It’s Thursday, which means that you can turn to network television tonight to see the most sympathetic, realistic portrayal of grown-up nerds currently airing. Or you could watch The Big Bang Theory instead.
For quite some time now, Parks And Recreation has quietly been proving itself to be the best show about nerds (and the nerds who love them) on television. There are no cheap shots, no assumptions that all nerds share identical interests, no condescension in the guise of celebration.
Instead, when Parks laughs at them, it’s for being human beings, not stereotypes. Its nerds engage with, and (occasionally) succeed in, the wider society that surrounds them. They possess multitudes, capable of being other things besides nerds and pursuing non-nerd-specific interests.
Ben Wyatt, for instance, has all the classic earmarks of being a standard TV nerd. He has absorbed maybe a little too much Lord Of The Rings and Stars Trek and Wars. He gets super-excited over spreadsheets and calculators, going so far as to enthusiastically offer to look over someone else’s break-even analysis tables, which he calls “really fun.” He invents elaborate table games with arcane rules. Exhorted to Treat Yo Self by Tom and Donna, he purchases a Batman suit and proceeds to un-self-consciously wear it in public.
They’re the sorts of things that have been done any number of times on The Big Bang Theory. The difference is that for that show, that was the joke: adults dressing up as superheroes, playing at being the Flash or Green Lantern or whoever like they were overgrown children. On Parks, the joke was weirder and deeper than that, as Ben moped around with a broken heart in a costume that clearly wasn’t serving as any kind of adolescent power fantasy. His costume added another layer to the situation; on The Big Bang Theory, it’s typically the only layer.
Ben isn’t the only nerd on Parks‘ lineup, either. Leslie Knope is, among other things, a politics nerd, idolizing the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Eleanor Roosevelt (to the point of incorporating them into makeout-session role-playing) and having a paralyzing crush on Joe Biden. When she and Ben chose to attend a Halloween party as Westley and Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride, it felt not just right but inevitable.
Andy and April, meanwhile, engage in what amounts to either open-world improv or two-person LARPing, depending on how you view the continuing adventures of Bert Macklin, FBI and Janet Snakehole/Judy Hitler. Tom is an overenthusiastic outsider clinging to sports and hip-hop despite knowing nothing about them in a perpetual (and somewhat desperate) attempt to be perceived as cool. Donna’s an enthusiastic Game Of Thrones fan. Chris Traeger is a health nut. Even Ron F—-ing Swanson is a woodworking nerd, geeking out when he spots modern master of the Shaker style Christian Becksvoort at the Indiana Fine Woodworking Association Woodworking Awards.
The characters are all geeks in some form or another, but their geekdom doesn’t define who they are; unlike on The Big Bang Theory, they’re all fully capable of interacting with non-nerds without looking at the world exclusively through nerd-culture glasses. Lucas and Roddenberry and R.R.s Tolkein and Martin exist in the world of Parks but they are not the totality of the world. The nerdery on display still informs how characters like Ben are viewed by others, but it simmers in the background instead of being visible at all moments.
In a way, both shows offer much the same lesson, which is the importance of constructing a community where everyone can have his or her own bizarre, overinvested passions without facing substantial social pushback for it. But The Big Bang Theory sees nerds solely as misfits grasping to understand and make peace with the outside world. On Parks, the nerds contain multitudes, walking among us even as they’re composing Data/Picard slashfic in their spare time.