Dolts in toyland

I was in the Chicago yesterday and I noticed an overweight security guard.  I found myself looking at him through the eyes of Paul Blart: mall cop.  (I didn't see the movie, but like everyone I saw the ads.) 

The guard looked like the mall cop.  And through this lens, my view of him was, well, diminishing.  After all,  Paul Blart is a dolt, a happy, well intentioned dolt, but a dolt. 

NBC is about to launch a show called Parks and Recreation in which Amy Poehler stars as a minor functionary, an officious bureaucrat, a very busy body and, of course, a dolt.  A well intentioned dolt, but a dolt.   (It begins tonight at 8:30.)

We are told Parks and Recreation descends from the people who made The Office, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur.   The Office is about a paper company where under the delirious managerial misapprehensions of Michael Scott, the office staggers from one cringing misadventure to another.  The Office is dolts-ville. 

There's a commonality to these shows, a theme.  Call it: dolts in toyland.  These shows take us to a world in which not very bright people labor in cheerful obscurity, apparently forsaken by good sense and good form.  Because this is toyland, nothing bad ever happens to these people.  They are really just innocents, somehow protected from their stupidity by their stupidity.

We may think of this trend (if that's what it is) as counter-prevailing, a kind of low pressure zone that takes the meteorologist by surprise.  After, these days, popular culture seems preoccupied with master noticers and other smart people. 

I'm thinking of Monk, House, The Mentalist, Psych and perhaps the CSI franchises from Jerry Bruckheimer featuring William Petersen, David Caruso, and Gary Sinise.  These are people gifted with extraordinary powers of observation (they miss nothing!) and the ability to find their way to revelation (case closed!).

But dolts in toyland offer another America altogether. They don't really notice much of anything except the opportunity to be maladroit and clueless.  This programming approach isn't as bad as Kath and Kim, a piece of nonsense that is now, blessedly headed for the chopping block.  Kath and Kim was completely bicoastal, LA and NY conspiring to ridicule people in the heartland.  America knows when it is being scorned and it rewarded NBC's effort with benign but firm neglect. 

Paul Blart, Parks and Recreation, and The Office have a little more going for them than this.  In fact, they have a manical energy, as if their stupidity serves them as a navigational device and a way to escape the ordinary and obvious.  There is a chaos and absurdity to these shows that appeals to us.  But it is of course very low risk chaos.  Their stupidity puts these dolts in a liminal places beyond the reach of social conventions and orthodoxies.  But nothing bad can happen, because this is toyland. 

Also, dolts in toyland are the opposite of the economic man, the creature who is endlessly capable, rational, vigilant.  They would like to pursue their self interest, but it's just so very hard to figure out what this is.  And in this sense, these projects play out the cultural logic of Cheers, that 80s outpost of incompetence, a respite against the newly aggressive individualism of the Yuppie era. 

And finally, we might call these projects some variation on the "greater fool" theory.  We may not be feeling very capable or resourceful in the present economy, but, hey, it looks as if we will always have more on the ball than Paul Blart.  And notice that these projects are always, and patronizingly, set some place where incompetence probably doesn't matter.  The Office is set, probably, in an obscure part of Pennsylvania.  Parks and Recreation is set in an obscure part of the mid-West.  Paul Blart is set in a mall.  I mean, really, what's the worst that could  happen?

In sum, there are a number of ways to think about why this little trend (if that's what it is) should be flourishing now.  It is a funny corrective (if that's what it is) to the master noticer trend of House and Monk.  Our culture is working on something. 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Post script:

Paul Blart has flourished at the box office.  Sony projected $20 million for the opening weekend.  The movie took $39.2 million.  It's current total stands at $143 million. 

References

Brodesser-Akner, Claude.  2009.  Maketing Lessons From 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop.'  Ad Age.  http://adage.com/madisonandvine/article?article_id=135862.

5 thoughts on “Dolts in toyland”

  1. Is there a distinction to be made between dolts who are vehicles for real intelligence, and and those who aren’t? Homer Simpson is a dolt, but the genius of “The Simpsons” sparkles behind his actions — we watch because the writing is so good. The same argument could be made about other dolts, from Archie Bunker to Stephen Colbert.

    But other shows and movies seem to celebrate stupidity with no other redeeming features. “Dumb and Dumber,” “Jackass,” — I’m sure there are many more. I imagine “Paul Blart” is in this category. It’s a type of humor I find intolerable, on a par with laughing at pratfalls.

    The humorist Dave Barry once wrote a fine column about the Berenstain Bears, the popular children’s book series that features, in many of the stories, an archetype I believe he called the stupid dad. Stupid dads are dolts who think they are in charge, while all around them his wife and family cleans up his messes while maintaining the illusion they respect him. I’m sure you can think of many popular characters who fit this description.

  2. You might be on to something here. Compare the British (original) version of The Office with the American. If anything, in the original Gervais does NOT create “liminal places beyond the reach of social conventions and orthodoxies”. The priceless British humor of the original Office is about the awkward moments where the dolts realize their doltness and try to hide it. There’s no blissful stupidity, just our pathetic doltish attempts to impress others. The American version has some of that, but it’s far more aligned with what you talk about. So it seems empty and… Well, stupid, when compared to the original.

  3. Scott beat me to it, but in reading your post I immediately thought of Homer Simpson as the base of the Dolt family tree.

    Domen nailed perfectly the difference between the two Offices. It’s subtle, but there.

    Grant, you identified an interesting dichotomy: Our TV heroes are either super-geniuses we could never be, or morons who are beneath us. What’s in between, namely us, doesn’t make for particularly compelling or entertaining television (see Trust Me)

  4. “The humorist Dave Barry once wrote a fine column about the Berenstain Bears, the popular children’s book series that features, in many of the stories, an archetype I believe he called the stupid dad. Stupid dads are dolts who think they are in charge, while all around them his wife and family cleans up his messes while maintaining the illusion they respect him. I’m sure you can think of many popular characters who fit this description.”

    Also known as the Doofus Dad. He’s a staple character in TV commercials as well as in sitcoms. In one sense, the Doofus Dad can be seen as fulfilling a *male* fantasy. Typically he will be a chubby, dough-faced if not actually obese schlub, paired with a smoking hot wife. In real life, a man of that sort wouldn’t get the time of day from such a highly desirable woman. In the fantasy world of television, however, it’s a different story, one that plays into male fantasies even while mocking men.

  5. Hi Grant, i am an anthropology student and i would like to contact you to know if there is any way you could help me with some bibliographical recommendations on Digital Ethnographi and ciber culture.

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