"Parks and Recreation", the mockumentary-style adventures of Leslie Knope and the rest of the Pawnee Parks Department, was definitely my favourite TV discovery of 2013. Getting acquainted with these characters over the course of five seasons was a complete delight, and it made me incredibly happy to see Jodie fall for the series as hard as I did. So we're here today to share with you our many, many words of joyful squeeing about everything that makes "Parks and Recreation" so great: the characters, the diversity of the assemble cast (still so rare for a major hit series), and of course the wonderful humour. Along the way we also consider the moments in which "Parks and Rec" defaulted to tired narrative tropes we'd prefer to see gone.
Jodie: "Parks and Recreation" quickly became my happy place show. If I was feeling down, or cynical I would marathon it because I knew it would restore my faith in the world. So, can we start by talking about what makes this program so full of hope and wonder?
Ana: Yes, that's a great place to start! You'll be unsurprised to hear I feel much the same way about it as you: I first got into "Parks and Rec" in January and February of 2013, and it made for perfect comfort watching during my least favourite months of the year. I think one the the things that make it a happy place series for people like us is the fact that, to once again borrow an analogy I know I'll be using forever, "Parks and Recreation" is a hilarious series that doesn't feel the need to punch us in the face all that much. All too often sitcoms default to the assumption that it's hilarious to reinforce dominant sexist, racist, heteronormative, etc assumptions, often in a really gross wink-wink-aren't-we-edgy-for-
I have to say that as much as I love it now (which is a lot. I LOVE IT A LOT, OKAY?), it took me until the second season to really get into "Parks and Recreation". One of the reasons why the show only grabbed me then was the fact that there were some major changes to how Leslie is portrayed. In the first season, she's portrayed affectionately but sometimes ends up being the butt of the joke; from the second season onwards, she's still a source of humor but is overwhelmingly portrayed as competent, intelligent, complicatedly human, widely respected and beloved, and as a force to be reckoned with. Did you notice this shift as well, and was it something you responded to?
Jodie: Yes, absolutely. I felt like, when the program started, Leslie was in a similar position to Ricky Jervais' character in "The Office". She talked earnestly to the camera and the program undermined her, without her knowledge, just by letting viewers watch her at work and see how negatively her co-workers reacted. Series one of "Parks and Recreation" was always a lot kinder in its criticism of Leslie's character than "The Office" was when it came to David Brent, mostly because Leslie's flaws are generally annoying but positive (let's work really hard and late into the night at this seemingly insignificant, impossible project that will really be great for our town) rather than needless cruelties. She was still often the try-hard and the unknowing butt of the joke though. My least favourite joke in that vein was the running gag about her and Mark's one night together - that bit where Mark genuinely doesn't remember sleeping with her almost made me quit the program early on.
However, as the episodes went by its almost like her optimism and drive won the program creators over, in the same way that Leslie eventually wins most characters in the show around to her way of thinking. It feels like the show runners started portraying her flaws affectionately from series two, and Wikipedia actually mentions a 'reapproach to its format and tone' (the focus group material quoted there is fascinating and in some parts TOTALLY AWESOME).
I also think this change in tone is interesting because "Parks and Recreation" is shot as this never ending mockumentary, even though the fact that someone has been filming Leslie for soooo long for no apparent on-going reason is totally ignored in later series. The camera is a framing device that provides a way for the viewer to see Leslie's life; a reason (however tenuous in later series) for the existence of the program. It's also a framing tool in the sense that someone is using the camera's lens and film edits to shape the way the viewer reacts to Leslie's life, just like a real cameraperson shapes all films. So, there's a case to be made that the person behind that fictional, in-story filmmaker could have been framing Leslie's actions more negatively in the first series but was then also won over by her desire to work super hard to make the world a better place. Leslie gets them all in the end!
So, yes I definitely responded to that tone change. There were episodes I liked a lot in the first series, for example "Boys Club" which shows how adorably idealistic Leslie is. And Leslie and Ann's developing relationship is so nice in that series. However, I liked the program so much better from the second series on, especially as the show's creators still find a way to make the viewer love Leslie yet show an understanding that loving a character doesn't necessarily mean all their views are right.
Ana: You know, what happened to me with the framing device was that it became more or less invisible as the series progressed. But I really love the idea of this semi-hidden character slowly but surely becoming Team Leslie like everyone else and deliberately deciding to portray her more generously.
Leslie's relationship with Mark was also one of my least favourite things about early "Parks and Rec". I didn't like how, among other things, it reinforced ugly stereotypes about career-focused women. I don't say this because she's single, but because she's meant to be perceived as blundering and unhealthily fixated and kind of pathetic. It's lazy and cliched and I'm so glad they dropped it. So obviously I wasn't exactly heartbroken when Mark left the series at the end of the second season. And then in comes Ben, and I just have to say that I looove his relationship with Leslie. Their absolutely adorable "I love you and I like you" pretty much sums it up: they're just so endearing, and so deeply appreciative of who their partner is as a person, in all possible senses.
I especially love how "Parks and Recreation" is one of those rare series that acknowledge that you don't need the will-they-won't-they romantic tension to last forever for viewers to remain invested in a relationship. This is also visible with April and Andy: we do have that element of expectation and suspense caused by obstacles at first, but these obstacles are not dragged on indefinitely and beyond what would serve the story because the writers assume that watching a couple get along and support each other would be boring. April and Andy and Leslie and Ben are never boring: they give us a rare glimpse into the complexities of long-term intimacy in a culture that's saturated with stories about the first spark of connection or romantic interest but doesn't often go beyond that. I do like a lot of stories that are about those initial stages of connection, but it's so nice to be taken beyond the "happily ever after". How do you remain happy day after day? What does a long-term partnership entail? I love how this series is willing to go there.
This willingness to show the inner workings of relationships goes beyond the show's portrayal of romance: we also see it in Leslie's friendships with various members of the supporting cast. Do you have any thoughts on the show's depiction of friendship? (And don't you wish Leslie was real and was your friend and took you out for waffles on Galentine's Day? Because I totally do.)
Jodie: Totally! That's another thing about this program - it makes you want to be in that world really badly so you can eat waffles and hang out with the characters. There should be one day a year where your favourite comfort fictional worlds become real so you can visit and do all the best stuff (except if that happened I would totally go to "Jurassic Park" which would be a terrible idea).
As for the program's creation of friendships - there's this really annoying trend now in American comedies to portray deep friendships between women as jokingly homoerotic. That's been going on with male friendships forever, and stems from social issues surrounding men and feelings and friendships, but there's been what feels like a recent shift to putting this treatment on female friendships too. Not in a way that's designed to create a deliberate slash culture, or queer baiting the audience, but in a separate, off-putting jibe. 'Har, har - gay stuff is weird.' It's really annoying.
The example that frustrates me the absolute most is Lily and Robin's relationship in "How I Met Your Mother". They became great friends and then for some reason the show runners decided it would be HILARIOUS to insert a running 'Lily wants to make out with Robin but never will' joke. For context, Lily is in the most commited hetrosexual relationship on TV, which had already been through its 'break up for dramatic value' phase before the joke about Robin and Lily got added in. There's never any chance that Lily is going to jeopardise her relationship with Marshall by kissing her best friend, or that she's genuinely going to leave Marshall for Robin, or even that the show is going to seriously address the idea that she might be bi-sexual. It's just a huge 'having sexual feelings about your female friends is ohmygodsofunny gag and it gets old really fast. And once Lily gets pregnant I think that joke gets dropped flat, because I guess suddenly when there's a child that's dependent on a character its no longer funny to coat trail the idea that she might want to kiss her best friend as well as being madly in love with Marshall?!
So, in that first series of "Parks and Recreation" I was a little put off by the way the show started out trailing Ann and Leslie's friendship as a gag where people misunderstand their relationship, and Leslie says some stuff and doesn't understand how it could sound like a come on. The episode where they show up for Leslie's mum's award and everyone thinks they're a couple because of the way Leslie is dressed - not funny. However, as the series went, on that kind of gag got dropped. There are moments where it gets picked up again, but it seems to have turned less into a joke and more into… a genuine acknowledgement that if they were friends and lesbians they'd be the one for each other. There's a line in series five where Leslie says that they are both 'tragically heterosexual'. No one in the show side-eyed that line and it didn't lead to "comic" misunderstandings; it was just a genuine thing said from the heart. I loved that - I loved how it said that friendship and romance can be just millimetres, and sexual preferences, apart. At the same time, the one thing I really wish "Parks and Recreation" had that it doesn't - GLBTQ main characters.
And in general I just love how this show portrays friendship. I liked how quickly Leslie shouldered her way into Ann's life and was like 'We're going to be friends!'. And how Ann and Leslie are so supportive of each other. Every time Leslie launches into one of her 'Ann, you're so brilliant and smart...' moments it makes me so happy, because a lot of women do need to hear those things explicitly. I love all their drinking moments together where they just cut loose and approve each others choices because of friendship and alcohol. I also like that they disagree and fight because they're different, imperfect people, but that they always, always make up. Leslie and April's relationship is great too - the female mentor tutoring the unwilling but smart young woman sits so nicely in contrast with Tom and Ron's relationship. It's just such a different narrative of female friendship and relationships than the one I grew up seeing in media. I just never ever want it to go off our screens!
It's time to spill all your feelings about the show's friendships now. :D
Ana: I'll do so gladly :D I really liked the "tragically heterosexual" line too, for pretty much the reasons you list. I don't think I've watched enough sitcoms to pick up on the trend you mention, but that reminds me of something else that I dislike: when people make really unfunny jokes about homoerotic undertones to a friendship as a way to provoke self-consciousness or awkwardness about the degree of closeness two friends share — which of course works largely because they're still so much shame and strangeness in our culture surrounding anything other than heterosexual relationships. But when Leslie and Ann look at each other and say that, there's no awkwardness at all. Like you say, it's just a really lovely acknowledgement that if things were different and they were attracted to each other, the wonderful friendship they have could be a wonderful romance. (I do wish the series had a regular gay or lesbian character or couple, though. They do so well when it comes to diversity on other fronts, but sadly not this one.)
I also love how supportive Leslie is, not only with Ann but with her other friends. Sometimes ladies do need to hear those things, but we live in a culture that attaches a lot of shame to the idea of "fishing for compliments", even though it's so, so hard for women to be confident and we all should be able to rely on our friends for that boost that gets us through a hard day. Leslie is the kind of person who sees right through this, though, and doesn't let anything get in the way of giving her friends what they need. She's thoughtful, perceptive, enthusiastic, and really brave in her willingness to love people and let that love show. I admire many things about Leslie, but this is possibly the main one. There's no "Does caring make me creepy?" with her; she just puts all her love and thoughtfulness out there.
Of course, this doesn't mean she never makes mistakes or clashes with her friends, but they do make up in the end because being friends with people means being generous and forgiving and willing to compromise. This is what I meant when I said the series gets into the inner working of relationships: I love stories that acknowledge that relationships of any sort are made of ups and downs and require deliberation and occasional maintenance work, and Parks and Recreation certainly is one. Too many other narratives adhere to the "if it's right, it will be effortless" myth, but not this. I love it.
Jodie: This is a great point. Even though Ben and Leslie, and Ann and Leslie, are these adorably wonderful relationships that radiate happiness there is still internal conflict which shakes up those relationships from time to time. For Ben and Leslie their similar dreams sometimes pull them apart. With Ann and Leslie problems come up when Ann's approach to her life doesn't mesh with Leslie's way of thinking. Should we talk a little bit about Leslie's flaws and biases maybe? Like how the program manages to set her up as this imperfect person who hates the library and the most decent, loveable character currently on TV without obscuring either of those two sides of her?
Ana: You know, I'd feel bad about talking about Leslie ad infinitum when I also love the other characters so much, but to be truthful, I can't — I mean, she's Leslie! She's so loveable and complicated and well-written that I could happily talk about her forever.
One thing that draws me to Leslie is the fact that she's an idealist. I feel that this word has connotations of naivety and overearnestness in some people's minds, but that's not how Leslie is at all. What she is is a person with strong principles who went into public service because she truly, honestly believes in doing her best to help people. She does this through a job that's not exactly glamorous, where the work you have to do day after day can get repetitive and tedious, and where the shiniest, most immediately appealing projects (like the park we hear so much about in season 1) are often surrounded with red tape. So instead you have to make a difference through a series of small tasks that are easy to perceive as meaningless even though at the end of the day they do help.
It's easy to get discouraged in a work environment like this, but Leslie is that person who actually cares even though everything about her workplace culture is telling her not to. Leslie cares about her work in the same unguarded, extremely brave way she cares about people: she never gives in to the temptation to only try things half-heartedly because if she fails it's going to hurt like hell. No, she gives it her all, no matter the risk. As I said above, I really admire her ability to do this, but I guess it can lead to trouble sometimes because she doesn't always understand why other people might be more cautious than she is. Although she's generally patient with her friends and co-workers, her driven nature can sometimes blind her to the fact that other people may hold back for reasons more complicated than indifference or lack of initiative. Leslie has to live in a world where nobody but her can be Leslie, where furthermore she has to remember it's okay for other people not to be Leslie, and although she does a good job most of the time, sometimes she drops the ball.
Jodie: Yeah, Leslie is one in a million. And then Chris turns up and it's like Pawnee draws dedicated, idealistic public servants against Ron's very strong wishes!
I agree that she's just a very focused idealist, almost like she's deliberately blocking out all the negativity in order to get her job done. And sometimes that does mean that she makes mistakes. She's so focused on what she wants to achieve, and she's so used to having to steam roller over needless objections, so sometimes she can't switch gears to accept useful constructive comments or recognise that she's putting her own project ahead of another great, sensible proposal. The great thing about the show is that it gives her space to apologise, correct her mistakes and come out the other side a better person with stronger relationships (like when April wants to build a dog park on the lot, or when Leslie throws pots into the lot to make people think it's a Native American heritage site).
I also really enjoyed the way the show used long running jokes to show that even the characters you love the best can hold really stupid, biased opinions. Usually in comedy this would mean beloved characters would hold racist, sexist or homophobic opinions. Creators would make the case that the audience is supposed to disagree, so putting those words into the mouths of characters that the audience otherwise universally approves of is ok because the audience is going to disagree with them. Yeah, assuming your audience knows racism and sexism is laughable works out universally well.
In the early days of Parks and Rec, there was definitely some of that kind of humour going on - the running joke about where Tom was from was terrible. And I find it kind of hard to interpret what effect the running joke about the murals is supposed to achieve. However, as the program develops, it typically hands those kind of "edgy" jokes to characters the audience is not supposed to approve of in any way, for example Councilman Jamm. Or, it lets Leslie very clearly put a counter argument up against those kind of comments:
That doesn't mean the program is constantly posting politically perfect characters who always agree with liberal values. It's just that instead of making a lead, loved character say something racist in order to show human imperfection, it encourages the viewer to see the imperfect side of their favourite characters by setting them against the library, which is contextually rational, but totally ridiculous. The character's imperfections do not, as you said above, 'punch down' on certain, under-represented sections of the audience. Like you said above that "edgy" comedy idea that good characters should say express totally prejudiced views that have not really been fully discarded by the real world is largely missing.
Ana: When it comes to gender and feminism (which is where I think "Parks and Rec" does this the most successfully), the jokes generally work because they're at the expense of the perpetrators of sexist actions, not of the women who are usually the butt of such jokes. When Councilman Jamm is rampantly sexist, or when the Commission for Gender Equality doesn't include a single woman, or when Leslie tells the councilman who claims women are "frail and breakable" that he must be getting them mixed up with light bulbs or his hip, it's perfectly clear that the series' sympathies are on the side of feminism. It's a little like what we said about the jokes around Toph's blindness in Avatar: what we're actually laughing at are the more privileged people who are clumsy and awkward and just plain wrong, rather than at the idea that these claims and prejudices go against the grain of cultural consensus but are actually true deep down, which is what a lot of sitcoms do.
So yeah, all in all I'd call "Parks and Rec" a show with a clear feminist sensibility, and that's something that's made me very happy. But as per usual, these things are complicated: a feminist sensibility and the inclusion of awesome female characters at the heart of the story doesn't necessarily mean a series can't also screw up in its depiction of women in other ways.
To give you an example, I think "Parks and Rec" dropped the ball when it comes to Tammy II, Ron's ex-wife. There are a couple of things I love about her storyline — like you say, the idea that the library service is secretly evil is hilarious because it's so absurd. Libraries are generally popular and well-liked, and it's really funny to see them depicted as the secret headquarters of the town's supervillains. Plus I adore Leslie's quote,
The library is the worst group of people ever assembled in history. They’re mean, conniving, rude, and extremely well read, which makes them very dangerous.Pawnee’s library department are the most diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats I’ve ever seen. They’re like a biker gang, but instead of shotguns and crystal meth, they use political savvy and shushing.
However, the way Tammy II is portrayed doesn't sit well with me because her evil, manipulative powers are too closely tied to her sexuality. Normally I'm the first to say that I want villain roles to be available to women in the same way they are to men, and that all it takes to make me comfortable with this is the presence of other women in the story to make sure a female character's evilness is not directly tied to her gender. But with sexuality I make an exception, because there's too long a history of portraying women as evil seductresses who lead good men astray with their wiles for their own amusement. This is pretty much what Tammy II is shown to do in relation to Ron. I'd love to hear any thoughts you might have on this, as well as on how the series handles gender in general.
Jodie: Ron's relationships with his ex-wives are a really odd aspect of Parks and Rec, but I think I'm going to have to start by talking about Ron as a character to explain my feelings. Ron is a really familiar male character - tough, good at traditionally manly things, uncomfortable with extended conversations about feelings and passionate about steak. He's also, like say Barney from "How I Met Your Mother", a deliberate parody of that kind of masculinity. I never feel like the show wants to totally support the way his character acts. I mean, that's why Leslie is brought in to foil him and to help him develop past his initial personality.
However, Ron is a pretty nice, straightforward guy in many ways. There's a lot to admire about him (his passion for craft being just one thing). And over the course of the program he repeatedly proves himself crotchety but kind and wise. This whole combination of personality traits puts him squarely in a kind of 'man of the mountain' role - a quiet, private man foxed by troublesome modernity who sometimes proves that the way other people negotiate the world may not be the best way. So, while he's a parody of full on traditional masculinity, and in some ways very easy to laugh at when he just doesn't understand feelings, his character is often an affectionate parody that will resonate with viewers who sit a little outside of modern society. He's also set up as a sensible role model and someone to look to. And I think, looking at videos of him and general fan praise that's how viewers often respond to him.
Ana: Agreed. Ron is actually one of my favourite characters in the series, and the fact that he's genuinely kind despite his prickly exterior is one of the reasons why. The other is that I find him hilarious, which partly has to do with Nick Offerman's style of acting (particularly the facial expressions he manages to pull). One thing I'd add to what you said about Ron being an affectionate parody of stereotypical masculinity is the fact that he's also a parody of libertarian politics in much the same way. He doesn't believe in government, he keeps gold buried in undisclosed locations, he's pretty much ready for the end of civilization as we know it, etc. He stands for a lot of ideas that frankly horrify me, just as they horrify Leslie and the other characters. And yet, as Leslie herself puts it in one episode, he's also a man of great integrity who deserves her respect despite their seemingly insurmountable differences in political outlook. It was interesting to me to see a character whose politics are so different from my own portrayed in a way that pokes fun at the logical pitfalls of the ideas he embodies but is still far from dehumanising. Ron is a much-needed reminder that even people who hold beliefs that make us reel are not necessarily monsters.
Jodie: This all makes what the show does with his relationship with Tammy I and II very difficult. First, it's totally weird that strong women are couched as Ron's "weakness" for so long. There's a castration and unmanning implication to that which fits way too snugly with sexist ideas about powerful women undermining men. The show tries to vary up how strong women appear in romantic relation to Ron by including women who end up in short term relationships with him, but I think the picture is only really changed when Diane joins in series five. Then the viewer gets to see that not that all strong female characters are witches; it's more that Ron has previously been in two very toxic relationships furthered by his individual, psychological makeup. However, before that it seems like the show sets up a situation that could possibly spread woman-hating, as Ron, everyone's favourite, straight talking character is torn down and emasculated by a she devil whose personality is barely developed.
How does Tammy II sit in relation to Diane? Diane and many of the other "Parks and Rec" women are openly into sex, but Tammy II is heavily aligned with a particular kind of depiction of sexuality. She's always talking about sex and the sex she talks about is very high kink, plus she's dark haired and I think always dressed in dark colours. As we've said before, a popular way to dress wicked queens who are also aligned with sex and evil. And like you said her evil deeds always involve hauling Ron off to have sex and she gets him under her power by using her body.
On the one hand it's great to see so many different women on "Parks and Rec". It means all kinds of women can be represented without any one of them becoming representative for women everywhere. But I could still do without the narrative that sexy, dark haired women are the devil. It's recurrence shows society hasn't really moved on from linking sexually voracious women with evil and light colours with purity. And including this kind of narrative doesn't really expand the diversity of women found in narratives unless you actually examine the trope and grow the story.
Ana: Yeah, I agree. Unfortunately "Parks and Rec" doesn't really do anything interesting with the trope — it just perpetuates it. But I also agree that generally the show's women are shown to enjoy and feel comfortable with their sexuality. This is true of Leslie, Ann and April, but I wanted to focus on a particularly interesting example — Donna. I love how Donna is portrayed as a happy, confident woman who has an eventful love life that she mostly keeps to herself but occasionally hints at. This is particularly great because she's not thin and therefore doesn't fit into stereotypical definitions of female beauty, and yet she's shown to be very comfortable with her body and her sexuality. She dresses well, seems to enjoy her appearance, and generally does things on her own terms. This shouldn't be worthy of note, but our culture is still so saturated with fat-shaming that it stands out. I feel like there's plenty more that could be said about Donna, especially concerning how the sexuality of women of colour is usually portrayed, but as I'm not the right person to unpack it I'll just say that if anyone reading this has any thoughts on the subject they feel like sharing in the comments, I'd absolutely love to hear them.
Jodie: Donna is so great right? I would like to hear if people who know more about this than me think her character veers into "sassy black woman" stereotype, but at the same time I love everything about her. She's definitely one of my alter-ego characters; one of those cool, sharp characters I aspire to be like in many ways but am far too self-conscious to even approach. I actually wonder if that's partly why she doesn't get to be so centre stage in this comedy - she's so together and impervious to outside forces that the writers didn't see enough comedic potential/ can't work out a way to fit her character inside usual models of like-able comedy characters? Leslie may be exceptionally good at her job, but she is often not that together, and she cares about other people's opinions of her which makes her more typical comedy lead material. I think it would be interesting to see that avenue explored - extremely confident, smack you down lead women in comedy programs.
If we're talking about gender should we talk about Tom a little bit? I think he's a good example of how "Parks and Rec" expands straight masculinity for the modern age, even though sometimes his less traditionally masculine interests become the butt of jokes.
Ana: Tom is an interesting character. I think he follows the same trend as Leslie in the sense that he's portrayed more and more complexly and affectionately as the series progresses. And in much the same way as Ron is a parody of libertarian ROAR-manliness, Tom is a parody of a certain kind of materialism ("love fades away but things, things are forever", he says) and focus on celebrity culture and on the acquisition of social status as the true paths to happiness. I agree that the kind of masculinity he embodies stands slightly outside of hegemony, but it's a kind that's slowly becoming more pervasive, I find. Tom is not stereotypical because he enjoys dressing well, takes care of his appearance, and is generally a fan of small luxuries like fluffy blankets (the scene where Ann and Leslie go to his apartment and just stroke his blanket for ages is hilarious). And yet certain aspects of his behaviour are still really traditional, especially how he approaches romantic relationships and deals with beautiful women. He's the kind of guy people would describe as "meterosexual", I guess, though that's not a term I tend to use myself.
Another interesting example is Ben, who's a big nerd and therefore stands outside of hegemonic masculinity in the sense that nerdiness is perceived as a generally less prestigious way of doing manliness. He's also sensitive and well-spoken in a way that's in clear contrast with Ron's manly circumspectness. I think Ben's particular brand of nerdiness is important too — he's into Game of Thrones and LoTR and RPGs, but first and foremost he's a politics and economics nerd, so his passions are the same as Leslie's. And yet, as we discussed above, he's hugely supportive of Leslie, of her smarts and of her political career, and there's nothing whatsoever about their dynamics that ever suggests he feels "emasculated" (ugh) by her success.
All together now: d'awwww.
So, while I don't think Tom and Ben are exactly groundbreaking (I really want a series to show us, say, a stay-at-home dad who's totally comfortable with his partner being the family's financial supporter and not have this be a source of humour — can I please haz, TV gods?), they're still steps in the right direction because they're reminders that there are many different ways of performing masculinity, just as there are many different ways of performing femininity. How do you think Chris and Andy fit into this trend?
Jodie: Well, Andy starts off like a very typical hetrosexual male character. He's a poor partner who lets his female partner take a lot of the weight in the relationship. Stepping off topic for a moment, but I enjoyed the way Ann and Andy's relationship was eventually handled and resolved even if it did take a while. He was not good to her, and she needed to get gone. I liked the eventual critique and also the acknowledgement that guys like that can be loveable but should probably be avoided if they try to take advantage.
As the program goes on though, Andy and April get together. Sometimes the program lets Andy slip back into that role of being an absent partner who asks for a lot of support from April without really knowing much about her (the episode where they play the partner game show, when she tells him about her dream of going to veterinary school illustrate this). I think the program gets away with these occasional lapses back to the old Andy, without locking April into a very traditional female role of responsibility, because she basically refuses that role and they both lollop along together in this relationship which mostly shuns the grown up world. Sometimes I wish he seemed to take more of an on screen interest in her as a person, rather than me having to imagine that he knows all kinds of things about her really..
How Chris fits, I'm not really sure (though that doesn't stop him from being LITERALLY one of my favourite characters). I think because I'm from such a different culture I can't gauge whether his constant cheeriness, emotion having and hugging set him sort of apart from widespread American masculinity. I mean, obviously he's different from Ron but is he perhaps similar to men from more cosmopolitan parts of America (LA maybe?). All I have to go on are mishmashes of ideas based on American TV, so I would like some American input in the comments if possible!
Ana: Yeah, I'd love to hear about that too. Chris' openly affectionate manner does seem somewhat atypical to me, but it could easily be a cultural thing. Before we move on to talking about our favourite Parks and Rec moments (yay!), I thought I'd give you the chance to talk about any character or aspect of the series you have strong feelings about that we haven't covered above. Anything you want to share?
Jodie: I think the only main character we haven't talked a lot about is April. She's absolutely a favourite of mine so just a quick shout out to April: her hilarious cynicism (she reminded me so much of Daria Morgendorffer, but almost deliberately weirder), her slowly built friendship with Ron. I also love the way she has ended up trying to desperately negotiate her fear at becoming one of the grownups while beginning to admit that she has career goals and things she cares about. None of us want to become "suits" as we grow up, but work often requires us to take on that grownup cultural uniform of small talk and not locking your co-workers in the staff room so you can do things your way. April stands against that for all of us. And while for a long time that standing up also involves deliberately knocking things down, even when she maybe might want them, as the program goes on she finds a way to move towards those things without having to change her entire personality. I think one of my favourite April moments is when she starts acting and dressing like Leslie because she thinks that will make her government tasks go better, but then finds that her own blunt manner is something people actually respect.
I have a really soft spot for the character development in general on this program. Some of my favourite arcs, apart from April's, have been Tom and his changing attitude to business ventures, Ron as he adapts to having Diane and her children in his life, and Chris as he becomes less afraid of illness and dying. I really like that the program is capable of saying both that change is important (the characters who don't change like John Ralphio are hilarious but not deep) and that you have to know how much change is good for you. The show never pushes characters to change their essential nature even when it nudges them on to new paths. And, if a character does change something they really need to keep the program makes sure to point that out and have that character correct their course. When Tom initially leaves out the dazzle of Rent-A-Swag because he's trying to be a sensible business owner the show has characters tell him to inject a bit of swagger back into his new venture. I feel like I may have learned a heartwarming lesson from this show's whole run.
Any final aspects you'd like to touch on? And then, yes let's wrap up with our favourite moments! We made a list everyone - aren't you excited?!
Ana: Yay, I was hoping you'd talk about April. She's a huge favourite of mine too, and even though our personalities are very different she's probably the character I felt the closest to. I think a lot of it has to do with what you said regarding her attempts to navigate adulthood and what that means for her. Even though I'm older than April is on the show I still don't feel like a "real adult" a lot of the time. And yes, I love how April's move towards adulthood doesn't require her to give up her weirdness and sense of humour and all the fun she and Andy share. Also, she has awesome taste in music.
Before we finally move on to our top ten, I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to discuss this wonderful series at great length with me. As always, it's been a pleasure :D
We leave you with Jodie and Ana's 10 Most Awesome Moments in "Parks and Recreation" (in no particular order and featuring ALL the spoilers):
- Ana: Leslie's birthday present for Ron in "Eagleton" (S3, E12). This little moment is an embodiment of many of the things we were discussing about Leslie above: at first she thinks she knows best and tries to force her friend to come around to her way of thinking, but eventually she realises his birthday is about HIM and comes up with a lovely and thoughtful way giving him what he truly wants.
- Jodie: Let's start with something silly from me - "Parks and Recreation" is a comedy after all. One of the episodes that made me laugh super hard was "The Possum", where a notorious creature named "Fairway Frank" is causing trouble. The bit where April is trapped in the house with a loose opossum had me rolling.
- Ana: April nominating Leslie for an award honoring women in government ("London", S6 Es1 and 2). This is one you actually haven't watched yet, Jodie, but it's not really a spoiler and I know it will make you extra excited for season 6. April reveals yet again that despite her indifferent façade she follows her boss' accomplishments closely and admires everything she's achieved. These two have the best relationship. ♥
- Jodie: Chris' dip into depression and obsessive journey through therapy starts out as a rather uncomfortable joke, even though his reactions are totally in character. Chris never does anything half-heartedly, is really invested in what I'm going to call "positive living" and bulldozes through with his can do philosophy even though he can clearly see that the people around him are making unimpressed faces. So, of course he would become a guy who attends five sessions a week and talks about his therapy all the time. And, just like his commitment to exercise and maintaining a positive attitude, of course characters around him would be a little weirded out by that. However, I sometimes felt like the program was mocking Chris for having seriously out of kilter feelings (his over the top crying scenes) and trying to get help with his situation.
So, I was really excited to see "Emergency Response" show that reaching out for help has benefitted Chris. In this episode he gets declared dead in a disaster preparedness simulation. While Chris was terrified of death before therapy (that's what prompted his extreme exercise and health regimen), and would have been thrown into a spin even by fake death, now he's able to accept the card, grin and keep going. And all of a sudden, the program pushes back a little bit at its own mockery of Chris and his feelings by allowing him to "win". Therapy and the journey to emotional repair are much more complicated than they are shown to be by Chris' particular journey, and I'd be interested to hear how other people responded to this storyline, but I thought that his particular, short term comedy version of dealing with mental health problems at least ended well for him and I liked that.
- Ana: April and Andy's wedding ("Fancy Party", S3 E9): Oh, this episode! Bonus points for the absolutely perfect use of "April Come She Will" by Simon and Garfunkel. My favourite thing about April and Andy's wedding was that it was the kind of impulsive, spur of the moment thing people will immediately make doomsday pronunciations about, and yet it worked. There's something really heartwarming about seeing people triumph and be happy when everyone around them kind of expects them to be setting themselves up for failure. And that right there captures something that's at the very heart of "Parks and Rec" and that makes me love it so much.
- Jodie: Ben and Leslie's wedding. ALL THE HEARTS! They make such a wonderful couple as they each bring their own drives and peculiarities in to make an interesting, loving, supportive household. And the ceremony felt exactly as I think any wedding should - like a celebration that people create so everyone they care about can share their joy at your happiness. I love how so many people were actively involved in pulling the ceremony together and that friends made things for the ceremony. Craft gift love is one of my favourite kinds of love.
My top moments from the episode are Ann's reaction to having to finish a wedding dress for her perfectionist best friend (everything has prepared her for this one day), the finished dress (such a lovely mix of traditional and elegant craft fashion), Ron making the rings (dies), how everyone gets involved, Ben's fake out about her needing to take his last name, Ben and Chris' moment, the two of them on the bench and of course "I love you and I like you". Have a Pinterest album full of feelings about it.
- Ana: April and Leslie's day as garbage collectors ("Women in Garbage", S5 E11): This was just such an awesome and unapologetically feminist episode. It was lovely to see these ladies use their wits to overcome an unfair setup and win the day.
- Jodie: I have to mention Leslie winning the election!
'It's still 21 votes. But you won.'
- Ana: Leslie's "I guess some people object to powerful depictions of awesome ladies." ("Jerry's Painting", S3 E11). Says it all, right? :D
- Jodie & Ana: Last but certainly not least, Little Sebastian's funeral (sniff) and Andy's song, "5000 Candles in the Wind":
It may seem morbid to pick the funeral of a tiny horse as a favourite moment, but you've got to trust us that the send off the town throws is joyous and loving and you need to experience it because it will make your heart swell.
A few more awesome gifs and videos:
Leslie's Ice Rink Campaign Stop
Other Reviews and Supplemental Material:
- "31 Days of Awesome Women: Day Six - Leslie Knope" - underline everything
- "Give Me Everything (Parks and Recreation)"
- Festivids - Parks and Recreations
- Bitch Media: A Big Feminist Yep to Leslie Knope
- Diana Peterfreund: In Praise of Parks & Recreation
- Feministing: Five Feminist Teachings in Parks and Recreation
- Review at The F Word