I like that Parks & Recreation show rather a lot. It airs on one of my game nights, so I watch it via Hulu. It’s the first thing I watch from NBC’s Thursday-night lineup these days. Instead of saving it for last, like a delicious dessert, I grab it first, like my favorite confection in the box.
Here’s something about Parks & Rec (maybe not the thing, but a thing, for sure): It’s optimistic. It’s a show about government and bureaucracy and the challenges of getting things done in a complex world, even when that world is just a nebulously sized small city somewhere in Indiana, and it remains optimistic. It offers up challenges both petty and potent to the characters’ wants and ambitions, but it stays optimistic along the way.
(Compare this to The West Wing, another show about American politics that was more optimistic than it maybe needed to be, at least for a while. I much appreciated Parks & Rec‘s recent nod to The West Wing, by the way.)
Parks & Rec remains fond of its characters and their relationships. It finds things for them to do without needing to constantly jeopardize their pairing, to embark on will-they/won’t-they stories all the time. We see successful and happy couples in addition to the keep-them-apart romantic sitcom travails that sometimes feel nigh obligatory.
Yes, Parks & Rec has matched and mismatched couples on the show a lot over the years—Anne Perkins is especially unlucky in love on the show—but that feels like it’s an organic story, like the writing staff enjoys meddling with the chemistry of its characters, who are diverse and varied enough that just putting them in scenes together yields dramatic (thus, comedic) opportunities. Parks & Rec has two great couples in its cast, neither of which was there at the beginning of the show and both of which feel like they’re unusual for sitcoms: First, April & Andy, who did the will-they/won’t-they TV thing for a while before getting together and, then, suddenly married. Second, Leslie & Ben, whose relationship developed believably out of difficult beginnings and found some romantic peril in having to hide their love from the bureaucracy that would not approve. Both couples have conflicts and emergent stories but we derive just as much comedic fun from their functional dynamic, not their dysfunction. I worry that these couples will unravel because they’re genuinely fun to watch as couples.
All of this works contrary to my theory of the Sitcom Spiral. What’s the Sitcom Spiral? It’s the downward spiral of growing cynicism and cartoonish mockery that sometimes occurs as a sitcom ages.
I grew up watching Friends, Seinfeld, and Mad About You. All three shows were hits. All three shows had overlapping universes (Mad About You crossed over with both Friends and Seinfeld). And all three shows grew more bitter and mean in their later years. Mad About You, for example, became so unhappy that late storylines were about the unkindness of its characters and the dissolution of love. The Seinfeld characters became so terrible over time that even the writers had to send them to jail in the end.
The Sitcom Spiral presumes that as we mock our own characters over time we come to think less of them. As we put them in season after season’s worth of wacky situations we come to regard them as fools. The jokes come at their expense, often without taking the time to build them back up for the next round of antics, so the characters become darker, more awful cartoons (in the case of the Seinfeld characters) or broader, more ridiculous caricatures of the characters we once knew (in the case of the Friends characters), all in the name of comedy (and sweeps).
Parks & Rec has certainly gone through changes—in its cast, in its scope, in its voice—and sometimes its characters are broad and cartoonish. Some of them started off that way. Yet still the show takes the time to remind us that they love and are loved, that they want things we can understand or appreciate, that they are all fools like we are all fools. The writers put Ben Wyatt into a Batman costume in a gag that is maybe too broad… and then they bring it back to Earth by having Ben fix the house wifi while wearing that Batman costume. It was terrestrial and understated even while its got a dude in a Batman costume for yucks.
Parks & Rec is still at risk at moving down the Sitcom Spiral, to be sure. The city of Pawnee (and its rich neighbors in Eagleton) is the most obviously threatened. Yet the show takes the time to build up Pawnee just like another character, to show us that Pawnee is flawed and absurd and sad and that it is hilarious that we love it anyway, but we love it anyway.
(That fear that a show may succumb to real-world problems like network interference or a premise threat that could reimagine the show for the worse? We sometimes call that “meta jeopardy”—the peril that the show is in and must overcome, almost like it was a character in its own show.)
Parks & Rec thrives on its characters, on its trust of the audience to know and get those characters, on its faith in the cast to combine all the bits and jokes into believable wholes. Then the show throws us little bits that subtly defy the broad strokes of those characters (Ben’s not a fan of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, Ron Swanson loves a scavenger hunt) or that reinforce those characters’ key traits in charming ways (Ron Swanson orders “all the bacon and eggs you have” in an Indianapolis diner). The characters expand and grow more complex instead of growing more broad.
And it’s all on display in Amy Poehler’s stellar character of Leslie Knope, the Parks Department politico now campaigning for a seat on the Pawnee City Council. Through her the show has been about community, personal ambition, bureaucracy, politics, and more. Leslie Knope embodies the show’s sometimes-manic, sometimes-panicked personality, its ability to do right and wrong, its need to strive and its willingness to stop and appreciate the little things. Leslie’s the leader of the crew but her friends and neighbors, who have since become coworkers, are each optimistic in their way—even April, whose caustic nature acts as contrast, can appreciate animals for not being people (since people suck).
It’s a subtle, tricky thing. It’s all about the execution of the material—the writing, the performances. I have trouble explaining it all with some magical, underlying principle that’ll reveal just how Parks & Rec succeeds at being what it is. The closest I can come is to circle the words optimism and craft and celebrate the show’s love of both.
Here’s hoping NBC renews it.