Surviving Quarantine with the Utopias of Michael Schur
The sitcoms of Michael Schur remind us of the power of the positive.
We all know that it’s a tough time to be alive these days. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with almost every aspect of American life, upending all of the rhythms that we’d all collectively taken for granted. Even for those, like me, who were already working from home before social distancing and self-imposed quarantine, the constant barrage of bad news about the virus and its devastating impact on the United States is a bit overwhelming. It has now given me a basis upon which to found my previously unmoored existential dread.
In order to distract myself and to remind me that there is good in the world, I decided to rewatch some of my favourite television series, particularly those created by Michael Schur. I started out by watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine from beginning to end, before going back in time a bit and watching Parks and Recreation. As I did so, I simply immersed myself in the fictional universes of these two series, embracing the laughter and the tears.
Indeed, there’s something truly special about the television works of Michael Schur. From Parks and Rec to The Good Place to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, these shows show us groups of people, most of them devoted to public service, who are just trying to do the best that they can for the people they have sworn to serve. There’s an optimism about these series, a sense that there are good and decent and noble. They remind us that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that even in the bleakest of times that there is something to be optimistic about. In that sense, they are the perfect expression of what the film scholar Richard Dyer has theorized as the utopian sensibility of mass entertainment. Through five key elements: energy, abundance, intensity, transparency, and community, various forms of entertainment provide us with solutions to the shortcomings of the world that surrounds us.
Through their peculiar mix of lovable characters (good-hearted and ridiculous though they are) and utopian sensibilities, the series of Michael Schur are the perfect utopian way to survive the bleak days of the pandemic.
Take, for example, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’ve watched the show several times from beginning to end. It has, at this point, joined several other shows that are in my regular rotation, each of which remind me of the brighter things in life (The Golden Girls and Will & Grace are also in that list). Somehow, through the strange alchemy that seems to be Schur’s particular talent, it manages to transcend the limitations of the sitcom genre to attain something close to sublime comedy. Part of it, no doubt, stems from the undeniable chemistry among the cast. One can easily believe that these people are truly friends with one another outside of the show. Their community — the sense that they have one another’s backs no matter what, that there is a strong emotional bond between these men and women — is a key part of its appeal.
A graduate school acquaintance of mine once said that B99 was a form of propaganda for the NYPD. I thought, and think, that that is a drastic misreading of the series and its politics. In fact, what I enjoy about B99 is the fact that it isn’t afraid to lodge criticisms of the NYPD writ large. The upper echelons of the organization can often be incredibly petty and cruel, if not inept. The series has also addressed a number of issues pertinent to our present moment, including racial profiling and the unauthorized surveillance of New York City’s residents. The episode in which Terry is racially profiled by a fellow member of the NYPD — and his subsequent realization that his own daughters might be subjected to similar scrutiny but without the protection of his status as a police officer — is one of the most emotionally intense sequences in the entire series so far.
The brilliance of B99 is that it manages to address these very important issues without losing its fundamental sense of humor, its effervescent faith in the uplifting power of laughter and camaraderie. B99, like so many of Schur’s shows, most clearly expresses its utopian sensibilities by showing us that these members of the police are fundamentally good people who want to make their city safer. It would be much easier to be cynical, to indulge in the idea that the police as an institution are rotten from the inside out, but B99 makes us reconsider our assumptions, to see the good in institutions.
Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation is the embodiment of everything that is good and pure in the world. Okay, well, I might be exaggerating a bit, but there’s no question that Amy Poehler’s bubbly, effervescent, ever-enthusiastic public servant is a person who has given her selflessly to the betterment of her community. No matter what happens, no matter how vehemently the very people that she tries to help reject and criticize her (even going so far as to recall her from her seat on the City Council), she never loses faith in her belief that government is there for the help of the people.
Parks and Rec espouses the refreshing belief that government, whether local or national, is a good thing, that when staffed by people who genuinely care about their communities it can lead to social betterment. What’s more, Parks and Rec also indulges in a rather utopian fantasy in which those with diametrically opposed political philosophy — embodied by government apologist Leslie and stalwart libertarian Ron Swanson — can co-exist, that they can find community and genuine friendship with one another. Indeed, the rich and emotionally intense relationship between Ron and Leslie is one of the most important and lastingly resonant parts of the series.
In the real world, of course, such amicability would be almost unimaginable, but that is precisely what makes Parks and Rec such a uniquely utopian series. In so neatly straddling the line between the real world and the fictional one of Pawnee — it makes a point of drawing storylines from contemporary political developments — Parks and Rec allows us to indulge in the fantasy that the most intractable problems of our world can, in fact, be solved through the intense friendships that develop between individuals. It is, of course, a little naive, but that doesn’t lessen how appealing it is to us, and how much pleasure we take in it, particularly in these dark days.
Parks and Rec, perhaps more than any other of Schur’s projects, seems to genuinely love its characters, and it encourages us to do so. Whether it is the perpetually effervescent, optimistic, and openly affectionate Leslie (who never makes a secret of any of her feelings, the embodiment of transparency) or the similarly transparent Tom, Parks and Rec gives us characters that it’s impossible not to love. What’s more, it also makes us want to love Pawnee, despite the fact that its denizens are, to put it mildly, complete dunces. In fact, some of the highlights of the series are those episodes in which the entire town gathers together in a celebration of community, an abundance of love, joy, and the pleasures of small town life.
It seems fitting to conclude this piece with a discussion of The Good Place, arguably Schur’s most sophisticated and ambitious sitcom effort. Less uproariously and straightforwardly funny than either B99 or Parks and Rec, The Good Place tackles the sorts of philosophical questions that have always haunted the human imagination: whether it is possible to find goodness in the universe, whether humans are intrinsically good or bad, whether it is even possible to do unambiguously good things in the thoroughly-connected and complicated world of modernity.
There is a profound charm that suffuses every moment of The Good Place. A great deal of this stems from the star persona of Kristen Bell, who radiates charisma every moment that she’s on the screen. The rest of the cast is similarly charming, including Ten Danson as the demon Michael. There is an intensity to their performances, a genuineness that makes each of them radiate humour an d good-naturedness. These are, of course deeply flawed people — they did end up in the Bad Place, after all — but that doesn’t mean that they don’e like them. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that they are so fallible that we are led to identify with them and their journey toward redemption.
What makes The Good Place such a fascinating case study of the utopian sensibility is the way in which its overall narrative arc is, in many ways, a move from dystopia to utopia. In the beginning, Bell’s Eleanor is in what she believes is the Good Place, though she is there under what she thinks are false pretenses. Only slowly does it begin to dawn on her, and her fellow souls, that they are in fact in the Bad Place, that all of this has been an illusion designed to punish them for their transgressions on earth. Over the subsequent seasons, they have to contend with both the repetition of their punishment and, gradually, an effort to save nothing less the entirety of humanity. When, in the end, they have managed to rewrite the very laws by which human souls are judged after death, it is in many ways the epitomization of utopia itself, a new world that we, mired in the uncertainties of everyday life, desperately desire.
Though it might not be as outrightly funny as its predecessors, I would say that The Good Place is, in its own way, more outrightly optimistic. In fact, the fundamental premise of the show, as numerous critics have pointed out, is that humanity writ large is capable of redemption, that we can, in fact, get better with the advancement of time. When, by the end, all four of the main human characters (as well as the reformed demon Michael) have found their own measure of peace with the universe, it’s hard not to feel a little bit envious at this expression of certainty.
There is no question that the days ahead are going to be tremendously difficult. Even the most optimistic projections suggest that we could lose up to a quarter of a million lives to COVID-19, a number that is both staggering and depressing. There is also no question that we as a society are going to be pushed to the breaking point. We’re going to be asked to band together in ways that we rarely have been in our lifetimes. We’re going to be asked to open our hearts to our neighbors and friends, even as we can’t see them. We’re going to have to accept that the things that we took for granted about our everyday lives are going to be different for the foreseeable future and that, in fact, things might never fully return to normal.
The series of Michael Schur are a timely reminder not only that there is good in the world, but that it is up to each of us to continue making sure that it stays that way. More importantly, perhaps, it is also a revelation that such goodness is possible, that no matter how difficult it is for us to imagine a better future, we all have a part to play in bringing it to pass.
And that, ultimately, is the power of utopian entertainment. True, it might sometimes lull us into a false sense of security, discouraging us from doing the things that we need to do to make the world of better place. However, it seems to me that there is another aspect of utopian mass culture. Rather than encouraging us to indulge in complacency, it can instead be aspirational, reminding us of what we can attain, of the goodness that we can create if we but put our minds to it.