NBC aired the busted pilot for The Farm last night on The Office, and it quickly became clear that we, unlike Dwight’s poor aunt in that coffin, had dodged a bullet. (Or, in this case, several rounds of buckshot.) Judging from the half-hour, or the half-half-hour devoted to the Schrute farm, it would have been a loopy freakshow that would have foregrounded the most zany, least grounded aspects of The Office in an effort to keep tilling the franchise like an exhausted field. It was a terrible idea.
It was also a really good idea. But more on that in a minute.
In execution, there were all sorts of problems with “The Farm,” but they mostly came down to taking a character and ideas that had served as an accent to the show and serving them up undiluted. It’s as if you made Chicken Francese for dinner one day, really enjoyed the kick that a little shot of lemon gave it, and decided: “You know what, screw the chicken, next time I’m cooking up a big freaking pot of lemons! It will be delicious!”
Or in this case beets. There were a few signs that, in the ongoing Schrute series that Paul Lieberstein envisioned, there would be some more believable characterizations and emotional grounding—here, provided by Dwight’s heretofore-unknown siblings, deciding, after various false starts elsewhere, to come back to the homestead and make a go of it. There were even flashes that suggested the show would reverse-engineer a more sensitive Dwight, capable of bonding with his nephew over the engorged teats of a goat. But there was also a lot of wrestling by gravesides, Dwight emptying a shotgun into a corpse Walking Dead-style, and various new Schrute cousins and neighbors going Pennsylvania Daffy Dutch.
What we ended up with was a mishmash of tones introducing the premise of the series-that-is-not-to-be, best captured in Dwight and his Schrute Farms Revue serenading his sis (Majandra Delfino) with The Decemberists’ “Sons and Daughters.” It’s a sweet, plaintive song with back-to-the-land associations, and I could imagine a minor poet like Delfino’s character having a taste for Colin Meloy’s quasi-agrarian literary stylings. But it’s not a song I can imagine Dwight—whose tastes run either to the archaic or to death metal—bringing himself to play or even know (much less his neighbors). It felt more like a song that an Office producer or cast member liked, and so got worked in, like many elements of this backdoor pilot, somewhere where it didn’t exactly fit.
And yet! I would love to see NBC, or another broadcast network, try a sitcom like this again. For years now, there’s been an urban or suburban sameness to much network comedy—lot of city settings and young people in apartments and folks working in offices. (NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a notable small-town exception, but much of it is concerned with office life too.) Maybe fewer people live on farms in the country than used to, but people in America live in a lot more places than are represented in scripted comedy. Like I wrote a while ago about the dearth of religious characters in scripted TV, diversity of lifestyles is important in the same way that racial and ethnic diversity is—not just because it’s fair or nice, but because it’s interesting.
As with many things, reality TV has stepped up to fill in the gaps scripted TV has left vacant. Broadcasters generally stopped making sitcoms about working-class people, and so a few years ago, we saw a slew of reality shows about oil-riggers and crab fishers and truckers. Today, Duck Dynasty–depicting a kind of country life that scarcely exists in sitcomland anymore–is not just successful but crazy successful.
You could say that the Robertsons on Duck Dynasty are as caricatured as the Schrutes on The Farm, but there are some big differences. For one, there’s the sense that they’re cannily, and gladly, doing the caricaturing: they are who they are, they enjoy it, and they’re glad to milk it on TV. The balance of power is also on their side: they’re not poor hillbillies being made to dance for a pittance, but prosperous businesspeople enjoying their life. Compare that to The Farm’s rural people, who play like country grotesques imagined by a writers’ room of Ivy Leaguers.
You could do The Farm well, though. NBC could do The Farm well, and I even think The Office’s creative folks could do a show like The Farm well, if only it didn’t have to be about Dwight. Its general premise is exactly how you could do a rural sitcom within NBC’s urbane brand: a trio of siblings returning from office life, the arts world, and the West Coast to keep their family farm alive. It could, done right, somehow weirdly unite old-school Americana and hipster-artisanal culture by poking fun at both.
One of the things that elevated The Office at its best–and quasi-spinoff Parks and Recreation now–is their commitment to regional specificity. Yeah, you can have a fun game spotting the L.A. street signs in an Office episode, but the show is written with some thought to how life in Scranton is different from life in a big city. Pawnee in Parks has its share of freaks, but the show is grounded and affectionate. There’s no reason you couldn’t do a great version of that show with a well-imagined rural community, seen through the eyes of its expatriates returning home—if you only didn’t have to build it around the surreal clown car that is the Schrute family.
That show could be very funny. It could be very smart. It could–in the programmer-speak that NBC likes to use lately–have “heart” and be “broad.” Hell, you could even use “Sons and Daughters” as the theme song. I hope the failure of The Farm doesn’t mean network sitcoms retreat back to their familiar territory. It just means it really was time to put Dwight out to pasture.