Parks and Recreation: Pawnee’s Empty Promises

Parks and Recreation cast

Cult hit Parks and Recreation has delivered a particularly warm brand of surreal comedy throughout its run thus far. Up against ratings giant The Big Bang Theory, it has always been crucial that Parks retains its loyal base of followers. As a devout member of that following, I have felt particularly disappointed with the current season of the mockumentary series. The sitcom has been unusually static since the end of Season 5, relying on a continuum of storyline beginnings that never follow through to reward the loyal viewer.

While romantic storylines have been boldly resolved in a very timely fashion (with three couples married, another expecting a baby), personal growth and success has been limited for the full ensemble. Season 6 has seen Leslie lose her job, the under-the-radar departure of Chris and Ann, the hasty disappearance of April’s veterinary ambitions and the end of Tom’s beloved business. Gone are the days where viewers can root for the success of the Harvest Festival, and are rewarded with seeing it come to fruition. The Pawnee townspeople who were once a humorous diversion now seem impossibly cruel and deeply infuriating, particularly in their treatment of Leslie. At a certain point, that dynamic needs to shift in Leslie’s favour – otherwise the show itself will stop being a humorous diversion. At its best, Parks thrived through its celebration of friendship and professional ambition – an enjoyable contrast to its sister show, The Office. While The Office flourished with its awkward, more realist brand of comedy, where the antagonism between Jim and Dwight was one of the biggest sources for laughs, the Parks writers pursued an unusually optimistic style. Going against the grain was a huge part of the show’s appeal.

The election recall, which saw Leslie lose her seat on the city council, was arguably the most disappointing moment of the season so far. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that did nothing to pay tribute to the whole season spent building up to Leslie’s election. Every character’s Season 4 story was devoted to the campaign, and it offered one of the few non-romantic payoffs the show has seen. Just over a year later, Leslie’s job evaporates in a second. This narrative choice was not dissimilar to the hasty downfall of Tom’s singular success, Rent-a-Swag. After years of ridiculous business ideas and the detrimental interference of Jean-Ralphio, Tom finally had a financially successful business and a hint of a storyline! That was until it came crashing down, with zero comedic value to boot. Perhaps if any of the episodes in question brought laughs, the static storytelling could be forgivable, but it has predominantly been a humourless deconstruction of both characters’ successes. Of course, this may simply be the writers’ way of keeping the characters within the parks department for the sake of the show. However, having two central characters crash and burn at the same time really drew attention to how detrimentally that can affect the storytelling.

In Ann's final episode, she and Leslie revisit the pit.
In Ann’s final episode, she and Leslie revisit the pit.

Presumably due to the chaos of Leslie’s old job as councilwoman, the writers also neglected the original goal of their protagonist way back in Season 1 – to build the park where the pit was. This is a storyline that gets picked up and dropped more often than a hot potato in a game of hot potato. It was the pit that initially brought the parks crew together, with Ann and Leslie’s friendship forming over the issue. In Ann’s departing episode, it was once again brought up (without any other recent reference). I’m possibly in the minority with this opinion, but it felt like the writers were attempting to exploit the park for emotion as Ann’s departure beckoned. It felt insincere and odd, having not heard about the park in so long prior to the episode. I hope they do pursue the building of the park in the upcoming episodes, though, because it would at least bring closure to this long-running storyline. At a certain point, as with drawn out TV relationships, it starts to become frustrating that there is no development.

April, possibly the most reliable comedic asset the show has right now, has been similarly stunted. Her apathy is her defining character trait, with Aubrey Plaza’s delightful deadpan style providing much of the comedy, but April’s lack of ambition seems to fall into a Parks trend. In the Season 4 episode, Live Ammo (aka The West Wing homage episode), April expressed quite a fondness for animals. For a while, it was suggested that that might be her path: a career helping animals in some way, in addition to looking after her loveable puppy of a husband. At one point, the show even saw her applying for a veterinary course. Praise be, I thought! This could be an interesting way to build on April’s character, and have her branch out beyond her dry one-liners. Within an episode that saw her take a campus tour with Ann, she had lost interest, a disappointing yet no longer surprising twist. Tonally, the episode in which April changed her mind about the veterinary course felt particularly off. There seemed to be a deeper reason for the move, but this was never explored onscreen. Viewers were left to assume that her apathy ultimately won out.

One storyline that by its very nature has to offer some closure is a good old-fashioned pregnancy. The timeline of a pregnancy also makes it ideal for a network television season. Parks‘ sixth season offered up two baby bumps, in fact. The first, revealed in the fifth season finale, is Ron and Diane’s accidental pregnancy; the second, revealed in the sixth season premiere, is Ann’s much hoped for baby – with Chris. Diane’s baby has since been mentioned approximately one time, despite the prominence of Ron’s character. The couple were married in the premiere and no further mention to the relationship has been made, beyond a midseason episode that saw Ron and Chris bond over impending fatherhood. They certainly haven’t mentioned the birth of Baby Swanson, despite the worryingly long gestation period, so it remains to be seen whether that will actually feature. The birth of Ann’s baby certainly won’t. Despite that Ann’s focus was entirely about her dream to be a mother, Chris and Ann departed Pawnee before the labour pains even started so viewers never received the payoff of the storyline by actually showing Ann as a mother.

Isn’t it about time the people of Pawnee came to appreciate Leslie Knope? Can the loveable staffers of the parks department just catch a break? Whether that means finally building that park, winning another election, or just progressing in their jobs, it’s about time that Pawnee showed the characters a little love – and it’s about time the writers do too! It’s time to move the story forward.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Great article!
    This is the first season that Parks has disappointed me. I love your comparison of the tone of Parks to that of The Office–the trademark optimism of Parks has certainly been lacking this season. Hopefully with the departure of two main characters, the writers will be able to focus more attention on getting the show back on track.

  2. Let me preface that I loved this show for years (since season 2), have all the seasons on DVD and have watched the series numerous times, especially season 2.
    However, this last season has been VERY poor. I can’t believe it was renewed. I might actually stop watching it at this point…

  3. I definitely agree with you about so many things this article covers. I predicted that they would bring up the park again for Ann’s departure, and though it was a nice moment, I felt like it was bit of a downfall in some sense – they wanted to build up this park from season 1, but even though they kind of “started” it now, most likely they will put the park story back to the filing cabinet for a while.
    The Swanson baby is also a mystery – it will be interesting to see whether they mention that in the future.
    It has been disappointing too that there has not been proper plotlines for Tom and Donna, which I think both are very interesting characters and worth writing more about.

  4. J Ellis

    I used to be a diehard Parks and Recs fan, but then I took a bit of a break between last season and this one. I’m only now starting to get caught up on Season 5. I’m two episodes into Season 5, and I just can’t see the same show that made me fall in love with it before. The characters are stagnant, the plot seems to moving at a snail’s pace, and the humor that used to be so rip-snorting funny now falls flat and seems trite. I might not have the will to continue on with Season 5, at this rate…whatever the case, P&R is really past its heyday. The show will need to make a dramatic turnaround, or Season 6 will be its last.

    • Jimenez

      I actually liked season 5 but this current season, is what’s getting to me. Ah well, disappointing but easy to move on from.

  5. Derek J.

    So I agree with you on all of this, but I think they’re just getting us ready for an amazing season up ahead. I sure hope so.. But this has to be my least-favorite season of Parks and Rec thus far…

  6. I feel that a final 13 episode 7th Season would be ok for this show. That would be enough time to wrap things up. Pretty much every Season on this show has to be set up as if it’s the last one (without resolving the park), which has gotten old.

    I’m happy for the cast, since they seem to enjoy filming the show and seem to be generally happy being connected to it, but I also feel that they’re starting to run out of ideas. I hope Season 7 is 13 episodes, and I’d rather it be aired after the Holiday break, so that the writers don’t rush anything.

    • I’ll try to watch till the end, because I try to stay faithful to shows that I have enjoyed and stick with the characters until the screen fades to black for the final time. But honestly, if it keeps declining, I’m not sure I’ll be able to and that thought makes me very sad, seeing as how this was once one of my favorite shows and it has really brought me a lot of joy. It still has its moments, but I don’t think anyone would claim that it’s as good as it once was, and I can only see it getting worse, not better, as they drag it out. I want to remember this show as something that I looked forward to every week and enjoyed watching. Hopefully the writers can make that a reality for me, but I’m not very convinced. I’d hate to see this go the way of The Office, where by the end most people I knew were just wanting the show to be put out of it’s misery. Seems like that might be where it’s headed.

      • Muriel Ph

        For me its “former glory” was: small town, small problems, small lady with a big heart and more enthusiasm than any human ever.

        I don’t see how it can get back to that when the line now seems to be “You’re meant for bigger and better than this, Leslie Knope.” I suppose as a fan I’m supposed to be cheering Leslie on to the big leagues, but that’s not for me. I liked Leslie small town (even Councilwoman was too much). She works best as a character with zest for the small and seemingly meaningless project. That’s why I loved her, anyway.

  7. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Pointing out how the show differs from the Office due to its more optimistic approach to humor is really spot on. It gives Parks and Rec a moral advantage over most contemporary shows, and I think it’s one of the reasons for the show’s lasting appeal. It’s focus on relationships has yet to devolve into soap territory, as well, thank god, and I hope the show continues to have strong writing and a strong cast.

    Great read!

  8. Robert Humphrey

    I generally agree with everything you’ve said. I’ve had some good laughs throughout season 6 thus far, but it definitely isn’t as good as previous seasons for many of the reasons you have expressed. Ron’s baby has been a source of confusion for me all season. That plotline has seemed to just disappear. I wouldn’t really call Diane’s gestational period “worryingly long,” we’re not past the typical gestational period in terms of time. But we’re definitely approaching the “Diane needs to give birth NOW” stage. If we don’t see and/or hear anything about this in the next couple episodes, then I’ll start getting worried.

    I assumed April’s abrupt disinterest in veterinarian school has to do with the writers needing a female “replacement” for Leslie since Ann is leaving. And with April in school in Bloomington, that would’ve taken away from potential storylines with April and Leslie. But the way they dropped the storyline was so sudden.

    I don’t anticipate any building of a park at the pit this season. I could be completely wrong about this, but I’ve always assumed that the building of the park would begin during the final season and that the completion of the park would happen for the series finale, as it’s a way to bring the show full circle. And based on comments the president of NBC has made, Parks and Rec is unofficially renewed. And while another season is quite possible, I’d assume it would be the final season, which is when I think the park storyline will really take off. So, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if don’t hear much more about the park itself for the rest of this season. I agree with Angel that a final, 13-episode season 7 would be a good way to end out the series.

  9. I’m going to give some credit to the show -it’s been unbelievably satisfying until this point and I feel like the writers know what they’re doing. This is midseason; we’re supposed to be at the lowest point and build our way back up so in the finale things look optimistic again.

    I trust the reason they took Leslie off City Council was to give her bigger and better things in the future -look no further than her 1 hour conversation with Jennifer Barkley. Jennifer said that Leslie has the potential to make change on a higher level, and I take that conversation as a subtle hint of things to come in the future. Mayor, maybe even a House representative? There’s no way they’re going to leave Leslie in the Parks department forever.

    As for April, I too believe there’s a deeper reason for her lack of interest in vet school, but again, I think that will come out with some time. April probably wouldn’t open up to Ann about it – I think we’ll see her having this conversation with Andy or Leslie. Also, working her way up to director of animal control is no small feat. She’s had growth.

    As for the babies, I’m more than sure we’ll get our fair share of humor with Ron and his mini Swanson when it’s born -Diane is not a main character, so being with her during her pregnancy is not a priority for the show. And Rashida and Rob wanted to leave the show, so it’s not really the writers’ fault that they can’t follow up on Ann’s pregnancy. I’m fine with not really seeing it.

    Anyway I’m a defender of Parks and Rec and I really hope this seasons ends up just as great as the other ones.

    • Oh and as for Tom -again, similar to Leslie, I think they made him sell Rent a Swag so that he had his first experience with a successful business, which taught him a lot and gave him some cash to start something new. The writers are avoiding stagnancy; they don’t want the characters to be stuck in the same job/place for long, so they move them on to bigger and better things eventually. We got the comedy out of Rent A Swag and now its time for Tom to find something better and funnier to invest in.

  10. It might not be as good as it was, but its still a fantastic show.

    As much as I love the show, the 7th season should probably be its last, most shows go stagnant by season 3/4 and not many survive. Parks is a great show, but it will get to the point where there won’t be much more they can do with the story, especially now key cast members have left.

    Hopefully a 7th season will allow them to lead up to and write a great send off for this show. there is nothing worse when a show is allowed to run to long then cut off without warning (i.e My Name is Earl)

  11. Ernesto

    Why can’t a good show end when it’s time to, just once? Why do they always have to end way too early or way too late? Why must shows just go on and on and on until no one cares about them anymore and their cancellation is met with cheers and remarks about how it should’ve ended years ago? Why can’t people just say “Hey, we had a good run. Let’s quit while we’re ahead.”? Money, I guess. The Almighty Dollar beats Artistic Integrity every time. What a shame. Imagine if ‘The Simpsons’ had quit after Season 8. Imagine if ‘The Office’ quit after Season 4. Imagine if the UK ‘Shameless’ had quit after Season 3. Imagine if ‘Weeds’ had quit after Season 3. Those shows would’ve been remembered with fondness and reverence. They aren’t, though. They’re always remembered as shows that used to be good but turned to crap. Oh, well. It’s just the Nature of the Beast, I guess.

    On the bright side, this is one less show I’ll be watching. I’m down to two, both HBO shows with short runs. I went several years without watching TV at all and they were good years. I think it’s time to pull the plug again.

  12. H. M. Bradford
    H. M. Bradford

    I couldn’t agree more about the appearance of dead-end after dead-end in storyline arc and character development. It’s beginning to turn into a a sort of deja vu recap of all its (admittedly once wonderful) comedic tropes, which is disappointing.

    I’m also already fed up with Billy Eichner’s character. Beyond the fact that I don’t find him funny in any context, he contributes nothing to scenes beyond being hyperbolically obnoxious. Whenever Craig speaks it feels like the writers are waving his mediocre 2-dimensional outbursts in the viewer’s face as a distraction while the plot goes nowhere.

  13. The only reason why this is still on is because it is the only hit NBC has.

  14. Although I still enjoy watching the show and find many parts to be comedic, I agree that the lack of progress and stagnancy exhibited by many of the main characters has become frustrating. The show has to end eventually, and it would be nice to see characters in a better place than when we first met them. The Office was particularly good at wrapping up in a manner that satisfied viewers, yet remained comical.

  15. Sam Hughes

    Good article. I fell in love with this series because of season one and have been watching ever since.

  16. Kevin Licht

    While I do agree with a majority of your observations as to the direction of the show, the one disagreement that I have is about it being a disappointing direction. To me this show started with Leslie having big dreams and this season is establishing that her, and the other characters have outgrown Pawnee and it’s time to move on.

    While Pawnee will always be there home, these characters all have so much potential that has been run down by the town (something that may be apparent based on Andy’s stay in London).

    Based on a recent interview on the Andy Greenwald podcast, Jim O’Heir (Jerry, Gerry, Larry?) said there is something big coming up after the Olympic break, so there may be a saving grace for folks who are losing faith, but in my mind this is still the best television show out there.

  17. Not a huge fan of the current season, but I hold out hope. It is still miles better than most other half hour comedies these days. It’s sweet without being saccharine.

  18. Karina Velasco

    You make so many excellent points in this article! When I started watching this show I found myself entertained by almost every single episode, but now I watch with little to no enthusiasm. I agree that there needs to be some kind of positive advancement in the plot before all fans of the show start to turn away. With a show like this, it’s impossible to keep it running on love stories alone because that’s not what this show was originally about. I would love to see the re-emergence of Knope’s fight for the park, I think that would recapture the attention of many. I’ll be interested to see how the writers continue the show, and hope that they don’t disappoint!

  19. MRattay

    I’ve particularly enjoyed the focus on failure in the last few seasons. It’s nice to see characters adamantly trying at something and failing simply because it reminds us about the very possibility of it. While I agree that Leslie does need some more victories ahead of her, it makes the show more grounded if her environment is a little more hesitant of her. That and the cadre of enemies being accumulated on the show is delightful in its own way.

    Also considering the recent failure and stagnation of politics in Washington, I think this is a reasonable direction for a semi-political show to go in.

  20. I completely agree that this has been the worst season so far, but even Parks and Recreation’s worst is better than so-many-other-shows-on-televison’s best. (Granted it is now April and the show has come a long way since February). The show has still not wrapped up some of these plot lines, but I believe the writers struck gold with this Unity Concert idea (if only that came sooner). I have high hopes for this season finale as the last two episodes really gained speed.

  21. Samantha Leersen

    I’m a recent fan of this show, and I loved it as a whole. But, I definitely felt like the later seasons were missing something that the earlier seasons had. You’ve articulated that ‘something’ really well here.

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