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As Scene on TV: "Parks and Recreation"

Parks and Recreation: “Moving Up” – Ben Establishes Nerd Cred

In nerd culture, the ability to reference and name-drop popular cultural is like social currency.  From a certain perspective, the ability to, say, list the most ridiculous supporting characters from the original run of Silver Surfer, or your favorite Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, or recite intricate details of Targaryen genealogy is a way to demonstrate your “nerd cred” and your sense of belonging in the community.  And when trying to prove how “nerdy” you are, the more obscure your references, the better.

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While Parks and Recreation is not a show that one would typically categorize as a “nerdy” show, the characters are well-versed in the tropes of nerd culture.  This is clearest through Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s husband who unabashedly embraces his inner nerd.  

In the season finale, Ben applies to an Internet start-up company’s free Wi-Fi program for his hometown, Pawnee.  After he’s rejected from the program, he returns to the company offices for a final plea, before recognizing a familiar callback to an earlier episode.

http://www.hulu.com/embed.html?eid=n2oo9ig1zz_fm57nkume0g&et=617&st=568

Building a scene around cultural references that the audience could not possibly get is an inherently risky maneuver.  When referencing things that exist in the real world, no matter how obscure they are, there will inevitably be at least one person out there who is passionate about the topic, and ecstatic to recognize the reference.  When, however, you make your characters display their familiarity with a fictional game, and when they try to out-reference one another with increasingly incomprehensible tidbits about the world of this fictional game, you make the audience member into an outsider looking in, someone who will never follow the conversation.

There are two tools used in this scene to keep it accessible, even in its intentional inaccessibility.   Part of the scene’s strength comes from the innate nature of nerd competitive referencing.  After Ben gives his explanation about the nature of the Hinterlands, we know he’s burned the woman, even without the other character’s affirmation of “he’s right,” because Ben wouldn’t make such a reference unless he was confident in his knowledge base.  Likewise, when Ben chooses to play as a maverick, complete with a dramatic camera push in on his face we can glean the importance of his statement.  We don’t know what it means to be a maverick, but we know, from the way the line ends the scene, that Ben’s just done something badass.

The actors are, by necessity, carrying this scene.  Without any possible point of cultural familiarity, the audience must rely in the nuance of the performances to follow the power shifts through the scene.  Through subtle beats, we can see that Andy, like us, is an outsider, unfamiliar with the world of Cones of Dunshire (note his brief, confused look toward the camera in the midst of his chuckle the “Alchemist of the Hinterlands” line.)

Likewise, although the female character doesn’t have any lines after Ben demonstrates his knowledge of the Hinterlands, her quickly fading smile conveys how thoroughly she’s been defeated by Ben’s repartee.   Finally, we see in the curly-haired man’s demeanor and delivery that he’s a sort of alpha dog amongst his friends, and that it is ultimately his defeat that will spell victory for Ben.  This plays out in his next scene, when Ben wins the game.

Referencing existing pop culture can be a fun way to appeal to audience members, but this can be a risky endeavor if the audience is unfamiliar with the references.  It can be a particularly arduous risk when the references are to a pop cultural property that doesn’t even exist.  Parks and Recreation set a high bar for what was ultimately a minor sequence in the series finale, but it knocked it out of the park through reliance on the unexpected, as well as through the powerful performances of their cast.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].