Following the release of the final season of The Good Place, Jonathan Compo reflects on showrunner Michael Schur’s career.
Michael Schur’s trilogy—The Office (US), Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place—are an attempt to recuperate New Sincerity. This is bad.
To understand why this is bad, we need to make a deal: I’ll give you the definitions of recuperation and New Sincerity, as I understand them, and you will entertain for a moment, regardless of what you believe I.R.L., that capitalism is a gigantic, blood-sucking squid, and television one of that squid’s many blood-sucking tentacles. Deal? O.K.
1: Recuperation: “the process by which politically radical ideas and images are twisted, co-opted, annexed and commodified within media culture and thus become neutralized.” It’s pretty straightforward.
2: New Sincerity, according to David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction:”
The new rebels
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue …
The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.
The idea is that in response to too-much “metafictional and self-conscious irony in contemporary” media, a new literary movement would arise and embrace a “new sincerity.”
The David Foster Wallace essay is important for two reasons. One, Michael Schur is obsessed with the guy. This lends credibility to a connection between the writer’s ethos and the showrunner’s. I can practically guarantee you that Michael Schur has read “E Unibus Pluram.” The second important thing is the essay’s subtitle: “Television and U.S. Fiction.” “E Unibus Pluram,” which kicked off the New Sincerity movement, is an essay about how books could respond to the threat posed by television.
Okay, so here’s the thesis: Michael Schur, a sucker on the televisual arm of late capitalism, has taken an ethos designed to help fiction fight TV, and recuperated it. His shows, expanding from a single office to a local government to the entire cosmos, present New Sincerity as the only way to survive our soul-murdering capitalist reality. Sincerity, in Schur’s vision, exists not as an escape hatch from this reality, or as a hammer with which to break it apart, but as a feature of it. It offers sentimentality as a participation trophy to the revolution’s losers. Being nice won’t get you anywhere, Schur’s shows say, but boy, isn’t it still awful nice?
The rest of this essay will explain precisely how Schur’s shows go about recuperating New Sincerity, how this action expands with each new show, and what exactly is lost when the TV gets sincere.