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The Cringe

First season Parks and Rec was amazingly bad. I'm going to start by stating it is unbelievable how quickly this show rose from the inky depths of mediocrity to being one of the best sitcoms on TV. Because the first few shows? Really bad.

Part of the reason I'm reacting so negatively to early P&R is its reliance on one of my least favorite comedy styles: cringe humor. The cringe is created by awkward social moments that go on and on and on. I'm not sure the reaction to the situation could even properly be considered comedy. Laughing simply seems the only way to expel the toxic levels of humiliation.

To be fair, not all cringe is created equal and I do like certain movies that include it. Rushmore, for example, one of my all-time favorite films, has this scene about half-way through.

The awkwardness - it burns!

But the difference is this scene is meant to advance the story, the character and the themes of the story. This is a pivotal moment when Max begins to lose the fiction he has worked so hard to maintain in his life. It's painful to watch but it's going somewhere.

Compare to this scene from P&R in the episode where Lesley Knope is trying to canvas for  a public forum on a park she's trying to build.


The situation is embarrassing and we probably feel some smidgeon of empathy for the character but it's ruined by two problems. One, it isn't funny but two the scene isn't really serving any purpose other than inducing body-wracking levels of vicarious humiliation. Has Lesley been radically changed by this terrible encounter? Not really. So we the audience are left to assume that this situation is not meaningful, that we have been made to suffer for a character for no good reason. And, the suffering, ultimately was the point. Cringe humor, when done badly is a kind of passion play, where we watch a scapegoat (socially) flayed so we can feel bad about ourselves. There are lower levels of amusement but not many.

To sum up, cringe humor is useful when it serves to highlight important character development or advances the story. It sucks when it serves to make the intended audience feel like they are experiencing the public speaking nightmare.
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