Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #10 - Parks and Recreation


When this show first came out, it seemed like the less intelligent cousin to The Office.  And to be sure, Parks and Recreation had a lot of growing pains.  For a long time, the show had trouble finding its way.  But finally, everything clicked and not only made the show click, but it made the previous awkward episodes more watchable.

There are 3 stars to this show.  The first is Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.  Poehler is one of the finest comediennes ever on television.  She brings a passionate intensity to her character that is at the same time infuriating and endearing.  She is so earnest that you cannot help but admire her.  And even when she steamrolls, she does so with great enthusiasm and love.  She is masterful at both joke delivery and funny body language.

But the second star counterbalances her: Nick Overman as Ron Swanson.  He is the prefect foil to Leslie and their comedic chemistry is not only wonderful, but he has some of the funniest lines of the show.  His part is not very showy, but there is a masculine restraint and deadpan that he is able to draw out amazing laughs with very little outward energy.

Finally, Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer shines in this show.  This is surprising since his character was mostly an unlikable leech in the first season.  But Pratt brings an innocent enthusiasm to his performance that you can see his mental wheels slowly turn and he rings every laugh not only out of every gesture but with some pretty wild pratfalls.  He isn't afraid to go big, which is perfect for his character.

The rest of the supporting cast is also fantastic.  Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, and Aubrey Plaza are fantastic.  Rashida Jones plays the shows "straight man."  Aziz Ansari is mostly annoying, but after a few seasons you get used to him.

One of the show's strengths is that it plays politics at large on the local level for laughs.  Leslie is for larger, more involved government.  Ron is for no government at all.  Surprisingly, the show does not make Ron automatically wrong the way Family Ties did for Alex P. Keaton.  Instead, his points are made and sometimes Leslie has to learn from them.  In one episode, they are planning on putting a copy of Twilight into a town time capsule.  One very conservative looking woman stands up and objects because of how anti-Christian and sensual the book is.  Another liberal hipster-looking man stands up and objects because the book is too overtly Christian.  The show works best when it mines humor from both sides of the political spectrum.  And while Leslie and Ron often disagree, there is still a notable mutual respect.

Of course it should be noted that while there is a healthy respect on the show for liberalism and libertarian moral conservatism is caricatured and lampooned.  The weakest and worst part of the show is when moral issues come up like "gay marriage," pornography, or contraception comes up, anyone who espouses a traditionally moral position is painted in broad, villainous brushstrokes.

But the above is not often a factor.  Instead, the show is an hysterical collection of social foibles in small town America.

"Flu Season" (3x02)

This show has a particularly long threshold because it took a long time for it to find its voice.  If you go and watch the first season, you can see the bones of some of the great characters like Ron and Andy, but something wasn't clicking.  In the second season, things became funnier, but the show had yet to become appointment television.

But at the end of the second season, they cut Mark Brandanawitz (an adequate Paul Schneider) and added the relentlessly cheery Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) and the budget slashing Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott).  This cast shake up was exactly what the show needed.  And this became clear in the Flu Season episode.

In this episode, Leslie has to give a make-or-break presentation to local businesses, but she is too sick with flu to do it well.  Some of Poehler's funniest moments come in this episode.  It also clearly sets the space and relationships to all the other characters and the chemistry finally begins to percolate.

"Sex Education" (5x04)
As stated earlier, here is where the show loses some of its spark.  This episode uses an outbreak of STD's among the elderly as a metaphor for getting contraceptives to teens.  It is with this episode that the show takes not only a kind of nasty stab at people who are interested in morals, it takes a dip in writing quality.  The shows bad guys become completely 1-dimensional  In the previous episode, they introduced Councilman Jamm, who has no other function than to be a jerk.  Nothing he does is funny or logical.  He is unpleasant to watch and makes every scene he is in uncomfortable to watch.  The "bad guys" in this episode are also portrayed this way.

There is a laziness here that pops up more and more from this point forward on the show.

"April and Andy's Fancy Party"

There is an episode in the 5th season called "Two Parties" that has some of the shows best moments as all of the male characters go on a bachelor party marathon, but the other half of the show is not nearly as good.

But this episode from the 3rd season was surprising and hilarious.  April is a dour, cynical 21-year-old who has fallen in love with the man-child Andy despite herself.  After nearly a year of "will-they-won't they," they finally start dating a few episodes earlier.  And then in this episode they throw a fancy party that Leslie only finds out later is going to be their wedding night.

Leslie's reaction is fantastic:  "Why?  Why.... why... is this wonderful thing happening?"  The rest of the episode plays out with some fantastic character moments with the rest of the cast that is both funny and joyous.

On a side note, I was so shocked that these two characters got married.  Instead of following the usual path on TV (and other characters on the show) of engaging in a long-running sexual relationship and then maybe getting married, these two get married and then move in together.  I'm not saying that they are paragons of virtue, but it was strangely refreshing as it was clear that they took their vows seriously.  And it was nice to see how they each complimented each others qualities and made each other better characters.

The episode is silly and touching, like much of the series.


Parks and Recreation is a silly show that is fun to watch and incredibly endearing.  Thinking about the show will not fail to leave a smile on your face.  The show has one more season and can still knock it out of the park with some amazing energy and wacky humor along with an earnest spirit.

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