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How ‘Parks and Recreation’ found all-time greatness in simple goodness

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
02.23.15 60 Comments

NBC

Early in the debut episode of “Parks and Recreation,” Leslie Knope turned to the camera and announced, “It's a good time to be a woman in politics: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi. I like to tell people, 'Get on board and buckle up, because my ride's going to be a big one.'”

At the time, Leslie (Amy Poehler) was a low-level functionary in the small town government of Pawnee, Indiana – moments before that declaration, we saw her at work, trying to coax a homeless man off of a playground slide – and that speech marked her as delusional.

In hindsight, she was prophetic.

Leslie began the series a powerless civil servant who was an object of derision and/or pity. She ends it (the series finale airs tomorrow night at 10 on NBC) an influential federal official who counts Madeleine Albright as a confidante and scares the bejeezus out of John McCain, and as a wife and mom with a small army of adoring friends.

Leslie's shift from delusional woman to super woman began relatively early in the series' run – the leap in quality from season 1 to 2 was like watching a promising but undisciplined slugger learn to stop swinging at bad pitches – and not coincidentally matched the show's transformation from an awkward copy of “The Office” into an all-time classic very much like its heroine: warm and smart and goofy and enthusiastic, and capable of accomplishing whatever it set its mind to. (Other than getting a large audience, that is, but the show's ability to last seven seasons despite middling-to-awful ratings is a Knope-ian feat in and of itself.) In the end, it is one of the best comedies TV has ever seen, and one that stands out from so much of the great shows of this new Golden Age of Television because its default emotion was joy when so many of this era's great shows are defined by darkness, and its default philosophy was one of optimism at a time when even the best comedies today tend towards ironic detachment.

“Parks and Rec” was born from NBC's desire for an “Office” spin-off. Creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur abandoned that idea almost immediately – Schur tells me none of their spin-off pitches “even got past the level of like 'Maybe Darryl could be a dad,' or 'Maybe Andy (Bernard) could become a high school teacher,' or whatever” – and instead chose an office in the public sector to contrast with the private sector hijinks of the gang at Dunder-Mifflin. And though none of Leslie's co-workers shared her fanatical belief in the power of government to fix people's lives – her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), was in fact a staunch libertarian who worked in civil service with the sole aim of preventing the local government from getting anything done – the show itself did. It recognized the great difficulty of effecting change, even on a small level – it took until late in the sixth season for construction to finally begin on the park Leslie first talked about building when the series began – but like Leslie, it hoped for the platonic ideal of government(*), and community, and friendship, and achieved it far more often than anyone but a blind optimist like its heroine might expect.

(*) “Rock Show,” the first season finale, and the first episode to really hint at the heights the show would attain starting the next fall, has a scene where Leslie congratulates city planner Mark Brendanawicz (who would get Chuck Cunningham'ed in later years) on getting a speed bump lowered by two inches. Mark assumes she's mocking his tiny achievement, but she tells him with all sincerity, “You fixed a problem. That's what we're supposed to do.” This is Leslie Knope: not only is there no task too big to be accomplishment, but there is no accomplishment too small to be celebrated.

Over the course of the series, Leslie checked off most of the life goal boxes of a sitcom heroine, acquiring a best friend (Rashida Jones' puzzled straight woman Ann), a husband (Adam Scott's put-upon nerd Ben), and triplet children (whose baby years were mercifully skipped over by a time jump at the end of last season), all while working tirelessly to improve the quality of life of her friends. (A running gag of the show was how it could be simultaneously wonderful and terrifying to have Leslie in your corner.) But she also got that park built, saved the economies of both Pawnee and its neighboring city of Eagleton, won a city council seat (she was later recalled, but those jerks didn't deserve her), was placed in charge of her own branch office of the National Park Service, and recently out-maneuvered a Google-esque tech company to establish a new national park in Pawnee.

This is Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky stuff, flying in the face of all that modern TV has been telling us is necessary for comedy to work. But the genius of “Parks” was the way it combined that sunny worldview – one that would allow Leslie to not only accomplish so much professionally, but to become such dear friends with her philosophical opposite in Ron – with a wicked sense of humor. “Parks and Recreation” was a show with Andy Griffith's temperament, yet with an anarchic comic spirit that seemed more appropriate for Homer Simpson(**).

(**) Daniels wrote for “The Simpsons” and co-created “King of the Hill,” and he, Schur and their many talented collaborators turned Pawnee into a community every bit as rich and bizarre as Springfield or Arlen, TX.

Having Poehler – capable of playing any style of comedy, but with a level of heart that made you love and believe in Leslie even when she and the show were at their craziest – at the center was a godsend, but she was surrounded by supporting actors so great and versatile in their own ways that one can imagine any of them at the center of the show.

There was a time I might have suggested, for instance, that Ron Swanson – lover of privacy, independence and, above all, bacon – would be by far the show's most enduring creation. But what makes Ron – and Offerman's incredible performance as Ron – so special is the same thing that makes all of the “Parks” characters special. They are all familiar comedy types, but they are the best possible example of that type, both in terms of their humanity and their comic potential. Leslie always looked for the best in people, and with her friends and co-workers, she was almost always proved right.

Ron has a lot of intensely masculine traits that have defined a certain kind of misogynist buffoon in recent films and series, yet he's someone who could believably become Leslie's friend (or, in his emotionally-stunted terms, “workplace proximity associate”) and ally, who could be presented as a man most attracted to strong women(***), and whose supreme competence at carpentry, hunting and other old-fashioned pursuits would become as potent a source of humor as his devotion to fatty breakfast foods. But you could say the same about, say, Chris Pratt's goofy musician Andy Dwyer, who's the manchild archetype at both its kindest and silliest, or the misanthropic love of Andy's life, April Ludgate-Dwyer, whose hidden generosity of spirit was carefully revealed one millimeter shift of Aubrey Plaza's expression at a time. Even a more overtly cynical character like Aziz Ansari's swag-obsessed Tom Haverford turned out to be a good guy, but also someone utterly ridiculous in his devotion to the baller lifestyle. When you add in Scott (like TV spouse Poehler, equally adept as straight man or crazy man), Rob Lowe (as Chris Traeger, literally the most enthusiastic TV character ever), Jones (who was just as important as Poehler and the writers in helping to humanize and ground Leslie early on), Jim O'Heir (as genial office schlemiel/schlemazel Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry), Retta (the marvelously direct Donna Meagle) and the show's war chest of brilliant recurring players, you have a comedy that could go anywhere (whether within the confines of Pawnee or on a trip to Scotland) and do anything. 

(***) With a character like Leslie as the heroine, it shouldn't be surprising that so many of the show's personal and professional relationships are driven by the women (Ben has no problem taking a backseat to Leslie in every aspect of their lives), but in a TV landscape that's  overwhelmingly male it still kind of is. A recent episode involved April feeling guilty because she got a great new job in Washington that would require Andy to leave his local-access TV show and friends behind, and for a moment, I wondered if she would bail on her dreams to keep him happy. Then Andy gave a speech about how she's all he needs to be happy in life, and I remembered the special show I was watching.

Because those characters were so finely-calibrated, and because the actors playing them were so great, “Parks and Rec” could be explosively funny just as often as it was delivering warm fuzzies. When I think of the show, I'm as apt to recall Chris being laid very low by the flu, or the corn mash-drinking contest between Leslie, Ron's mother and his first wife (the way Offerman holds the bottle when it's Ron's turn never fails to make me laugh until it hurts), or the entire group getting drunk on Tom's awful liqueur, or Leslie being horrified by Ron and Diane's quickie wedding, as I am to think about the great emotional scenes like Leslie's closing statement at the city council debate, or Leslie and Ben's romantic moment in Indiana's smallest park. Often, when sitcoms turn serious, it can feel false and calculated, but “Parks” always wore its heart on its sleeve, so the serious stuff felt both real and of a piece with the comedy. The show at its very best – like April and Andy's wedding – managed to be absurd and genuine at the same time.

It took a little while to get there, for both the show and the characters. In that first season, Andy's more or less a villain, Ron is used sparingly, Leslie is oblivious to how others look down on her, and Pawnee itself only faintly resembles the lunatic asylum it would become. Comedies need time to figure themselves out – a tweak as simple as letting Tom and April be intimidated by Leslie rather than scornful of her went a long way towards changing how the audience saw her – but can unfortunately create such a strong negative first impression that's all but impossible to overcome. No matter how much the series improved, the ratings remained marginal – if the audience at large knew the show at all, it was the version with Leslie as a female Michael Scott – and it hung around mainly because NBC always had bigger problems elsewhere. (The network has spent the past few years trying to find “broader” comedies than “Parks” and its ilk; instead, “Parks” has been its highest-rated comedy in this final season. Its survival evokes Leslie's praise of Hillary Clinton as “the strongest, smartest, punching bag in the world.”)

Those lucky and patient enough to make it past those early growing pains were rewarded like they were friends with Leslie Knope and it was Galentine's Day, or any of her other invented celebrations. The third season, built around an arc where Leslie gambles that a revival of the Pawnee Harvest Festival will replenish the city's empty coffers, is perfect from beginning to end, but because it's only 16 episodes, it's hard to find a historical comparison. So let me put it this way: there is a stretch of 42 episodes spanning seasons 2, 3 and 4 (from “Leslie's House” through “Dave's Return”) without a bad one among them. Every sitcom, even the best, churns out a misfire now and then; for two-odd years, every “Parks” episode was at a minimum very good, and at a maximum a classic of the form, mixing slapstick, social satire and simple character-based comedy.

I entered this abbreviated final season having made peace with the idea that the series' time had come – that it was still capable at times of achieving the greatness of a “Flu Season” or a “Ron & Tammy,” but not with the regularity with which it once churned them out, and that there comes a point when characters as big as Leslie or Ron or Andy risk turning into parodies of themselves. Then Schur and company gave us a very Leslie Knope gift – at once something to treasure and a tremendous source of angst – by coming back with one of the series' best stretches ever. The leap forward in time has reinvigorated the characters and the world, and the sense of impending finality has allowed the show to take its core relationships to interesting places, whether characters leaving town or Leslie and Ron spending an episode locked in their former office to hash out their many differences.

That “Parks and Rec” has been so great this late in the run seems apt. Finding an extra gear this close to the finish line is often what our very best comedies have done, from Schur's beloved “Cheers” to “30 Rock” (created by and starring Poehler's friend and frequent collaborator Tina Fey). And though not enough people noticed at the time, this is an inner circle Hall of Fame comedy, one that ultimately surpassed the show it was originally meant to be spun off from.

Later in that pilot episode, Leslie explains why she loves moderating community meetings, even though she spends most of them dealing with angry, irrational complaints.

“What I hear when I'm being yelled at,” she says, “is people caring loudly.”

I have cared very loudly for “Parks and Recreation,” and I am no longer ready for it to go. Please excuse me while I go off in search of an establishment that will give me all the bacon and eggs they have.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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