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Why 'Parks and Recreation' Is One of TV's Top Shows (& Some Season Finale Questions)

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 19th 2011 11:00PM
['Parks and Recreation' - 'The Bubble' and 'Li'l Sebastian']

This is not information that calls for a spoiler alert, but seven months from now, I'm sure 'Parks and Recreation' will be on my Top 10 Shows of 2011 list.

The show has not only increased its breadth in enormously pleasing ways -- Pawnee is now populated by the most hilarious cast of secondary and tertiary characters on television -- but it also skillfully gave depth to all its core characters, especially Leslie Knope. If you haven't thrilled to the warmth and sweetness Amy Poehler gave Leslie over the last few months then, damn it, you're not human.

But it's because Leslie's emotional life has become so real and believable that I have one or two misgivings about where the show has taken her and where it may be headed next season.

Don't get me wrong, I still love 'Parks and Recreation' with gleeful abandon. Even the smallest details -- a glimpse of Perd Hapley's back-in-the-day high-top fade, a promotional clip for Jean-Ralphio and Tom's vaguely defined media company, even time spent with one of Pawnee's shock jocks, The Douche -- crack me up. That's to say nothing of the sight of Ron Swanson eating a steak, sitting in a circular desk or dancing with abandon at the Snakehole Lounge, wearing April's tiny hat.

That, my friends, is comedy of the highest order. But the reason I love 'Parks and Rec' is because it's interested in far more than comedy.

'Parks and Recreation' has rightly been praised for its terrific cast and its goofily endearing depiction of life in a small Midwestern city (and as a lifelong Midwesterner, I am grateful to 'Parks and Rec' for mocking us with knowledge and love, not the condescension and cluelessness that most of Hollywood displays towards Flyover Country).

Still, beyond the considerable amounts of funny, there are actually some serious ideas lurking at the heart of the show. As Time critic James Poniewozik has noted, 'Parks and Rec' reminds us, week in and week out, that it's possible for people with very different lifestyles, attitudes, and, yes, political beliefs, to work together in a civil fashion.

Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ron Swanson (the endlessly funny Nick Offerman) couldn't be more far apart when it comes to life choices and the way they their approach their jobs. Chris would put the town on a macrobiotic diet and give every resident a state-of-the-art pedometer if he could, while Ron would love nothing more than to kill off the government permanently and force the soft, bewildered populace to fend for itself. Chris' idea of heaven probably involves all-you-can-drink wheatgrass, while Ron's heaven probably resembles what most people envision as post-apocalyptic hell.

But these two men are able to see a bigger picture and put their differences aside when it matters to them and to the people around them. An inclusive generosity animates the show, and that makes it one of the best shows on television, not simply the finest comedy on the air.

Whether it's April and Andy's silly but sweet wedding, crazy parties at the Snakehole, or the spirited memorial to Li'l Sebastian, 'Parks and Rec' reminds us that being part of a community is not just a fact of life, but it's a necessity and even a responsibility. It's certainly possible to define ourselves by our differences, but the show seems to take the view that approaching life with the kind of bemused curiosity and disciplined tolerance Leslie displays at community forums is the key to keeping personal relationships afloat and public life relatively sane.

In fact, despite their well-defined differences, there's something admirable and even optimistic about almost every character on the show. Andy isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but his unquenchable optimism is charming (I don't know how Chris Pratt continually makes Andy's dim positivity so amusing, but he does. Hats off to him). Donna's self-confidence provides an amusing contrast to the diffidence of characters like Jerry and Ann ('Parks and Rec' needs to start rolling out more merchandise, and a dating how-to guide by Donna would a good place to start). Even Jerry, the office's designated loser, quietly persists with his artistic pursuits in the face of frequent mockery (though he really missed his calling; he should be creating art for prog-rock bands and/or painting the sides of tricked-out vans, don't you think?).

As a newcomer to this town, Ben (the terrifically understated Adam Scott) has been deferential and slow to open up, but he's got the most important quality that a Pawnee resident needs: An open mind. He's allowed himself to be influenced by the people around him, and that may be what 'Parks and Recreation' is really about, underneath it all: It's the story of people who are evolving all the time, thanks to the people they choose to be around (and even some folks they'd avoid if they could).

Speaking of evolution, Leslie herself has undergone an amazing transformation since the show began. The Leslie of Season 1 is almost completely gone, and rightfully so -- she had very little self-awareness, and her inability to see how she came off to others was grating.

Over the last two seasons, the character has undergone a remarkable change, and now she's one of the most nuanced women on television. She still has her quirks (and that is as it should be), but there's a wiseness and warmth to the Leslie of the last few months, and it's been a great pleasure to watch Poehler take the character to richer emotional places. When the show began, Leslie was continually compared to 'The Office's' Michael Scott, but in three short seasons, Leslie acquired the kind of emotional intelligence and depth that Scott lacked at various points in time. And fortunately 'Parks' doesn't make Leslie do wild and weird things simply to supply the show with plots.

Still, it's because she's become such a textured character and because the world of the show seems so real (despite its outlandish flourishes) that I'm worried about the Ben and Leslie relationship and the fact that they're trying to keep it a secret.


Chris, for all his single-minded intensity, does not seem like an unreasonable guy, but on the topic of office romances, he's extremely strict. Why? That's never been explained adequately. If it's important to someone -- anyone -- that Ben and Leslie not date, the show needs to make that case and should tell us why banning office relationships is so important.

In Pawnee, anything pretty much goes, as long as nobody gets hurt and parks equipment isn't destroyed. Why so little tolerance on the dating front? It just doesn't make a ton of sense. For Chris to be so unmovable on this one point just seems like a false obstacle for Leslie and Ben to overcome (and thus all the shenanigans at the memorial to keep their relationship secret seemed a tad forced).

Given that their relationship is already in some jeopardy, it's a shame that we didn't really get spend much time with Ben and Leslie in that "bubble" of new love. I hope we get more of that kind of sweet, romantic comedy next season, because seeing (and hearing) these organized, focused professionals become all schmoopsie with each other was highly amusing.

Though the episodes that closed out the season were typically sharp and funny, there's a potentially bigger problem than the Chris obstacle. It's hard to let go of the unease I felt when I saw Leslie being presented with the false choice that so many shows force on their female characters: Work happiness or fulfillment in her personal life. Maybe 'Parks and Rec' won't make a mistake on this front, but when Leslie was presented with a chance to run for higher office -- her ultimate aspiration -- and then lied about her relationship with Ben, it was hard not to think, "Oh no, not this again."

One of the things I love about the show is the fact that it has created a whole roster of female characters who are as interesting and complicated as the guys. Why should Leslie have to choose between her dream of running for higher office and being able to date her dorky but delightful dream man? Why can't there be funny stories to spin out of both those situations and the ways in which they realistically and openly complicate each other?

I can absolutely see why the show needs to create dramatic dilemmas for the characters -- these are the things that plots are made of -- but I'm not a fan of the idea that Leslie will have to choose between her career goals and being truthful about her personal life. Presenting an accomplished professional woman as someone who's fairly miserable in her personal life is an old, annoying cliche, and 'Parks and Rec' has done a fine job of blowing past or blowing up cliches for the past few seasons.

Still, it's not High Alert time yet. Maybe the show will deftly deal with these situations when it returns. We don't know what'll become of Leslie's political campaign, and we don't know whether Chris will be flexible on the office dating situation. There may yet be solutions in sight.

After all, Leslie dug herself out of a hole before. Let's hope she (and the show) don't fall into one when it comes to this lovable goofball's dreams.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Carl Brand

Such a great assessment of the show. Parks and Rec overtook Community as my favorite comedy because I honestly care about all the characters, partly because (as you noted) it seems like they care for each other.

One thing I find amazing is the balance they find on giving them all a voice…the show could really revolve around any one of the characters and still be really intersting…

So for all your hard work covering great shows like Parks and Rec here is a Jean-Ralphio styled tribute. R to the Y to the A and N She's the non-douchiest TV Critic who doesn't need a pen (because she's on the internet)

May 30 2011 at 9:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Did anyone get the vibe that Chris was falling for Ann again....and now Ann is a gov employee? That seems a little too obvious to get Chris to change his rule but they did have a shot of Chris longing a little for Ann at the end....I mean Ann Perkins while pointing at her. Lol.

May 21 2011 at 4:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Thomas's comment

Oh, interesting thought -- that hadn't occurred to me. Now that Ann's a government employee, maybe Chris will relax a bit about that rule.

May 25 2011 at 3:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was concerned about that too, but Mike Schur actually had a pretty rational explanation for it in his interview with Alan Sepinwall from last night: 'The “no dating” thing is a very big deal in government – these people are handling taxpayer money, so relationships are even more frowned upon than they are in the private sector. There was realism to the obstacle, which was key, and more importantly it seemed like with Leslie and Ben, two people who care very deeply about their work, the idea that work itself is keeping them apart would be nicely ironic.'

(In fact, the whole interview does a great job explaining some of what people see could be problems: http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/interview-parks-and-recreation-co-creator-mike-schur-post-mortems-season-3)

But like you, I'm not worried too heavily about these things, because "Parks and Rec" doesn't just climb out of holes: it fills those holes in and throws children's concerts on them.

May 20 2011 at 11:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to LesIsMore9o9's comment

well said. And yep, definitely check out the interview Alan did with Mike Schur. I'm hoping the dating obstacle won't last much longer, but I'm not *too* worried about that kind of thing yet.

May 25 2011 at 3:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo, I think that they're making an effort to show Chris as intractable on more than just office relationships. There was a scene in The Fight - maybe only in the Producer's Cut - where Ron tries to get Chris to bend the rules and let Tom keep his interest in The Snakehole. Chris says he understands, but "rules are rules". A small thing, but I do think that the writers are trying to show that the not-dating a co-worker rule isn't the only one he's trying to enforce. I have come to love this show, too and have great faith in the showrunners, Greg Daniels and Mike Schur. I think they'll come up with a good solution to Leslie's dilemma. I'm looking forward to the next season. (BTW, I I think The Office suffered a lot when these two turned their attention to Parks & Rec.)

May 20 2011 at 12:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I don't see why she would have to choose. It's not like she's dating someone who could hurt her chances at public office. Ben is a state government official, not someone like, say, Andy.

May 19 2011 at 11:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jason's comment

It's a problem because he's :"technically", as they said, her boss. Her boss, whose job it was at one point to decide who to fire. Is she getting special treatment? The people of Pawnee deserve to know that, says Joan Callamezzo!

May 20 2011 at 10:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo, I have to thank you for your constant plugging of Ron F-ing Swanson for turning me back onto this show. (I watched the first few eps and was meh.) Now I'm addicted for all the reasons you state.

But I find it *very* hard to believe the show will make Leslie choose between love and work. However, I don't see them taking her out of Parks and Rec (as that is the name of the show), so that'll have to affect where they go in the storyline.

May 19 2011 at 11:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Wendy's comment

Love your Twitter avatar, Wendy. And yeah, I agree with many of you, who've said that the show will find a way to deal with all this gracefully. Thanks!

May 25 2011 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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