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Erin Watches: Parks & Rec, Wings June 12, 2014

Posted by Erin Ptah in Erin Watches, Meta.
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Parks and Recreation was on Netflix, so I gave it a try. Watched a couple episodes from season 1, then season 2, and was ungripped. Maybe the writing gets better in later seasons, but the whole shaky-cam thing isn’t doing it for me either.

Skipped instead to Wings, a sitcom from the ’90s about a tiny independent airline in Nantucket. Funny, charming, with normal camera-work. Same kind of workplace humor as Cabin Pressure, so if you like that, I recommend this.

One thing struck me about trying the two back-to-back like this. There’s an episode of Parks & Rec where Leslie, our heroine, stages a cute “marriage ceremony” for two penguins as an event for the zoo. Then it turns out the penguins are both male. And it turns into this whole PR brouhaha, with ~family values~ groups complaining about the scandal.

Throughout the whole thing, Leslie’s response is consistently “I just thought it would be cute! I wasn’t trying to make a statement!” It’s doing the whole comedy-of-awkwardness thing…but the awkwardness was never about the family-values groups being inherently wrong to attack pro-gay-rights convictions. Rather, they were wrong because they mistakenly got the idea that Leslie had pro-gay-rights convictions for them to attack. It felt like I was being asked to sympathize with her for accidentally making people think she supported same-sex marriage at all. What a wild and kooky situation to be in, right?

It was just really uncomfortable to watch.

Now, about Wings. Which is not perfect by a long shot. There are some iffy jokes about weight; there are jokes about gender that only work if you forget the existence of trans people; every single one of them is white. But! There’s an episode (s02e10) where one character’s teenage son (Roy’s son R.J.) comes out as gay.

And it’s so good. There’s no angst! R.J. and his feelings are the focus of the arc, not any of the straight characters around him! It comes up naturally in conversation during a non-sexuality-related plot!

The kid is introduced as an aspiring cellist, and starts getting lessons from one of our heroines. He comes out to her first, realizes it feels good, and goes on to tell the rest of our heroes. There’s never any question about whether they judge him or support him — their only worry is how Roy is going to take it. He decides to organize a pride parade! Their only reaction is “okay, well, guess you better tell your dad in person now, rather than letting him find out from the parade.”

So the R.J. does. Now, Roy is the obnoxious owner of our heroes’ rival charter airline — sexist, among other things, but that’s presented as part of his obnoxiousness, not an endearing or neutral trait. (After one snippy comment, Helen takes his lunch away. “Hey, I paid for that ham sandwich!” exclaims Roy. Helen shoots back, “Wouldn’t want you eating your own kind.”)

And his whole reaction is very real. He’s no Burt Hummel, but there’s never any suggestion he doesn’t love his son, even as he goes through the whole process of “are you sure? Is there any chance you might change your mind? *grabs a basketball* Let’s play a round of one-on-one — if you win, you’re allowed to be gay.”

For context, Roy is a big guy, but R.J. is bigger, and about a head taller. The kid wins a lot of rounds.

And all this in 1990!

The whole thing felt so much more welcoming. Totally-supportive was the default view of the straight protagonists. Roy’s homophobia issues were rolled out as another symptom of dickishness, and one that he can work through (even if it takes time), rather than as a thing with some validity that you should try to avoid crossing. R.J. got to be chill about everything, never embarrassed or apologetic, and no one tried to make him feel like he should be.

I think I’m developing a real narrative thing for stories about people, especially parents, whose acceptance is imperfect but who are on the right track. They’re feel-good in a totally different way from the Burt Hummels of the fictional world.

It’s not because the parents’ hang-ups make logical sense. They don’t. It’s not endorsing people with these issues, just acknowledging the reality that they exist — you probably recognize a few from your own life — and it’s cathartic to see them presented as ultimately on your side, weird issues and all.

…and this whole thing will probably never come up in Wings again, but it was great when it happened, and the rest of the series is charming and snappy, and I’m definitely watching more.

(Also! As long as I’m talking about Wings and representation: one of the main characters is a woman in her sixties. And she gets a normal amount of subplots, and the occasional love interest, and is generally funny and wonderful.)

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