The past week took two beloved things from this Earth: Leonard Nimoy and new episodes of my favorite TV show, Parks and Recreation. Don’t mistake me for putting a man’s life on the same level as a television show, but when we speak in terms of legacy, of the influence both had on media and audiences, their juxtaposition is, I think, incredibly relevant in considering the way we love stories and the way stories love each other.
I’m an unabashed, unrepentant, and occasionally self-righteous lover of most things considered “nerdy.” (I say “most” because “all” would be inaccurate—I haven’t, for example, ever really warmed to RPGs, and I’m impressively terrible at board games like Settlers of Catan.) After books, my favorite thing is probably television; sometimes they might even tie each other for my favorite thing. TV, much like the culture surrounding casseroles of the American-Midwest, is a universe that embodies a stunning variety in its composition and quality. Television can create groundbreaking or equally terrible and vapid programming (which can still be wonderful). It is the home of both soaps and political commentary, of after-school specials and HBO (which is, I suppose, not television). More importantly, I think, especially in terms of Nimoy and Parks, it’s a place that creates its own cultural ecosystem.
When I was little, I used to sometimes get out of bed to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents, not that I really knew much of what was going on, but I liked Lieutenant Worf, and Geordi La Forge was the same guy from Reading Rainbow, which I remember thinking was pretty cool. I also liked that it took place in space and that my parents really liked the show, too. When I got older I went back and watched the show for real, and I watched the movies with Kirk and Spock with my dad. It was the only show that followed me from childhood to adulthood. It’s a franchise I love and will always watch if it’s on TV (unless it’s Final Frontier; I can’t say I’m overly fond of that movie). Even though I was introduced to Spock (and therefore Nimoy) after I’d been introduced to the Star Trek universe, to me he is no less its symbol. The amazing thing about Star Trek is that while it exists in several forms, it is all together a cohesive universe that champions its successors.
Nimoy owed his success not just to his role as Spock in the groundbreaking 1960s show Star Trek (also his rather bizarre music career) but also what he came to represent when Star Trek catapulted into something bigger than the campy sci-fi serial that it was. In fact, with low Nielsen ratings and only three seasons, it wasn’t even a very popular show and only became the cultural behemoth it is now after its subsequent reincarnations in film and television. It is a cultural institution that never demands relevance in contemporary society, but instead provides it, updating itself for growing and changing audiences. Nimoy himself embodied this idea: after the cancellation of Star Trek: The Original Series, he reprised his role as Spock in its rebirth as a film series, and again in the recent 2009 franchise reboot.
This now brings us to Parks and Recreation, the mockumentary-style comedy that has no real relationship to Star Trek except several references to it and perhaps its celebration of always being oneself, especially if that means being a super-nerd like Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). Incidentally, Adam Scott also made an appearance as “Defiant Conn Officer” in Star Trek: First Contact. While Parks and Recreation may not be, and may not ever be the cultural institution that Star Trek is, it too demonstrates the powerful relationship between television shows and their viewers. While the show was often critically acclaimed, it never did well with ratings, and while it had seven seasons before its cancellation, the last two seasons comprised of only half the episodes of an average season. It was a cult favorite with an audience that voraciously consumed other media and information (like Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Batman, for example) who expected its characters to do the same. Parks, like Star Trek, gave audiences the ability to interact with the show by demanding audiences use their brains while providing culturally and socially relevant themes and situations. While Parks takes place in suburban southern Indiana and Star Trek in the vast expanses of the Milky Way galaxy, both programs strived for relatability and inclusion. In comparison, programs like The Big Bang Theory (***unpopular opinion alert***) take a more two-dimensional approach to comedy by selecting an underrepresented group, nerds and intellectuals, and laughing at their eccentricities even though it claims to be laughing with them.
I’m sad because Parks and Recreation and Star Trek both existed to bring humanity to otherness—they were both shows/franchises that celebrated outcasts, and now I have to say goodbye to parts of both of them. It’s true I’ll always have reruns of both, that while Nimoy has passed, Spock lives on. But in losing Nimoy it feels as though nerds everywhere have lost an icon and an advocate. With the end of Parks, we’ve lost a program that championed doin’ yo thang not only because you want to, but also because it can lead to great things, and always regardless of the judgment of others. We lost a smart comedy that challenged viewers to see its characters as multi-dimensional—even Ron Swanson can get a little choked up now and then, as even Data had moments of pure humanity. Therefore, in lieu of flowers, I’ll just say this.