantzoukas started inhabiting the role (in “Indianapolis” (3×06)). The same holds true for the cavalcade of recurring characters. The series excels with them for one simple reason: they are not just obstacles or sources of conflicts for our protagonists, nor are they just jokes in of themselves. They are shades of this world. They are living and breathing Pawnee citizens.
Never underestimate your secondary characters. In fact, use them as a continuously-untapped layer to enrich your world and stories.

Lesson 3: Know when to move on

Raise your hand if Mark Brendanawicz was your favorite character on the show. Probably half of you just said: “Who the hell is–Oooh, the guy from season one. Brendanaquits!” Yes, Brendanaquits. If you’ll recall, Leslie’s long-standing crush on Mark was promptly swept under the rug right after the first season because it didn’t seem to work for the writers. The character himself made his departure following “Freddy Spaghetti” (2×24). He was supposed to come back, like the real-life city planner he was based on, but I guess that didn’t work out as planned. Either way, the voluntary decision to exile the character shows that Parks and Recreation was always willing to move on. It always tried to stay fresh and avoid some perpetual status quo.
Quoting Michael Schur on this concept:

All of these decisions fall under the general heading of character development. My own preference is that everyone on the show should be in a different place at the end of a season from where they were at the beginning of the season. I don’t like shows where you catch an episode in repeats and it could literally be from season 2 or season 8. People change in real life, and I think they should on TV as well.

Another example is the “pit plot“. It’s an iconic storyline in the show, yet it barely lasted two seasons. Most comedies would have dragged on the plot for the duration of the show. Instead, the area promptly got filled in year two so we could move on to newer, better stories. Shows should never be afraid to evolve.

Lesson 4: Take risks within relationships—when it makes character sense

We just talked about how Parks was able to keep a fresh pace with its plot. The same can be said with the many relationships in the show. When April and Andy got married out of the blue during “Andy and April’s Fancy Party” (3×09), it caught off guard everyone (including viewers). This wasn’t just because it was a joke. The shock came from the fact that the wedding actually happened. Even better, it completely fit the relationship in question and the characters’ impulsive nature. Continuing with Michael Schur’s own comments:

All we knew was that we wanted to avoid the standard-issue TV romance plots: fights, other men/women driving them apart, and so on. We just thought about who they were – two impulsive goofballs who don’t approach their lives in a responsible, adult manner – and decided, what the hell? What if they just make a rash decision and get hitched? As soon as the idea came up we felt it made sense, and as a bonus, the stakes would subsequently be higher for every story we told about their relationship.

Herein lies one of the great things behind the writing of Parks and Recreation: realistic character development. The idea is to always organically push the characters in their logical direction instead of having them run circles. Ben’s understated (and perfect) marriage proposal to Leslie in “Halloween Surprise” (5×05) is another great way to show a leap with two central characters.
When it comes to your own series relationships, commit forward instead of taking a step back. There is rarely (if ever) a need to stagnate. Fresh paint needs time to dry, not a TV show (with exception).

Lesson 5: Make Flanderization work for, not against you

“Flanderization” is a famous television trope that describes the act of “taking a single (often minor) action or trait of a character within a work and exaggerating it more and more over time until it completely consumes the character.” As you might have guessed, the trope got its name from The Simpsons‘ Ned Flanders. He initially was a friendly neighbor and attentive father, but has over the years become solely defined by his obsession with religion.
Much like one now thinks of “religious zealot” with Flanders, you could define most scenes with Parks‘ Ron as featuring an “anti-governmental meat-eating secretive woodsman”. The same could also apply to Andy and “lovable idiot man-child”, although it really wasn’t until the beginning of his life outside of Ann’s house that he became a kinder person. So, how did the show avoid “Flanderization”? Well, it didn’t. It used it to its own advantage.
An entire mythology was built around Ron’s enigmatic aura. Sometimes it got reduced to “steak and eggs”, but when it worked it built the character instead of diminish it. Andy similarly had layers developed around being a simple goofball (Burt Tyrannosaurus Macklin and Johnny Karate being two persona extensions).
It could even be argued that the characters went through a “reverse Flanderization” process. The characters were more defined by a singular tone in the first season than in later years. Andy was a lazy and clingy ex-boyfriend, Leslie was an (even more) obnoxious Tracy Flick (or, as described above, reminiscent of Michael Scott), April was, like, whatever man, and Ron said two words.
A bad way of dealing with the trope is to not only define a character by that one aspect, but specifically limit him/her with that layer. Parks not only embraced those characterizations, but went deeper. The “good way” isn’t necessarily about making the trait less “over-the-top”, it is about humanizing it in the process. In other words, you do not reduce a character down to the trait, you expand on it.

Lesson 6: Being positive does not have to mean being sappy

Earnest comedy and positive relationships. Two of Parks and Recreation‘s unsung strengths. While everyone is trying to add some form of edge to their show, this NBC comedy never shied away from having actually nice characters (or silly ones) with heart. And making it all matter in the end.
Even with Leslie’s intense care for everyone she loves (in planning birthdays or other surprises), that “crazy” intensity was never played against her on the show. Parks rarely (if ever) undercut the true sincere emotions of characters for cheap laughs. Ann or Ben were often overwhelmed by Leslie’s antics, however none of them were the butts of jokes. In “Anniversaries” (6×14), we smiled with Leslie at Ben’s awestruck expression while he was sitting on the Iron Throne (one of the truer portrayals of a nerd), but we were all playing (including Leslie, trying to make him happy). Everyone was “in on it”.
A lot of the relationships on the show also led to affairs of the heart. Every major character ends up being linked to a key romantic pair by series end: Ben and Leslie, Chris and Ann, April and Andy, Ron and Diane, Tom and Natalie Morales’ Lucy, Jerry and his wife Gayle (a pre-series romance putting him at odds with the rest of the cast—and played that way), Rita and Keegan-Michael Key’s Joe. Even Craig finds “true love” in the series finale.
In that respect, the show’s true success is playing those romances not as sappy ideals, but as realistic relationships (albeit kind ones). Just because they are positive does not make them impossible. Ben and Leslie, the closest lovers on the show, still have to deal with their triplets (and Jennifer Barkley). Chris and Ann’s romance is never portrayed as “true love”, only the most ideal match for their baby.
If anything, Parks and Recreation is a great example of a show that embraces its sincerity and heart without compromising humor, story or character. Refreshing, in an age of gritty everything.

What to take from the show

In a word: character. If you don’t underestimate the heart of the series, then the relationships you create will carry the momentum forward. This is also why there’s no reason to be scared of big story moves, or to be anxious about dropping stale storylines. As long as you fulfill the characters’ potential, and develop them properly, you can’t betray the spirit of your show.

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