Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Parks and Recreation

If everyone in government were like you, I would probably still work there. –Mark

I don't care if you hate what we do, I love it enough for both of us. -Leslie

Leslie has a lot of qualities I find horrifying, but the worst one by far is how thoughtful she can be. - Ron

In my desperation over being so ridiculously incapable of putting together even one coherent paragraph on Parks and Recreation, I slowly worked my way backwards through the show. I re-watched season three, hoping that the essential first sentence that had escaped me would finally just appear out of nowhere. It didn’t, so I went back another year, and then finally I started at the beginning. The first, six-episode long season is widely considered the show’s weakest: almost every single first season needs a couple of episodes to find its tone, for its actors to grow into their characters and the writers to really convey who these people are and what they want, and how they relate to each other. The thing is though, that in retrospect the first season fits in perfectly with how the show later developed: Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) starts with the same level of enthusiasm for government work, the same ambition to rise high while providing essential services to the citizens of Pawnee, but compared to the Leslie of the third season, she is unfocused, goofy and awkward. She sometimes makes terrible mistakes, especially regarding the publicity work when she first gets her sub-committee to transform a pit into a new park. I think if I’d ever written about the first season of the show alone, Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick might have come up as a comparison. But Leslie evolves as a character; she grows with the challenges she faces, and the one thing that is probably the most important: the people who surround her grow with her, and the changing dynamic with them (and the sudden yet meaningful friendship with Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins – “Oh Ann. You're so sweet and innocent and pretty.”) enables her to become so good at her job, to overcome her initial issues, to learn how to navigate the (tiny but essential) political landscape of Pawnee. In the beginning of the show, Jerry, Tom, Donna and especially Ron aren’t swayed by Leslie’s enthusiasm, they do their job with varying degrees of indifference and regard her as a nuisance – until they slowly start to cherish Leslie’s qualities, support her and start to contribute to her projects. This is one of the greatest things about Parks and Recreation. Too many shows start with characters fully formed and the only thing that changes in the course of the seasons is the romantic relationships, and maybe sometimes someone dies or disappears, but on Parks and Recs, characters evolve. They become more focused and find outlets for their passions. They realize their talents. They form unlikely friendships and romantic relationships that change them, and even though it’s a brilliant ensemble show with a perfect cast, the catalyst for almost all of this is Leslie, her enthusiasm, her beliefs, her idealism, her loyalty. She quickly eases her way into the viewers’ hearts the same way she does with the people that surround her. 
It would be more appropriate to write a paragraph about Leslie, but I’ve kind of decided that I want to talk about April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) first, because in my head the way the show handles her character contains everything that makes it special. April starts out as a nineteen-year old intern, completely disinterested in government work and with a sarcastic attitude towards everything Leslie cares about and does. Most other shows would take her perspective as an opportunity to provide a running commentary on how ridiculous Leslie is – how much she cares, the thing she does to realize her projects – April would be the outsider and role model for all the viewers with a similar worldview, another stereotypical disaffected teenager. Instead, the show allows her to grow. The turning point for her character comes halfway through the second season (in Galentine’s Day). April attends a concert Andy (Chris Pratt) holds in an old people’s home, and April’s friends take it as an opportunity to make fun of everything and everyone they see. Instead of joining in, April grows increasingly irritated, until she finally declares: “God, why does everything we do have to be cloaked in like 15 layers of irony?” For me, that statement entails everything that makes Parks and Recreation so special, and it’s even more relevant because April is the one making it: it's an incredibly positive show (so much, in fact, that the initial things on my note pad were rainbows and sunshine and flowers…), but more than that, it’s not a cynical show. Like Leslie, it’s enthusiastic and overflowing with passion and idealism. Sometimes it pokes fun at its own characters or at some of the things they care about, or at some oddity of the community in Pawnee (Li'l Sebastian! He’s a tiny horse, not a pony!), but this is never done in cruel or mean way, but playful. It comes from a place of love and understanding that these quirks are what makes us human, without falling into the equally dangerous trap of defining the characters over these quirks and forgetting to give them depth as well. Tom’s (Aziz Ansari) main interest in government work seems to lie in making useful connections he can later use for becoming successful, he seems inherently self-interested, but the show allows him the space to grow: this very quality turns out to be very useful for the department’s projects, and his enthusiasm for making plans ultimately makes him a likeable character. Andy starts as Ann Perkins’ deadbeat boyfriend, bound to the living room couch after falling into the pit, a man-child with no discernable passion except his music – but he turns out to be a genuinely talented musician whose band has a place in the community of Pawnee, and his endlessly excitable nature and his enthusiasm for everything makes him a valuable team member, which he finally becomes. Andy starts as someone’s boyfriend with no job, but by the end of season three, he’s a married man with an unlikely career without having to give up on music. 
This is what makes the Parks and Recreation department a bit of a utopian paradise: it allows those who work there to realize their potential, whatever it might be, without having to give up on who they are at their core. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is a die-hard libertarian deeply and utterly convinced that government, ideally, should be “one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke. The man is chosen based on some kind of IQ test, and maybe also a physical tournament, like a decathlon.”, but despite his beliefs, he also knows that the department would fall apart if it wasn’t for Leslie Knope, who has the exact opposite political beliefs to his (governments should provide services for people). He stands up for her when her job is in danger but the show doesn’t force him to change his beliefs in the function of government, it just portrays how two people with opposing views can work together as long as they respect each other, without any of the hatred and ridiculousness that currently dominates the political landscape. 
Leslie: Do you remember what you said to me five years ago when Eagleton offered me that job and I asked you for your advice?
Ron: Do whatever the hell you want. What do I care?
Leslie: Right, but then after, when I pressed you, what did you say?
Ron: I believe I said that I thought we worked well together, and that I might disagree with your philosophy but I respected you. And I said that you'll get a lot of job offers in your life but you only have one hometown.
Leslie: Yes, that's how I remember it.
Pawnee itself is a character on the show. As the seasons progress and we see the characters navigate the landscape of the town, we also slowly learn how it functions, as some local personalities return (journalists, hosts on local radio and television shows, the obligatory religious nutjob). The town Leslie cares about so much has many strange characteristics and people inheriting it, and the town meetings never resemble a respectful and reasonable discussion on issues that matter (“What I hear when I’m being yelled at”, Leslie says, “is people caring loudly at me”), and they sometimes have questionable ideas about what’s important, but the show always manages to convey the love Leslie feels for this community along with the ridiculousness (and on the other hand, I’ve never lived in a town but my mum’s hometown had a guy living like a native American, an almost civil war over the length of grass and teenagers constantly getting into horrifying accidents when driving their mopeds while drunk, so Pawnee doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me). Pawnee might not be as wealthy as its rival neighbouring town Eagleton, but what it lacks in wealth it makes up in community. In the third season, Leslie overcomes a looming government shutdown and a budget freeze by organizing a harvest festival – the future of everybody’s job depend on its success – and the project becomes a signifier for what Leslie can do: she inspires her colleagues, we learn that people in the community do favours for her simply because she is Leslie Knope, and they know that she never uses them selfishly – and finally we see what this kind of passion and devotion can accomplish. 
Leslie: Look, we’re not just pencil pushers. We are a reflection of the community, and we believe that we can strengthen that community. Because in the end, the reason why we’re all here, is to bring people together.
The third season is Parks and Recreation’s best so far, and it’s probably one of my favourite seasons of any television show ever. We see Leslie’s attempts to organize the harvest festival, to save her department and to do meaningful work despite the lack of money through the eyes of Ben (Adam Scott), a state auditor sent to make budget cuts. Ben starts as a character with no real interest in Pawnee – it’s just his job (“Pawnee isn’t special”), and he clashes with Leslie who considers him a threat to the department and the town itself (“This is a party with my friends, and you're trying to fire all my friends” / “These are real people in a real town working in a real building with real feelings.”) – but as the season progresses and Ben witnesses what the department accomplishes under Leslie’s leadership (even though Ron is technically her boss…), he falls in love – with her passion, with her idealism, and ultimately, with Pawnee. Parks and Recreation connects the two beautifully: Leslie is who she is because she cares about her work, about her community, the two things are intertwined, and Ben changes through his appreciation of her, and his look on the town itself changes as he starts to see it through her eyes. 
Ben: The advantage is that it’s a wonderful city. I’ve been to forty some-odd towns in Indiana, and Pawnee is special. The people are passionate and kind and they love their city. They take pride in their work. It’s a very special place. […] Pawnee is a really special town. I love living there. And, um, I look forward to the moments in my day where I get to hang out with the town, and talk to the town about stuff. And the town has really nice blonde hair, too. And has read a shocking number of political biographies for a town… which I like.
This is just a couple of things that I love about the show: The friendship between Leslie and Ann would deserve an essay of its own, so would the beautiful way in which April’s and Andy’s relationship has evolved (I absolutely adored the way their sudden marriage ended up feeling so genuine and heartfelt and beautiful, instead of falling into some tired cliché), Ron Swanson’s subtle support of every single person working in the department and especially his relationship with Leslie and Tom, the way the show maps the landscape of Pawnee with its reoccurring locations (The Snakepit, The Bulge), the way the show portrays the irrational aspects of politics (the gay penguin wedding!) – but in the end it comes down to the fact that Parks and Recreation is a wonderful, heart-warming, day-saving show. It's balloons and puppies and rainbows. And waffles.

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