Parks and Recreation: Pawnee’s Empty Promises
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.
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.