‘Parks and Rec’ icon Ron Swanson rose above sitcom tropes to become legend

02.24.15 2 years ago

NBC/Universal

I am in denial at this point. That's the only way I'm going to make it through the conclusion of “Parks and Recreation” tonight on NBC. I will tell myself that this is just the end of another season and next year we'll go back to Pawnee to spend more time with Leslie and Ben and Andy and April and Donna and Garry and Tom and Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa and Joan and Perd and Jamm and the entire insane cast of characters that we've been introduced to over the six years of the show.

As much as I'll miss the ensemble, there is one character I will miss more than any of the others, and I'm sad because he was such a spectacular creation, one of those singular sitcom creations that remind us what we love about this particular form. Ron Swanson was a fairly unfocused version of himself when he first showed up in season one of “Parks and Recreation,” and it seemed at first like he was going to be the main antagonist to Leslie Knope. Instead, he became a character who seemed to keep expanding, revealing one of the most insane personal mythologies for any fictional character. He may be my favorite television comedy character since Hank Kingsley, and right on par with Reverend Jim. From me, that is very high praise.

Let's just start with the idea that he is the head of the parks department, and as a libertarian, he believes in very small government, so much so that he believes there should be no parks department. What I loved about the gradual reveal of information about Ron was that you could see how much fun the writers were having creating these details. One ex-wife named Tammy? Fun. Two ex-wives named Tammy? Hilarious. He has a secret jazz career as sax master Duke Silver? Awesome. It seems like they fell in love with Nick Offerman as they were falling in love with Ron, and they started to blend elements of who Nick is into who Ron is, and that co-mingling is part of what Ron feels legendary. His love of woodworking and his fondness for Lagavulin Scotch, the recurring appearances by Megan Mullally, and a very particular kind of masculinity are all points where the line between character and performer become blurry.

What I love about the way he evolved is how they maintained the careful balance between the face he shows everyone and the soft gooey center that actually defines Ron. Those moments when Ron giggles are perhaps the most disarming sounds I can imagine. Watching him delight over solving a riddle or admiring the way he approaches something as simple as breakfast are the pleasures that made it such a treat to be a Ron Swanson fan.

The Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness was one of those moments where you risk pushing a character over into being a cartoon, but instead, it just confirmed how rich a character this is. When you have this many opinions, stated this strongly, it sets up so many comic possibilities. All you have to do is set something against Ron that violates one of his principles, and you have comic friction that Offerman can milk like few others. He has a great slow burn, and his haircut and mustache are such finely calibrated comedy tools that the moment you play with them, it is immediately funny. His cornrows in “Ron and Tammy Part II” make me cackle when I see them, especially with his mustache that has been “rubbed off from friction,” giving him almost an inverse Chaplin.

It is important to note that Ron Swanson is a hyper-masculine character, but they never once turned him into one of these awful men's rights types. Swanson is an important character because he is a reminder that you can embrace all the things that make you archetypically masculine without ever remotely being misogynist. Ron doesn't hate women. Not remotely. He simply embodies certain ideas that he sees as masculine, and he embodies them in a way that is about him being complete, not about him taking anything away from anyone else. The version of this I don't like would be the Barney character on “How I Met Your Mother,” where there is a strong “us and them” subtext to everything.

Because he is such a gigantic comedy creation, those moments when the show reveals the human heart of Ron become even more affecting. When you get tears out of someone who is constantly emotional, it's not the same as when you squeeze them out of someone who is as naturally stoic as Ron. Offerman is a great actor, full stop, and I suspect that because “Parks and Recreation” is such an overt comedy, people undervalue just how good Offerman is at charting the emotional weather of this character. Whatever he feels, he feels at gale force, and Offerman has gotten to show us some of everything during this time on the show. It is joy, though, that defines Ron Swanson to me. As much as he can be a near-parody of a certain kind of emotionally reluctant men, when the character is gripped by joy, there is no hiding what he feels. “Parks and Recreation” means so much to me because of the way it keeps returning to that idea with all of these characters. Joy is the one resource that seems endlessly renewable when you are surrounded by the right people, and the characters on this show have all been reliably giving me joy the entire time it's been on the air.

When Leslie Knope gave Ron a present at the end of the “London” episode, it was one of the most moving things I've ever seen, but it also points out just how fiendishly smart everyone involved with this show is. They took a negative (Chris Pratt's “Guardians of the Galaxy” schedule made it impossible for him to be in Los Angeles when the show started production for the season) and turned it into a positive, getting a fair amount of comedy gold out of just setting these characters in an unfamiliar setting for a week. But what started as a logistical-difficulty-turned-plot-point paid off when Leslie sent Ron on a trip that eventually led him to the island of Islay in Scotland, where he got to tour the Lagavulin distillery. Watching Offerman play those scenes, it's hard to tell where his delight ends and the character's begins. It is a case where the writers took something from the actor, made it part of the character, and then when opportunity presented itself, they connected the dots, and this job gave something back to the actor that he might otherwise never have experienced. There is a reason Leslie Knope drove her friends crazy as a gift-giver, and it's because she is unreasonably good at it. I can't imagine how it must have impacted the people who wrote this show to spend this many years writing such big-hearted decency week after week, but I would imagine it is as nourishing as a network TV job can ever be.

We have published a staggering number of words these last few weeks about this show, and I am honored that Alan Sepinwall would let me chime in to say good-bye to the series even as he's doing such an outstanding job of saying good-bye himself. I think it felt like part of the process of letting go of this series, but the truth is that I will probably return to the series every few years, watching it through and once more falling in love with all of these improbable people, and every time I do, I will look forward to spending time with Ron Swanson, as fine a fake American as TV has ever produced.

“Parks and Recreation” airs its final episode tonight on NBC.

Around The Web