The Higher ED Blog: Movies and TV shows economic developers can appreciate
Michelle Madden / December 14, 2015
Last December, the Higher ED Blog watched and vetted five serious documentaries that we declared economic developers should watch over the holidays. I promised that they were substantive enough to keep your brain from liquefying into an eggnog-like substance while you were on vacation. This year, Higher ED is pandering to the crowd that shuns big thoughts while on vacation. It’s a time to relax, and who cares if your grey matter becomes gravy?
This is a list of TV shows and movies that are totally binge-worthy, but that will also appeal to you as an economic developer (because that’s part of your DNA and never gets tuned out entirely). There’s three of each and I think you’ll find them helpful when you need to laugh at yourself and your situation, or be reminded that it could always be worse.
Parks & Recreation
NBC’s Parks & Rec was first on the list, and perhaps inspired it. This show is famous among municipal civil servants for accurately capturing the many joys and challenges of local government, in the funniest way possible.
It follows the staff of Pawnee, Indiana’s parks and recreation department, a lovable group of misfits led by the endlessly-optimistic Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler). Leslie loves her community and refuses to be held back by politics, jaded bureaucrats, NIMBYists, or even extreme funding restrictions. She even finds positivity in the toughest community consultation situations (I bet you can’t watch this compilation of community consultation sessions without seeing a bit of truth in it):
Parks & Rec has 7 seasons and ended early this year, making it a perfect show to binge watch. It’s available on Rogers’ Shomi streaming service.
I have to admit that Gilmore Girls is a bit of a stretch for this blog, since it’s mostly known for its fast talking and wise cracking titular mother-daughter team. Lorelai and Rory Gilmore are the obvious stars of this show, but the small Connecticut town they live in is treated like an important secondary character. I think that economic developers, particularly those from rural communities, will appreciate the show’s tribute to small town governance and quirky personalities. For example, there’s Babette, the neighbor who will watch your house when you’re away and watch your personal business when you’re home; Kirk, the eccentric entrepreneurial type who’ll take on literally any odd job; and Taylor, the grocery store owner with the most political clout in town.
The town frequently has town hall meetings where the community comes together and hashes out its biggest issues. The meeting featured in this clip was a busy one, tackling main street parking issues, leash laws, heritage celebrations, and the importance of community spirit:
All 7 seasons are available on Netflix Canada, and Netflix is reportedly developing a revival season with four 90 minute episodes.
This dry-humoured Australian show (titled Utopia in its homeland) about a federally funded planning and development organization is a new addition to Netflix Canada and well worth watching. The Nation Building Authority (NBA) comprises a team of implementers who are constantly derailed by political and public interests. Economic developers are sure to sympathize with this team’s pain.
In the first episode, someone “upstairs” adds a community garden to a project’s promotional materials that wasn’t actually included in the NBA’s thorough plan. The garden gets major public and political traction, so the team is tasked with making it happen, even if the community garden is nowhere near the community. Later in the season, an economically important freight network is deemed not sexy enough for the politicians and replaced with a mandate to build a high speed train. The director points out that multiple feasibility studies over a half century have discouraged the project, but as always, the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good PR move:
Dreamland is a satire reminiscent of The Office, but without as much cringe. It doesn’t have catchy one-liners, but the situations can be so on point that they’ll creep back into your mind when you’re experiencing a similarly absurd situation in real life and make you laugh when you might have otherwise cried.
For those of you not familiar with Cars, it’s an animated Disney-Pixar movie about anthropomorphic vehicles largely set in an economically depressed town (Radiator Springs) that’s been struggling ever since it was bypassed by a major highway. It’s an economic development problem that was more common in the US but has hit Canadian communities too.
Lightning McQueen, the main character, is a selfish rookie racecar who accidentally stumbles into Radiator Springs and wrecks the one road running through it. The local businesses are desperate to keep the few drive through visitors, so the town sentences him to community service repaving the road. At first, McQueen is annoyed by this holdup in “hillbilly hell”, but eventually their community spirit brings him around to the appeal of small town life.
The most poignant economic development scene is a montage of Radiator Springs’ rise and fall, set to James Taylor’s Our Town.
In the end, McQueen uses his status to revive the community. Waiting for a celebrity to reluctantly land in town isn’t a great economic development strategy, but Cars does reminds us that it’s possible to leverage the big city connections of expats and enthusiastic newcomers.
The Hunger Games
Unlike the other productions on this list, The Hunger Games isn’t about finding humour, sympathy, or inspiration. Rather, I’m including it for its ability to make you think about macroeconomics.
The film series is set in Panem, a nation built from the remains of the US and parts of Canada. It’s not clear what triggered the reorganization of North America, but Panem consists of a capital and 12 economically specialized regions with varying wealth, all ruled by a ruthless dictator. A key characteristic of the nation is its extreme wealth gap. The Capital is known for its excess, while people in the outer districts starve. In order to keep the masses under a firm grip, each district must send two children (“tributes”) to compete in a fight-to-the-death reality TV show every year. The Tribute Parade scene captures these dynamics nicely, showing the wealth of the Capital, the primary industries of some of the districts, and the frenzy of the event:
While the situation is horrifying, the economics of Panem are interesting to think about and it can be fun to speculate on how the economy became this way. Why is coal still relevant? How did personal style in the Capital become so outrageous? What happened to technology in the outer districts? Why is there a photo of Katniss’ father taken with an old-timey camera?
The Grand Seduction
Wrapping up the list is this fun movie set in a Newfoundland outport. The relation to economic development is obvious: the harbour of Tickle Head is selected as a contender for a new petrochemical recycling plant that would get all of the residents back to work and off unemployment insurance, but there’s a catch. Despite the community’s offer of a permanent tax exemption, the site selectors still require the community to have a doctor.
The town has been looking for a doctor without success for 8 years but instead of backing out of the race, they decide to turn up the heat. When a reluctant candidate falls in their lap, the townsfolk get one month to make him believe that “Tickle Head is the finest place call home”, by whatever means necessary. The trailer sums things up nicely:
The Grand Seduction is basically an English version of an older Quebec film called La Grande Séduction (aka Seducing Doctor Lewis) set in northeast Quebec. I’m sure both versions are equally entertaining and relevant to economic developers.
Now you’re all set for the season. Happy holidays from the Economic Development Professional Program and Local Economic Development master’s program!
About the author
Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program. She has authored a number of the articles in this series on behalf of the students, and has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.