Absence Makes the Heart Do Something: The Beginning of the End of 'Parks and Recreation'
Parks and Recreation has beaten the odds. It barely survived its first season, which wasn’t even a real season, just six episodes that aired in the spring of 2009. When the show returned that fall for its first full year on the air, it made slight but significant changes in approach that repositioned small-town government employee Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as an object of respect instead of resentment. She still struggled to get things done, but her coworkers became family members, not prisoners toiling away next to her. That was a crucial decision for the show, but there was another one that was just as important: the fact that Leslie’s projects would have genuine effects on the world of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a serialized sitcom, and actions have consequences.
Most American TV comedies thrive on stasis: a few minor changes or Very Special Lessons aside, things are going to be the same at the end of the half hour as they were at the start. This allows for long runs, interchangeable plots, easy syndication, and less pressure for new viewers. This was pretty much the way things went for years. All you needed to watch almost any episode of a show was the basic premise: e.g., these are the family misadventures of a TV writer named Rob, or a bunch of broken down cabbies, or the patrons at a neighborhood bar, etc. But Parks and Recreation is fundamentally about change. The empty pit that started the series was filled in and turned into a lot for a park; characters are promoted; people leave and move on. Most notably, the series isn’t afraid to introduce major relationships for its central characters, blessedly throwing out the tired delays of will-they-won’t-they plotting and opting for more complicated stories. After April and Andy got together, it would’ve felt like a cheat to have them continually break up and reunite, so they got married. When Leslie met the right guy, their relationship moved to marriage, too. Even Ron Swanson is now married (again), having popped the question and done the deed in a matter of minutes earlier this season after learning that his girlfriend was pregnant. Things are very different now than they used to be.
That narrative has driven the show for years — it’s currently in its sixth season and has aired 99 episodes to date — but it’s also why the show is gradually losing steam. A series of increasingly more dramatic arcs gave the show renewed purpose: the local government budget cuts at the end of the second season birthed the Harvest Festival comeback in the third, which set the stage for Leslie’s campaign for city council in the fourth. That season saw Leslie fall in love with her ultimate match and win the election that had been teased for years. It was the moment that everything had been building toward, and it was delivered with humor and warmth and perfect humanity. It also, in retrospect, served as a turning point for the show. Much of the fifth season was devoted to smaller, scattered stories that didn’t seem to add up. Leslie’s increased struggles to accomplish things while wrestling with an obstructive city council meant she spent the year settling for minor victories or none at all, while other characters were also left to flounder: Andy’s attempt at becoming a police officer was a bust, Chris became a hyperactive parody of himself as he spiraled into depression, etc. Even the recall plot that ended the fifth season and carried into this one felt nebulous: people didn’t like Leslie Knope because, well, they just didn’t. It’d be one thing if showrunner Michael Schur and the rest of the team wanted to make a point about the fickle nature of democracies, except that so many of the plots that deal with the easily angered townsfolk of Pawnee have hinged on actual (if bonkers) incidents. From Ben’s abortive time as an elected official in his youth to little things like the fight over what to put in the town’s official time capsule, there was always some actual thing at the heart of the people’s discontent. Now, though, they seem called to riot simply because the show can’t think of much else to do with Leslie in office.
That’s normal, though. It’s a result of the show having achieved its major narrative goals a couple years ago and not quite knowing what to do next. This is reflected in the recent splintering in the cast. There are real-world explanations for the absences: Chris Pratt, who plays Andy, has been missing for several episodes because he’s filming Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel. Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones are both leaving, as well, to pursue other projects. The story-based attempts to shoehorn in these absences — Andy got a temp job for British royalty, Chris and Ann are having a baby together and moving to Ann Arbor — have been unfulfilling, precisely because of the care that the series has previously given to narrative. It’s not just that Andy’s out of the picture for a while; sometimes he’s not even mentioned. For a major cast member to be gone creates a noticeable hole, especially in a show as reliant on its ensemble as Parks has been. Ron’s wife is barely around, either, because she’s played by Lucy Lawless, and you can’t just add someone like that to the cast without cost problems. The show feels marked by what it’s missing now.
What’s really telling is that those absences, while noticeable, don’t always feel out of place. It’s not good for major players to go missing, but then, the show has been a looser, less sure version of itself for a little while now. It’s still funny, absolutely: there are funny stories, great sight gags, perfect character moments, and the same kind of joy and heart that defined the series in its heyday. And I will always come back to this show and hold it up as an example of what great, smart, silly, endearing TV comedy can be. But this isn’t just a comedy; it’s a comic story, and one that’s closer to its end than its beginning. Things are wrapping up, even if the show doesn’t want them to. Goals are changing, new lives are starting. It’s natural for characters to evolve and leave in real life, and it makes sense for them to do it in Pawnee, too. I’ll be sad to see them go, after the hours of happiness they’ve given me, but for the first time, I’m starting to understand that it might be for the best.