The fall of the average person

Previously published in The Daily Star of Hammond, LA.

Last week, I wrote about Mark Brendanawicz, a character from the NBC sitcom “Parks and Rec,” riffing about why the character disappeared for five seasons in the fictional universe about a small, Midwestern town. Something a friend brought up after reading it was that he liked Brendanawicz because he was the “he was the one [character] who felt most like he could exist in real life.”

This friend liking Brendanawicz is strange because hatred for the character persisted even after the show ended. There are multiple forums on the internet dedicated to explaining why people hated Brendanwicz, mostly that the character was dull, static and nowhere near as great as Ben Wyatt, the man that essentially replaced him as Leslie Knope’s romantic-interest. Those are all fair, but could also be chalked up to many things like the introduction of new characters, the writers and producers finding the humor and voice of the show and getting more time to build the universe around those characters.

Most of the people who hate Brendanwicz also tend to be younger (in the millennial age range), while my friend who likes him happens to be in his early 40’s and a fan of shows like “Cheers.” My friend is from Indiana, so the idea of a sitcom being set in a small town close to the one he grew up in fascinates him, and he thinks Brendanawicz was cool because he was “felt very ‘Indiana.'” Which I think is an interesting point. Characters in that show became increasingly ridiculous as each new season passed, like a lot of sitcoms on television.

Gone are the days where you can “go where everybody knows your name.” This is not about reminiscing about past television shows as being more realistic because plenty of them like “I Love Lucy,” “Full House” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” were about people who were wealthy and at least locally famous. But characters in “Full House,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Cheers” felt more like real people than anyone from the later seasons of “The Office” (Jim and Pam were normal enough at first, but they too began to change and become parodies of themselves at times later in the show) and “Parks and Rec” (see: Chris Traeger, Jean-Ralphio, Jeremy Jamm and Ron Swanson who became even more intense and Swanson-esque for several seasons before softening up).

I understand the reason for some of these characters becoming people that (I hope) could never exist in real life. Chris Traeger’s struggles with depression illustrate that sometimes people act the happiest because they are terrified of being sad and that people can feel emotions so strongly that they have to pretend to get by. Jamm obviously helps the show highlight corruption in local government.

But why does the show have to become so slapsticky in its humor and over-the-top with making the character’s intentions or issues so obvious to the audience? Part of this ties into the whole, “TV makes people dumber” argument due to the passivity of the person sitting at home and ingesting whatever the show tells them to.

I think in this case the issue stems from a newer problem which could be that the reason younger people didn’t like Brendanwicz is that young people go out less than ever before, spending more time in their homes and watching TV or scrolling through social media. This makes people desire more of the over-the-top characters and shows to match the speed and quickness of their phones or they’ll get bored and flip to something else.

Brendanawicz had a potentially interesting subplot for writers to explore in that he was not very aware of other’s emotions (he used to be a womanizer, then he almost proposed to Ann even though she wanted to break up with him). Seeing him (a normal, intelligent, regular small town guy) grow out of that would’ve been interesting.

That kind of arc, though satisfying and full of potential to talk about something real people deal with (which had plenty of potential to be funny too), gets thrown by the wayside in the age of social media. Ron Swanson hits this point toward the end of the second season: “Live your life how you want, but don’t confuse drama with happiness.”

Brendanwicz’s potentially serious arc isn’t as interesting in comparison to a manic-depressive health nut (Traeger), corrupt orthodontist/politician (Jamm) or a dumb but shockingly charming materialistic young person (Jean-Ralphio). It leads to what we can see is the fall of the average person on television.

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