There may be no more likable or positive show that has aired on television so far in the 21st century than Parks & Recreation. Although created by the same producers that adapted The Office for American television, in both spirit and characterization it’s the polar opposite of that other (far more popular) show, which was an often bitter–if not outright mean-spirited–single-camera sitcom.
Instead of depicting their characters as disaffected snark machines and petty rivals stuck in soul-crushing jobs and being led by a buffoon, as The Office did, Parks & Recreation portrayed its protagonists as heroes of their own story and good friends to each other who worked in concert towards the same purposes and ideals. Instead of wage slaves that actively conspired against each other for their own small gains in a mundane closed setting, Parks centered on government workers of a small town that inspired and encouraged each other in their various endeavors and planned in earnest together, and with good will, to improve the standing of their humble burg of Pawnee, Indiana to the greatest of heights.
I contrast these two shows because they are both single-camera sitcoms created (or, in The Office’s case, adapted) by the same creative team and share similar formats, including hand-held, documentary-like camerawork and cutting away to talking heads to provide running commentary and focusing on the relationships between co-workers.
Just as different the two were in the ways previously outlined, so was their appeal. And their divergent paths shaped the comedic foundation of each show: Parks & Rec never wanted the audience to see the worst in its characters but the best, and to find that best endearing. In contrast, The Office went to great lengths to make many of their characters–including central character Michael Scott–out to be jerks, mean-spirited egoists, or just spite-filled creatures. Pettiness was the name of the game in the interpersonal relationships that were built between co-workers in The Office, but this approach placed severe limitations on the show’s ability to depict growth in their characters, so much that the show ultimately burned out in its final seasons. With no room for the characters to grow, the show began to fester and ultimately rot on the vine.
In wild contrast, Parks & Recreation was all about externalization and positive engagement in the world around it, along with the myriad opportunities this kind of attitude encourages in its practitioners. With this type of attitude infusing its characters, ambitious Tom Haverford started his own promotion company, and then a young men’s fashion rental outlet, and then a restaurant; goofy Andy went from unemployed loser to popular children’s entertainer to having his own successful local kids show; and of course eternally ambitious Leslie Knope continually climbed the ladder of success throughout the series until it ended on the suggestion that she may end up as the President of the United States.
Putting this comparison simply: the thesis statement and purpose of both shows shaped the comedy and its characters. The Office was populated by low-level office workers who could barely tolerate each other, are led by an idiot, and narrowly avoid openly hating each other at every moment they’re forced to be together–because that was the purpose of that show. Parks and Recreation was populated by plucky kooks who inevitably fall under the irresistible forward momentum and positivism of a high-energy, ambitious government employee and in turn become great friends because (or even despite) of this attribute. Again: because that’s what the show was about. But between the two, I’d rather choose a show with a bright, happy, nice, and positive outlook over one that views its characters and the world they live in as dour, angry, and ultimately disappointing.
Unfortunately, viewing audiences didn’t agree. While The Office was a huge hit, Parks and Rec never was and only got renewed every season because…I don’t really know why. Somebody at the network must have loved it as much as I and the rest of the hardcore fandom it inspired did.
Which was the general audience’s loss since they missed out on undoubtedly one of the best shows on television at the time. The characters were interesting, likable, and had great chemistry; the writing was whip-smart; and Pawnee itself became a live-action Springfield inhabited by an array of odd ducks.
But more than that, the show had a kindness and sincerity to it rarely seen in comedy, mostly because a lot of comedy is itself quite mean-spirited in nature. But that wasn’t the opinion of Parks and Rec, which always looked on the sunny side and ended up being a winner in its own right. It’s for this any many more reasons why I think Parks and Recreation is Great TV.
Great TV – Parks and Recreation
If the Parks and Recreation universe was a wheel it had a spoke whose energy quickly turned it into a Catherine Wheel, blazing and spinning like mad, and its spoke was Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler)–30-something Deputy Director of the Parks Department for Pawnee, Indiana. An admitted workaholic, Knope is the overly ambitious extreme Type A personality–Tracy Flick from Election all grown up. Initially a socially awkward, soft Michael Scott riff in the show’s abbreviated 6-episode first season, the writers and Poehler herself finally worked out the kinks and figured out what they wanted the character, and the show, to actually be about: how ambitious, positive Knope leads her town to great things, and how she inspires and encourages the people around her to do the same.
And watching the characters begin to build their relationships with each other is something unexpected in TV sitcoms. Instead of being static characters that snap back to the status quo at the beginning of the next episode, in Parks they grow a little with each episode. Snarky, sullen April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) starts off as a low-energy intern in the Parks department, but over the course of the series her disinterested facade begins to slip and she starts to actually care about both her co-workers and the work she’s engaged in. Heck, she even ends up marrying childlike goofball Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt)–the seeming natural opposite of her–and actually becomes an encouraging figure in his life.
Breakout memetic character Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the gruff and antisocial director of the Parks department (to the point that he expressly gives April the important task of making sure he never has to interact with the public) is similarly swayed by Leslie’s unstoppable forward momentum to the point that he begins to care about what she does–not because he personally cares but because he cares about her. On a larger scale, for the town of Pawnee, Leslie seems to turn the town around single-handed from a backwater, backwards town into a prosperous city of unity and whose citizens start to enjoy a better way of living.
And these are just the elements that are resistant towards Leslie’s thinking. For anyone that is just slightly on her wavelength, they are easily swept up in her enthusiasm. This is best demonstrated by her best friend Ann (Rashida Jones), who initially approaches Leslie to help fill in the empty lot that has turned into a deep pit next to her house and into which her shiftless boyfriend Andy (Pratt) falls, breaking his leg in the process. Leslie forms a powerful, overwhelming friendship with her and literally changes her life, prodding Ann along from being a pushover to finding her own path in life as a more confident person and towards whom Leslie sometimes makes overtures that one could read as romantic–although this is just a reflection of the burning intensity that Leslie has for the people she cares about and her enthusiasm for finally finding a best female friend.
Even closer to Leslie’s type–and the person who would eventually provide her balance–is eventual husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), a budget specialist working for the state government who comes to Pawnee to help sort out its economic mess. Initially seen as a foe for wanting to cut the Parks’ budget, she and Ben form a mutual respect (in his case, admiration for her determination and abilities) for each other, and then a tentative relationship that’s only marred by Ben’s hyper-enthusiastic and insanely positive boss (even by Leslie’s standards) Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), who forbids relationships between co-workers. In one of the sadder periods of the show, Leslie and Ben break off their relationship because of this and Ben announces his plan to leave town. But instead they both say screw it; Ben loses his job but they get married to live happily ever after.
This plot point is a great example of what makes this show so special: Chris was never portrayed as a villain–Parks rarely has true villains, and if it ever did they are cartoonishly villainous. Instead, Chris is as dedicated a public servant as Leslie and must go through his duties; besides that, he’s only ever portrayed as a steadfast ally and friend to both Leslie and especially Ben, with whom he had been a close work partner for years. When both Ben and Leslie decide to go against their seemingly hard-wired instincts and sacrifice their careers to be with each other, the viewer understands how dramatic this is for these characters to dedicate to this decision, and also what fundamentally good people they are.
When Ben falls on his sword to protect Leslie’s career, effectively getting fired from his job (to which Chris weeps in his arms at having to fire his close friend), Leslie does the most wonky bureaucratic thing she could do (which to her would also be the most romantic) and brings the court stenographer to their secret meeting spot, where in the snow she tells Ben that she loves him, making sure it’s on the official record. It’s an incredibly moving moment in a show filled with them.
About those other great moments that bring a lump to your throat: throughout the series, there are plenty of these heart-rendering moments. They occur never out of sadness but because something wonderfully good is happening to these characters. Emotional scenes of personal connections, public triumphs, and poignantly touching moments between characters are littered throughout this series and you as a viewer have an emotional reaction because you sincerely care about these characters who care about each other and are invested in seeing them find happiness. It’s this intimate relationship Parks & Recreation develops with its audience, and its skill at long-form narrative, that makes this show a special piece of media to watch.
All Characters Big and Small
Let’s talk about the characters for a moment: although Leslie is the engine of the series, the people that eventually become her allies, core team, and best friends make this show more than just one determined person bulldozing her way to the top. Her office mates are a wonderfully varied set that are all loose screws in one way or another: although Ron Swanson is the obvious memetic breakout star due to his hilarious stoicism and disregard for most things, and April Ludgate has found a fan base because Aubrey Plaza is naturally very funny and she speaks to the snarky young woman inside us all, there is more to the supporting players than a glance would reveal to the whole of the series.
You also have Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a wannabe playboy with big dreams in a small town with a fantastically nuts perspective of the world and a hilarious original terminology to accompany a man who thinks he has a high-end influence in society (for example, here he breaks down what he calls various foods to sound cool: “Zerts are what I call desserts. Tray-trays are entrées. I call sandwiches ‘sammies,’ ‘sandoozles,’ or ‘Adam Sandlers.’ Air conditioners are ‘cool blasterz.’ I call cakes ‘big ol’ cookies.’ I call noodles ‘long-ass rice.’ Fried chicken is ‘fry-fry chicky-chick.’ Chicken parm is ‘chicky-chicky-parm-parm.’ Chicken cacciatore? ‘Chicky-cach.’ I call eggs ‘pre-birds,’ or ‘future birds.’ Root beer is ‘super water.’ Tortillas are ‘bean blankets.’ And I call forks ‘food rakes.’”). His ambition, combined with his relative cluelessness and unfounded overconfidence, was what made his character a great counterbalance among the supporting characters around Leslie. He was ambitious but self-interested and gave Leslie a great internal antagonist with which she nonetheless sympathizes. Then there’s Donna (Retta), a mysterious and similarly self-interested character who connects with Tom as his ally for a good time but also helped support Leslie’s goals.
And then there’s Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir), the ass monkey of the group–a lifelong civil servant who wants to help but is totally incompetent; who does very little wrong but seemed to exist for everyone to hate–a designated inner-circle buffoon so things never get get too syrupy-sweet with these characters.
It’s these supporting characters that gave the show the much-needed balance to lend some drag to the unstoppable force of Leslie Knope, and these supporting characters work well in the overall scheme of the show. They became unwitting obstacles, unexpected allies, and provide fun distractions for the episodes and overall story lines. And of course, they were all soldiers in the Army of Leslie Knope, so that when the show builds a true head of steam by its third season, Team Knope becomes a reality and all of her co-workers suddenly find themselves volunteering their free time to help her with whatever cause she embarks on.
But like its main character, Parks & Recreation wasn’t able to stop and soon enough the town of Pawnee becomes a fully fleshed-out world of its own. From the shockingly, hilariously violent and terrible history of the town that emerges in various murals painted around city hall to the eccentrics that come into the parks office for minor complaints to open town halls where a cascade of lunatics stand up to voice their insanity at our characters, Pawnee gets larger and larger as the series goes on. As the series goes on and the relationships between the main characters grow deeper, so the scope of Pawnee widens and becomes more populated with weirdos that flare up in single episodes or as recurring bit parts, including late show writer Harris Wittels, who shows up as a derelict animal control officer, or endearing idiot charmer Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz), who is good shallow friends with Tom Haverford and bounces in and out of the series to heighten just how ridiculous the people of Pawnee can be.
But other locations, including JJ’s Diner (Leslie’s favorite restaurant), The Snakehole Lounge, popular local watering hole, and even the local hospital, where many characters end up from time to time and where Anne works as a nurse, become part of the show.
Even characters’ homes become frequent locations, with Andy and April’s chaotic home being a source of shambling domestic bliss, Jerry Gergich’s bizarrely perfect house and life (including inexplicably being married to supermodel Christie Brinkley and having a gaggle of gorgeous, adoring daughters), and Anne’s house becoming a mundane default meeting location for unofficial business.
For such a small town, Pawnee also has a wildly active media outlet, with a local channel having a highly influential morning show and frequently drunk host Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) and constantly over-literal news anchor Perd Hapley covering the unfolding stories across Pawnee–which frequently involve Leslie–to wildly slanderous ends. Local cranks would often fuel episode plotlines where a problem or situation would arise that the Parks department had to deal with, getting involved with these nutcases in the process. In short, Parks & Rec is a social show to the extreme, where its characters are an integral part of the local community in which they live.
And even through all of these lunatics and the ridiculous demands and complaints they register that she fields and tries to appease, no matter how many times she’s burned or ignored or outright hated by the town, Leslie Knope still keeps at it, trying her damnedest to make the town as great as she has built it up in her mind until it matches her ideal.
Which brings us back to the supporting main characters: without her phalanx of co-workers turned friends, Leslie may very well have been overwhelmed and destroyed by the very town she loved. She needed a group of people to love her as much as she loved the town, and if she didn’t have these people that were able to pull her back or protect her or even stop her sometimes, Leslie would have been like Casey Jones: she probably would have saved the town but potentially at the cost of her life–or at the very least her sanity and happiness.
Maybe the most charismatic element of Parks & Recreation is just how unrelentingly positive it is: although characters may find failure both professionally and romantically along the way and the town and its people are often unlikable and doesn’t deserve someone like Leslie to fight on their behalf, still she perseveres, and with her close friends by her side they forge a path through all adversity.
If there’s one storyline that defines the series for me, it’s The Harvest Festival. Season three centers around Leslie’s attempt to save the Parks department, which is under potential absorption, if not complete dissolution, due to a budget crisis in the Pawnee government. Even worse, outside budget managers from the state have come in to knock the town’s budget into shape in the form of Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt (Lowe and Scott, respectively), who initially seem like hostile outsiders trying to tear Leslie’s dreams apart.
Although initially gleeful at the idea of big government being torn down, Ron Swanson doesn’t like to see his now-friend Leslie suffering and rallies behind her to support whatever idea it is she comes up with to save the department. This is also the season the entire supporting cast throws themselves behind Leslie’s leadership, at first to save their jobs and by the end because she brings them in line with her own grandiose vision of The Harvest Festival. And they–and the audience–become equally wrapped up in wanting to see it become a success.
This is also the season where her love interest Ben Wyatt is introduced, and his character becomes an example of how magnetic Leslie can be as a character. Initially brought in as an indifferent outsider, Ben begins to admire Leslie’s tenacity and then, after getting to know her, starts to have romantic feelings towards her. These feelings are reciprocated, and these two (rather square) government workers begin an illicit romance. And that brings yet another endearing angle in the show, which was discussed earlier in this article: that two ostensible government wonks finally find their romantic counterpart and for once throw caution to the wind.
But it started because of The Harvest Festival: a beloved childhood memory of Leslie’s about the last one the town held decades earlier that inspires her to resurrect it and work towards its actualization, and one whose success ultimately saves her department.
The wide pullout shot at the end of the “Harvest Festival” episode shows Leslie excitedly welcoming the crowd into the giant Harvest Festival she envisioned and has now come to life is a memorable one and the culmination of the initial character arc Leslie embarked upon from the first episode. Here, the viewer watches as their protagonist achieves something significant for both her town and herself–something that people would remember for years afterwards, and something that we, the audience, watched as Leslie and her co-workers built it from the ground up to this moment of achievement. It was the first true inkling that Parks & Rec could be greater than the sum of its parts, and watching Leslie and the rest of the characters that we’ve grown to like meet a goal they’ve been working so hard towards together meet success is unbelievably satisfying to watch.
Stops and Starts
But that’s the effect of the show in general: greater than the sum of its parts. It builds and has great crescendos and poetic falling action. For example, The Harvest Festival–what was once assumed to be a season-long arc–instead concluded a little over halfway through the third season. For good reason, too: this is one of those shows that has about 4 different potential series finales.
As mentioned, this was not a popular show when it first aired. Because of this, every season finale was a potential series finale; even “Harvest Festival” was meant to be a series finale in case it wasn’t picked up for the back half of its third season. Of course it was, so the Ben & Leslie romance became the centerpiece of the second half of the third season, which also ended on yet another large town-wide festival and served as another potential series finale note. Then a fifth season happened, and then a sixth. Leslie runs for city council, wins, has a difficult tenure, and is then recalled; the sixth season is all about changes as she loses her city council seat and then finds herself losing her best friend Anne as she and Chris Traeger decide to have a child together and move to Michigan, and then she also surprisingly find herself pregnant by her now-husband Ben. The season ends in a three-year jump forward in time that shows Leslie the head of the region’s National Parks department.
And then, the seventh and final season happens, and it’s such a brilliant piece of television–particularly the finale, which I consider the best final episode of any series (and of which this series has had plenty of practice before this actual one) that any further details of that season or that episode would spoil it for any potential viewer. Needless to say, it’s some of the finest television ever made and encapsulates the cheery optimism that infused the entire series.
Catch Your Dream
And this show as a whole (minus the truncated and wonky first season, which nobody has to actually watch and the actors themselves disavow) is some of the finest television I’ve ever seen. This article has glossed over the actual humor of the show–which is like Arrested Development but without the bitterness or overly convoluted storylines (think of it as a version of that show that’s easier to watch). It’s a wacky, funny, clever show overall. Start from the second season and keep watching to the end. You’ll love it.
In this article I was really focusing on the larger structural underpinnings of what made this show a cut above the rest, but its humor is brilliant and top-notch throughout. All of the surrounding elegance that I detailed here shouldn’t deter you, a potential viewer, of how enjoyable this show is on a purely comedic level: there’s brilliant comedy to be found in its characters, dialogue, and machinations. Great performances, great dialogue, great situations: the show is a masterful display of how good televised comedy can be without either pandering to its audience or retreading tired beats. Like the rest of the larger project of Parks & Rec, there’s just as much quality in its true purpose–of being comedic and entertaining–as any of the larger themes I outlined in this article.
Most importantly, it’s a rare series that only wanted the best of its characters and wanted the audience to also find the ideals of its characters not only endearing but inspiring. It’s a beautifully shot, incredibly well written, perfectly acted ensemble comedy that far surpasses any expectations of an ostensible loose spin-off from The Office.
Where otherwise a lesser comedy would have intentionally sunk its characters for pathos and easy laughs, this one let them soar instead. For the viewer who values positivity and liking the characters they’re watching and truly wants to see them succeed rather than fail, Parks and Recreation is a gem and something that may actually inspire you to look on the bright side and keep persevering. And maybe if you work hard enough, are kind, and do your best along the way, maybe you too can catch your dream.