Parks and Recreation: What to Expect After Rashida Jones’s Departure
Thursday, January 30th will mark Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe’s last episode as regular cast members on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Jones described her last day of filming as “one of the most emotional days of [her] life…total Parks and Wreck.” While Lowe’s character, Chris Traeger, will also be greatly missed, his departure will not affect the dynamic of the show nearly as much as that of Jones’s character, Ann Perkins. What is it about Ann’s friendship with Leslie Knope that makes it such a valuable part of the show, and what can we expect after Ann’s departure?
Some critics have argued that Ann Perkins is not a well-developed character and that her departure will have little effect on the show as a whole. While I could write another full article detailing the ways in which Ann is a well-developed character, I want to focus on her friendship with Leslie. The town of Pawnee is, after all, “first in friendship, fourth in obesity,” but in a show built around friendship, perhaps the most important of all is that of Leslie and Ann. In the pilot episode of Parks, Ann attends a town hall meeting, led by Leslie, in order to voice her concerns about the dangerous pit behind her house. It was the beginning of the platonic love story of the series: Leslie goes from being “that parks lady,” as Ann refers to her in the first episode, to Ann’s “best friend in the world.”
Leslie is inarguably one of the most enthusiastic and selfless characters on television, but this is most evident through her friendship with Ann. She is a constant support to Ann, from providing anecdote after horrible anecdote of her own dating history to comfort Ann after being dumped by Chris, to celebrating every possible friendship anniversary (including “Calendar Day,” the first time she gave Ann a calendar), to finding an exceptional number of ways to describe Ann’s beauty. Though Leslie always means well, her level of caring can be overwhelming at times. As Valentine’s Day approaches in the episode “Operation Ann,” Leslie vows, “Ann, you beautiful spinster, I will find you love.” Focused on her desire to make Ann happy, she continually tries to set Ann up with various men at a Valentine’s Day party. Though Ann is disenchanted by the barrage of men with whom she is incompatible, before leaving the party, she acknowledges to Leslie, “What’s lucky is that I have a best friend who spent her Valentine’s Day trying to find me a date.” Ann also mentions her frustration at trying to be as good a friend as Leslie in “Article Two,” an episode from season five. With Breakfast Day, yet another anniversary Leslie celebrates, approaching, Ann feels guilty that she can never give Leslie gifts that are nearly as thoughtful as the ones Leslie gives her. Ben Wyatt, who, as Leslie’s husband, shares Ann’s guilt, joins forces with Ann in this episode. Inevitably they both realize how lucky they are to have someone in their lives who cares so deeply for them.
While Leslie’s non-stop energy is unparalleled, Ann shows her love in different ways, whether through cooperating with one of Leslie’s schemes or texting Leslie every thirty seconds to let her know everything will be okay. Ann frequently fills the role of “straight man” in the early seasons of the show, which often requires her to be the voice of reason in some of Leslie’s wackier ideas. While it’s true that Ben fills a similar role upon his arrival, he approaches situations with a degree of cynicism that Ann does not possess. Unlike the depiction of far too many female friendships on television, Leslie and Ann’s relationship is both well-developed and focused on their support of each other in all aspects of their lives. Though she is rational, Ann is optimistic: she encourages Leslie in her relationship with Ben, she is Leslie’s constant cheerleader, and she tries to be as good a friend to Leslie as Leslie is to her, which, in one touching instance, leads Ann to volunteer to be Leslie’s city council campaign manager after Leslie’s original staff decides they can no longer support her. When Leslie worries about the possibility of having a disastrous first date, Ann provides exposure therapy by taking her out on a worst-case scenario practice date, eventually giving Leslie the confidence that she can handle anything.
Leslie and Ann’s friendship appeared to be heading for even greater development in season five with Ann’s motherhood arc. Though the idea seemed to appear out of the blue, Ann’s decision to pursue single motherhood was both an empowering choice for her character and an idea that Leslie came to support. It would have been refreshing to see Ann take this step with the support of her best friend, but things take a turn for the traditional after Ann asks Chris to be the sperm donor. Because neither is totally comfortable with the in-vitro fertilization process, they opt to conceive the baby naturally, since they are still attracted to each other. The relationship that results seems forced, given that Chris broke off their first relationship and that after working with Chris post-break up, Ann came to the realization that she and Chris are wrong for each other. Their relationship appears to be based on having a baby together, but because their lack of a relationship was not a factor in Ann asking Chris to be the sperm donor, the romance is out of place.
So what will Parks look like when one half of the Leslie and Ann friendship is gone? Unfortunately, Parks is giving us a premature answer to that question. Disappointingly, in recent episodes, the writers seem to be distancing Ann from everyone but Chris, as well as from her own characterization. This is most evident in the recent episode, “New Beginnings,” in which Ann has no scenes without Chris. The only other member of the parks department she has any interaction with is Jerry, a character with whom she does not have a significant relationship. In the scene, Jerry asks when she and Chris are getting married, leading Chris to propose to her in the middle of the courtyard. In the background, Jerry is choking on his lunch, and both Ann and Chris completely ignore him. Not only does the scene lack humor: it is entirely out of character for Ann, a nurse, who would not stand idly by while someone was choking. A similar scene in season five involves other characters laughing at Jerry, not realizing he is having a heart attack, but in that instance Ann jumps in and takes control of the situation, a reaction in line with both her occupation and characterization.
The writers seem to be preparing the audience for the void caused by the loss of Leslie and Ann’s friendship. Ann and Leslie have not had a scene together since “Recall Vote,” meaning that the five episodes prior to Ann’s departure include no interaction between the two. In the most recent episode, “Farmers Market,” although Ann does spend some time away from Chris, she still has no scenes with Leslie. This is particularly telling, because Ann’s main arc in the episode is complaining to April, Donna, Tom, Ron, and Jerry about Chris’s overbearing attentiveness. This is something she would normally share with Leslie, as she did countless times during past relationships. Perhaps the writers want to distance Ann from Leslie so that her departure will be less noticeable: it’s difficult to miss a dynamic that hasn’t been present in the show for an extended period of time. Notably, Chris’s role in “Farmers Market” could just as easily been written for Leslie, for whom it would be completely normal to fawn over Ann and try to solve all of her problems. This seems to be yet another instance of the writers elevating the romance of Ann and Chris over the friendship of Ann and Leslie; although romance is an important element of the show, in the past it didn’t overshadow friendship to the extent that it does in recent episodes.
I haven’t given up hope on the show, though—based on promos, this week’s episode looks to be a tearjerker, and it seems likely that Ann and Leslie will get a proper goodbye. It’s disappointing that so much of Jones and Lowe’s last episodes on the show were wasted in what feels like a forced romance, but hopefully their departure will leave room for the writers to pick up much of the character development that seems to have fallen by the wayside in season six. Without the often painful plotline of Ann and Chris’s relationship, we can hope for more screen time for some of the minor characters, and perhaps even a bump to main cast for Retta, who plays Donna Meagle. Though April is not a replacement for Ann, it would be nice to see more of her friendship with Leslie. Although Parks won’t be quite the same without Ann and Chris, series co-creator Michael Schur assured fans in a statement that “as important as Ann is to Leslie (and vice-versa), she’ll certainly never be far from Pawnee.” As Ann and Chris spread their wings and fly like two characters in a Mouse Rat song, there is no doubt that we’ll miss them in the saddest fashion.
What do you think? Leave a comment.