What do you consider a great love story?
Having just sorted through my complicated reactions to a marathon of ten films that dealt in some way with love, it may seem redundant to ask the question above, but it's something I often contemplate when I see the ways that people approach the subject on film.
What I find most moving these days is when I see a love story that is about mutual respect, about two people who take delight in one another. When I look around me, the friends I see who have the best marriages are the ones where there is a constant push and pull of attraction, where they obviously still work to impress and entertain each other. There is a reason I use Nick and Nora Charles as my model for what a great marriage looks like, and I know it when I see it now, this hypothetical model of what makes a love story work.
There are many reasons I will mourn the loss of “Parks and Recreation” in a way that surprises even me, but first and foremost among them, I adore the love story of April and Andy.
“Parks and Recreation” is, among other things, a show about finding healthy and happy relationships in the wake of disappointment and heartbreak. Look at each of the major love stories on the show. Ben and Leslie are brought together by circumstance, and each step in their relationship sees the two of them getting stronger as a result. Ben is introduced to us as a guy who is defined by a failure, and little by little, Leslie has worked to help rebuild the self-esteem of this smart and capable man she loves. And by giving Leslie such an abundance of unconditional love, Ben sanded off some of the crazy and the intense that defined Leslie at the start of the show. She has become a more complete person, and they have both bloomed as a result.
Ann and Chris took an unconventional route to their happy ending, and much of the time they were on the show, they were both searching for external happiness, only finding it once they started focusing on the internal. Once Chris got himself into therapy and Ann decided what her priorities in life were, they were able to finally be in a relationship in the right way. And Ron Swanson's entire romantic history seemed to consist of violence and obsession and madness until he met Diane, who softened him in a way that made him feel more like a real person and less like a gigantic mythic figure.
But it is with April and Andy that I think the writers of the show pulled off something extra-special. Andy (Chris Pratt) was a problematic character as the show began, and April (Aubrey Plaza) was a pretty simple joke that the writers didn't quite know quite how to write. Andy was the ex-boyfriend of Ann (Rashida Jones), and it was his fall into the open pit that really kicked the show off. That pit became the focus of the friendship between Ann and Leslie (Amy Poehler), and at first, the joke was that Andy was such a terrible boyfriend and Ann was stuck with him. They broke up early in the show's run, and you can see how hard it is for the writers to figure out how they're going to use the character. Andy doesn't have any real reason to be on the show once he and Ann aren't dating, and giving him the shoeshine franchise at the Pawnee City Hall felt like a lateral move, not one that was really driving anything forward.
April's boyfriends were always a joke that felt more conceptual than funny to me. I “got it,” but it didn't make me laugh. It's also difficult to write a character like April who is deadpan all the time and constantly ironic and at a remove. When the writers finally began to play with the idea of April having a crush on Andy and him being oblivious to it, you could almost hear the “CLICK!” of things falling into place. Suddenly, there was a reality to April, a vulnerability behind the deadpan, and Andy went from being a dumb guy joke to being more of a golden retriever. There was a playfulness that they started writing into the way April and Andy dealt with each other, and both performers seemed to light up any time they got to play scenes together.
When they complicated things at the end of the season between them because Ann kissed Andy, it was the one time I got irritated by their story. It felt like a typical “will they or won't they?” move from a show that seemed to be above making the obvious moves. But the writers made up for it, and from the moment they started dating, the Andy and April story has been a juggernaut. They dated for a month, and then they were married spontaneously during their “fancy party.” While that seems like a recipe for disaster, it perfectly embodies who they are and why they work together. April sees all of this amazing potential in Andy, and she has been able to steer him in the right way. And Andy knows exactly what April needs to be happy, almost instinctively at this point, and he can surprise her and delight her and entertain her effortlessly.
While I'm sure I am going to be crushed by the end of the show this week, they've already destroyed me as much as any series conclusion of all time with last week's special Johnny Karate episode. Presented as an actual episode of the TV show that Andy's been producing for the past few years, it served as a very meta conclusion to the April and Andy storyline. The show is something that exists only because of the way April steered Andy, and the show is pretty much a perfect example of what it is that April loves about Andy. It's during the show's big finish, though, when April and Andy step aside for a private conversation, that they really tied it all up in a big, beautiful bow. These two people are so invested in each other's happiness, so determined to make sure that the other one has whatever they want, that it just gutted me. This is love. This devotion to the happiness of someone else. And looking at who Pratt and Plaza have become, looking at how beautifully they play these characters now, it feels like we've seen these two actors grow up as they've been playing these characters, going from raw comic talent to playing this nuanced and heartfelt relationship.
There is a kindness to “Parks and Recreation” that makes it uncommon among TV shows, and I'm not sure there's anything quite this earnest that's come out of this modern wave of improv comic talent. Irony is easy. Cynicism is easy. Sincerity is dangerous and scary, and yet that's exactly what makes “Parks and Recreation” so special, and it's what I'll miss most. There are few relationships on television that have ever illustrated such a simple, respectful sense of play between two people, and I can honestly say that if I ever end up in another long-term romantic relationship, it will have to be with someone who I can enjoy every bit as much as I love them. April and Andy set a very high bar, indeed.
“Parks and Recreation” broadcasts its final episode tomorrow.