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