If your council meets on Thursday evening, you may have missed the latest television comedy — “Parks and Recreation” — from the folks who created the Emmy Award-winning show “The Office.” Instead of focusing on dysfunction in the corporate work-place, their new show focuses on dysfunction in the public workplace.
“Public Service” was the original title for the “mockumentary” that, according to NBC's Web site, explores the “mundane but necessary ways that people interact with their government, and ask why it's frequently so complicated — as everyone knows from standing in line at the DMV, applying for home construction permits, or trying to get the city to fix a pothole.” The main character is an employee of fictional Pawnee, Ind., whose coworkers include a bored intern, a savvy but cynical city manager, and a boss who wants all public services privatized.
I admire the show's authenticity while feeling partially insulted on behalf of public servants. Think about why people love “The Office” so much: It makes delicious fun of the establishment, the people and organizations who would oppress us. Given the cynicism toward government in general, is it dangerous to reinforce the assumption that its employees are incompetent or indifferent? Even if their customers are similarly depicted?
But maybe I'm taking this too seriously.
After watching three episodes, a PUBLIC WORKS reader I met through the show's Web site pointed out that, unlike the lead character, who wants to be the first female U.S. president, most government employees steer clear of local politics for fear of stepping on the toes of a future boss. And where's the obsessive resident who presents kooky ideas at each and every public meeting? What about an episode, if not an entire story line, about a change in administration where a new mayor or city council member tries to shake up the department?
Now that's authentic.
In the meantime, I have my own bone to pick about the show.
Astute readers may remember my suggestion for a “Law & Order”-type drama about public works. (Go to www.pwmag.com and see “Here comes Hollywood!” in the March 2007 issue.) Writers would never want for ideas: Mobs of citizens protesting proposed rate increases. Public works crews clearing debris after a disaster as police and fire watch helplessly. Etc. Throw in some office romance and you've got the ultimate American drama: proud, hard-working men and women laboring to improve their community's quality of life against all odds.
Humor would be part of, not the reason for, such a show. But it would certainly be a different twist on life in the government sector beyond the police and fire departments.
Editor in Chief