From Mad Men to Parks and Recreation, several series are releasing books "written" by the stars
Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America —a comprehensive guide to life in a small Indiana town—is released in bookstores nationwide today. The cheery little book is credited to Leslie Knope, whose author biography describes her as "a mid-level bureaucrat" who loves sweets and wants to be the first female President of the United States. Knope is a thorough, comprehensive, and entertaining writer.
She's also a fictional character.
Knope is more commonly known not as an author, but as the protagonist of NBC sitcom Parks & Recreation , which premiered its fourth season last month. Played with trademark gusto by Emmy-nominee Amy Poehler, Leslie Knope is Pawnee's absurdly dedicated deputy parks director—exactly the kind of character who would spend hours of personal time compiling an exhaustive guide to the town she calls home. And now we have the real fruits of her fictional labor.
Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America the latest example of a fascinating, relatively recent trend: books that are "written" by the main characters of popular television shows. WithPawnee: The Greatest Town in America, Parks & Recreation joins TV shows like Mad Men and How I Met Your Mother in expanding its reach beyond the television screen and onto the written page.
There's something genuinely surreal about reading a real guide to a fake town that was "written" by a fake person. As The Atlantic's weekly reviewer for Parks & Recreation's third season, I've spent more time than most thinking about the world of Parks & Recreation, but I was still stunned at the level of detail offered by Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America. There's a full roster of plays for The Pawnee Player's 2011-2012 upcoming theatrical season. There's a list of the "Miss Pawnee" talent show winners from 1927 to 2010. There are twelve pages of advertisements for local businesses that were referenced throughout the show's first three seasons. Through it all, Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America never tips its hand; a person unfamiliar with Parks & Recreation could easily mistake this for a travel guide to a particularly wacky small town.
It probably goes without saying that Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America is strictly for diehard Parks & Recreation fans. But in an even stranger twist on the "books written by TV characters" phenomenon, Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America will also exist within the show; according to the book's press release, Parks & Recreation's fourth season will feature a two-episode arc built around Leslie Knope compiling a book called—what else?—Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America.
There are a surprising number of precedents for this blurring of the lines between TV fiction and the real world. A fifth season episode of NBC's How I Met Your Mother featured Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) explaining that his schemes for seducing women were outlined and protected in a playbook; less than a year later, Touchstone published The Playbook, by Barney Stinson. There's a whole series of novels by "Richard Castle," a mystery novelist played by Nathan Fillion on ABC's Castle. ABC's cult classic mystery series Twin Peaks saw three major book releases: an autobiography of the show's main character, FBI agent Dale Cooper; a "secret diary" of the murdered Laura Palmer, which was also a major plot point within the show; and—like Parks & Recreation—a colorful, comprehensive access guide to the town.
Twin Peaks' example points to the inherent problem of releasing a book based on a television series: splintering the show's audience. When The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer was released between the show's first and second seasons, diehard Twin Peaks fans scoured the book for any additional clues to Laura's killer. Inevitably, they were disappointed; ABC wasn't about to let the book reveal anything that would spoil the summer's water cooler-talk. And when later episodes of Twin Peaks eventually revealed information that contradicted entries presented in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, the series' continuity took precedence.
Parks & Recreation fans aren't likely to find answers to any murder mysteries in Pawnee: the Greatest Town in America (though there's a surprising amount of mud on Pawnee's sinister Sweetums candy company). And if plot contradictions eventually do arise, it means much less in a wacky sitcom than they do in a murder mystery. But purely by offering more information, Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America will deepen the understanding—and enjoyment—that its readers can derive from Parks & Recreation.