Parks and Recreation was an instant favorite when I discovered it at the end of the 2nd/beginning of the 3rd season. I shouldn’t have been surprised considering it was created by the same team that co-created King of the Hill with Mike Judge and The Office with Ricky Gervais. I’ve learned that from Greg Daniels and Co one can expect excellent story telling and characters with depth down to their eye-liner.
Parks and Rec was no different. Re-watching it from the beginning, was an interesting prospect as the first two seasons featured a character who did not carry past season two and two characters who appear as guests in season two became full time characters and major players in the remaining seasons. It also provided me the full picture of the evolution of main character Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler). We’ll get to Leslie in a minute.
Re-watching the series tip to tail also allowed me to find out that Aubrey Plaza’s character, April Ludgate, was created specifically for her and that Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer (who would marry April) was supposed to be a guest role for only a few episodes but proved so fun to write and popular with fans that he became a series regular.
The departure of Paul Schneider’s Mark Brendanawicz at the end of season two seemed almost overdue when it happened as his character began to fade more and more into the background as Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), and April became more central to the plot and their characters fleshed out into fun, crazy and lovable characters. Mark seemed a straight-man too straight in this cast of normal-looking but not acting characters, the characters who essentially replaced him: Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) played straightmen (coming in as state auditors and eventually taking local government jobs) who had their own sets of quirks that made them fit in without standing out too much nor fading away. Chris was a fitness enthusiast with endless optimism and Ben had the nerd factor down (much was made of his love of Star Wars and Game of Thrones) while also running from his past as the 18-year-old mayor of his Minnesota hometown who bankrupted the town and was impeached.
The addition of Chris and Ben also eliminated an issue for writers and fans as Mark had been a romantic interest for both Leslie and her best friend Ann (Rashida Jones). The tension between the characters when Ann begins dating Mark appears to have been some of the weakest writing of the series and when each of the new male characters ended up being love interests for each of the female leads it allowed the writers to leave that sad topic and create compelling conflict between the friends that emerged organically from their personality differences. For example, when Leslie insisted that Ann (a nurse) apply for a public health position in city government, Leslie’s controlling nature and obsessive drive chafe against Ann’s personal approach which is considerably more laid back.
And as to Leslie’s development… Early episodes find Leslie as passionate but undirected even as she pursues the goal of her dream park, “her park” Pawnee Commons. As Leslie continues to pursue this project and encounters numerous roadblocks her character becomes not only more driven but more focused. In an exchange with Jen Barkley (Kathryn Hahn), the campaign manager of Leslie’s political opponent in her city council race, Jen tells Leslie to “dream bigger” when she finds out that Leslie’s dream is to help her hometown, despite her hometown being less than grateful for the many good things she does. Leslie eventually goes on to work for the National Parks Department as well as become governor of Indiana.
Leslie’s character would doubtless have not been so galvanized had it not been for her boss, Ron Swanson. Ron is a libertarian who works for the government and this irony is not lost on him nor any of his co-workers. Ron revels in doing as little “work” as possible running the department and definitely not only acts as a foil to Leslie’s over-enthusiasm but frequently shoots down her pie in the sky ideas (although then also backs her up when she does things anyway). When “the auditors” (Ben and Chris) announce a total shut-down of local government, Ron can barely contain his giddiness until they announce plans to lay Leslie off indefinitely. When Ben states that, “every department is losing a Leslie Knope,” Ron is quick to let him know that there is only one Leslie Knope and no other department has one. Ron and Leslie, as polar opposite as they are politically and in so many other ways, find ways to encourage each other and egg each other on.
Ron also serves as mentor for no less than Tom (in his capitalist ventures), Andy, and April. Ron also manages to break the cycle of emotional abuse by women named Tammy (his mother played by Paula Pell, his first wife “Tammy One” played by Patricia Clarkson and his second wife “Tammy Two” played by his real-life wife Megan Mullally) when he marries Diane (Lucy Lawless) and becomes a father-figure to her two daughters and a father to their son. Ron’s character fleshes out while not abandoning his principles. He leaves government work after the rest of the original co-workers move on and his bid to ask Leslie for a job in the National Parks Department doesn’t pan out (she forgets their lunch date) and opens a construction firm but eventually does get a job from Leslie as the superintendent of a National Park Leslie is instrumental in getting placed in Pawnee (and that he once fought against in his work in the private sector).
The characters of Donna (played by Retta), Tom, and Jerry-Larry-Terry-Garry (played by Jim O’Heir) were also expertly written and each had some time in the spotlight. Jerry-Larry-Terry-Garry was the office member who was the butt of almost all the jokes while Donna seemed a fish out of water driving her Mercedes and living extravagently and working as a lowly administrative assistant. However, her sass and humor and genuine care for her co-workers made her a welcome part of the family. When Ben was depressed about “breaking up” with Leslie, it was Donna who insisted he join her and Tom for “Treat Yo Self” day. Tom worked the government not for it using his connections to help him try and create a myriad of businesses including a night club, clothing rental company and restaurant. A twelve-year-old trapped in a man’s body at times, it was Tom who did not realize that Jerry-Larry-Terry-Garry’s flatulence was a side-effect of his heart attack and cracked jokes while Leslie called 911 and Ann attempted to stabilize Jerry-Larry-Terry-Garry and upon finding out answers with the classic, “I didn’t know!”
As with The Office, Daniels and other show-runners had multiple guest spots on the show. In addition to Ron’s coven of Tammys, many of Leslie’s love-interests were guest stars including Justin Theroux and Louis C.K. Henry Winkler had a recurring role as Pawnee’s only gynecologist and the parent of Tom’s incredibly idiotic best friend Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz). Jon Hamm had a very small role getting fired by Leslie at the end of season six/beginning of season seven. Senators John McCain, Olympia Snowe, Barbara Boxer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein played themselves as did First Lady Michele Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Keegan-Michael Key would play Donna’s future husband Joe but Donna’s family was chock-ful of fame. Her estranged brother LeVondrious was played by Questlove and rapper Ginuwine played a fictional version of himself and Donna’s cousin.
The saying is that all government is local and that definitely plays out in Parks and Rec. In the end, no matter how far Leslie gets in her political career (which we are lead to believe that either she or Ben becomes President at some point as they are seen at Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry’s funeral in a flash-forward during the series finale), home is always Pawnee. And whether Leslie is a lowly civil servant or an elected official, she always returns to her roots, never forgetting who she is or where she came from and those who helped her get to where she is.
The show was given the blessing of finding out ahead of time when it would be its last season and while there is always at least one curmudgeon who doesn’t like things wrapped up with a bow, it felt like it was more than owed that the characters of Parks and Recreation had no loose ends to tie up. While there was speculation that Mark would return on some pretense, it was not to be and since five seasons after his character’s departure it didn’t feel like a loss (unlike the finale episode of Parenthood which flash-forwarded every character’s future except Haddie and Nora’s). Even Chris and Ann were featured along with their children which include a daughter named Leslie (their son was born the previous season). I left Pawnee that last time wishing it were a real place (along with JJs Diner) and wishing I had an awesome crew of people to work with like the staff of the parks department of Pawnee. And for me, loving a show enough to wish it was real, makes great tv.