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Absence Makes the Heart Do Something: The Beginning of the End of 'Parks and Recreation'

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 27, 2013 | Comments ()


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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.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • aroorda

    IDK Ben and his skates fetish was one of the best bits of ANY season. Yes its having Office like growing pains but hopefully it manages them better than The Office did.

  • Monica

    Personally, I don't think it helps keep the narrative energy going when NBC dicks around with the airing of episodes. Two episodes meant to stand alone on individual weeks but then aired together make those absences much more glaring.

  • Kate

    I'm not sure it was ever a great show. I love watching each episode, even the recent ones, but view it as a whole and it's kind of all over the place. Leslie as a character is swings and roundabouts. She's all over the map. No one's ever known what to do with Ann so her 'progression' through the seasons is a total mess. Ben has basically become the Jim of the show, the guy who makes confuddled faces at the camera. Every one else is a complete caricature. I love them all, but at this point there's no new ground because these types of rigidly defined characters can only grow so much.

    And honestly, like the US version of the Office and Modern Family, the documentary format lets it down because you can only let that go on so long before it makes absolutely no sense. I don't mind watching this format, it allows for some funny stuff you wouldn't get otherwise, but sometimes it just jumps out at you how lazy it is.

  • Cree83

    Agreed, and last year I thought New Girl was paving the way to be the better comedy this year, yet it too seems a little unfocused and less sure-footed this season. Strangely, the show that, in my opinion, is demonstrating the most confidence and consistent quality is the tired old standby that everyone cites as having been going downhill for years: How I Met Your Mother.

    Edited to add: I'm just talking about this current season for these 3 shows though, not the entire runs.

  • aroorda

    This season of HIMYM is a train wreck/travesty/abortion/other hyperbole. I have the benefit of watching it as a disinterested viewer (my fiance has watched it since day 1) and I have yet to laugh out loud in an episode this season. Even my fiance agrees that the whole "3 days around the wedding" conceit and the season as a whole is terrible. It may have been good once, but comparing it to Parks and Rec this close to their peak (which was probably last season) is incorrect. End of rant.

  • Cree83

    No way, Parks and Rec peaked back in season 3/ first part of season 4. Last season was the weakest since the first. It felt like they were just retreading old ground, so much so that they had two episodes with the EXACT same plot: Ron and Leslie fight over whether the government should save a video store, then Ron and Leslie fight over whether the government should save a mini golf course. Last season felt like the beginning of the end.

    My husband and I have laughed several times at HIMYM. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, The Mindy Project - all of them are having better seasons than Parks and Recreation as far as my tastes go.

    How I Met Your Mother has been spinning its wheels for several seasons now, and one of the reasons I find myself liking it more now is that they finally have some direction. They're finally headed toward their final destination, and it seems like the writers are having a good time getting there. And they know what they want to do with their final few hours. Parks and Recs feels like its entered its own wheel spinning phase. There are still some highs here and there, but it doesn't feel as fresh as it used to. It doesn't feel like the writers have any concrete goals or direction in mind anymore, so they've just started going back to their comfort zones.

  • aroorda

    Except LAST season was them driving towards a final goal, then last minute they decided that another season was required, because money. I get loyalty, but calling out parks and rec for duplicate episodes while defending HIMYM (Never mind Stella, the captain, Robin, Robin, Robin) is ridiculous.

  • Cree83

    It's not really loyalty. I'd love to enjoy Parks and Recreation as much as I used to - I miss my fun Thursday nights. But it's just not doing it for me anymore, and it's been a year or so coming. It's disappointing because season 3 of Parks and Recreation paired with season 2 of Community was probably my most perfect hour of television once upon a time. No more.

    And I understand HIMYM's flaws. That's why I mentioned that HIMYM has been spinning its wheels for the past few seasons. This season just feels different for me than the last few, better, because they now have a concrete unchangeable ending date (Last season they weren't sure whether they were ending or not, and that uncertainty definitely affected the quality). This season, the pressure seems like it's off, and the cast and writers are just having a good time. And so, I'm enjoying this season a lot - much more than I have in the past 3 or 4 years. I think they're doing a good job. It's a nice surprise.

  • bonsi

    Parks & Rec at its worst would still be far better than the best season of How I Met Your Mother

  • Cree83

    Your complaint has been noted, and a copy shall be filed with the Department of Television Opinions. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

  • It's not my theory but one that I subscribe to wholly (with very few exceptions): no TV show needs to stay on the air longer than 5 seasons. After that they usually have very little to say or reason to exist. Parks and Rec was hands down the funniest thing on network in seasons 3 and 4 (and if Archer didn't exist, possibly the funniest thing on TV), but yeah, it's definitely losing steam at this point.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I don't think it's winding down. I think it never quite found its footing, but flailed about so winningly that it didn't matter. The compensations of charm and flashes of comedy brilliance aren't enough anymore as they keep trying something new to establish their mojo.

  • emmalita

    I thought P&R had lots of mojo in seasons 2 - 4. It isn't tightly centered around one character or even the P&R department. It's always had a looser feel, almost like a sketch show with all the same characters and an overarching plot.

  • Gordon

    I thought my girlfriend and I were the only ones who thought Season 5 was noticeably worse than 2–4!

  • Mrs. Julien

    That is an excellent and much more eloquent way to describe it than I managed.

  • emmalita

    Thanks. This situation is usually reversed.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Pshaw!

    I said, "PSHAW!"

  • novel

    Too much Jam. He's funny in small bits, but his large presence this season has ruined the show for me.

  • Michelle

    I actually thought the last episode that aired - when Ben quit his job at that poor Accounting firm AGAIN - was actually the closest we've been to one of the really good episodes.

    With that said though, yeah - I no longer make sure to watch the new episodes on Friday/Saturday. I've just now caught up on the last five episodes because I haven't been that into it.

  • Let's agree, though, that it's a damn miracle this show hasn't gone off the rails like The Office did.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    Completely agree. I still can watch and enjoy Parks. At this point for The Office, it was pretty hard to say the same.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    I couldn't agree more. While I would watch Parks and Rec as soon as I was able to in previous seasons, now it languishes on the DVR until I can get around to it. It's still a great show but it is definitely winding down.

  • Guest

    Are you in my computer? Can you read minds? Your post is exactly what I was going to say.

    If there is a 7th season it should be the documentary or along the lines of Paradigms of Human Memory.

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