Why Parks and Recreation is TV's Best Show
On April 9, 2009, after an episode of The Office, what was billed by the press as a spin-off show called Parks and Recreation launched.
Parks and Recreation didn't start as humbly as The Office, which was in the middle of its best arc of its fifth season, and one of the best arcs in the entire show. Earlier that year, The Office was featured by NBC after the Super Bowl, and was really as strong as it had ever been. And on April 9, an episode of The Office called “The Michael Scott Paper Company” provided as strong a lead-in as NBC could provide. Unlike The Office, the cast and crew weren't all no-names: not only was the show co-created by Greg Daniels, the creator and longtime showrunner of The Office, but the cast also featured SNL alumna Amy Poehler and Office alumna Rashida Jones. And at 9:30 PM, after The Office ended, Parks and Recreation debuted…in a sandbox.
It's been all uphill from there.
Despite a shortened season one and a lengthy hiatus between seasons two and three (which was written as a government shutdown), Parks and Recreation has hit its comedic stride, and consistently produces the funniest TV on Thursday nights. But why is it so funny, especially when its protoype continues to struggle for laughs, ratings and relevancy?
WARNING: Spoilers that reference some specific and some unspecific plot points ahead.
The biggest reason why Parks and Rec is Parks and Rec is the characters, and without a doubt, the most original character on Parks and Rec is Ron Swanson. Ron is an anti-government, pro-guns, pro-bacon Libertarian who somehow rose through the ranks of city government to become the director of Parks and Recreation. It's tempting to call Ron the straight man, but that's not quite fair, because while he plays the straight man a lot of the time, he's equally funny when he's the main character in a bit. Ron, played by Nick Offerman, doesn't rely on dialogue to be funny; he can get laughs with a mere facial expression or mustache twitch. Ron's backstory is complicated, messy and involves way too many women named Tammy, and it seems like every week we learn something new about this guy who looked as one dimensional as you could get in the pilot.
And somehow, despite all of Ron's annoyances and the fact that he seems to be going against the rest of the department a lot of the time, he's a likable character. Maybe it's just the fact that he's so funny, but while Ron is pessimistic about government as a whole, he seems to care about the people he works with. One of those people is Leslie Knope, the deputy director and in many ways the main character of the show. Leslie (played ingeniously by Amy Poehler) is Ron's polar opposite, by almost any metric. She's optimistic, loves her job, and wears her emotions on her sleeve. (One thing Ron and Leslie do share a fondness for is breakfast food, though.) The dynamic between Leslie and Ron is incredibly interesting to watch because it's often very funny, but it's also two people who shouldn't get along, getting along. Ron sticks his neck out for Leslie on more than one occasion, and despite Ron's negative attitude at times, Leslie is always ready to help him out or involve him on a new project.
Tom Haverford (played by Aziz Ansari) also works for the Parks department, and besides Ron, is the most oft-quoted character from the show. He's sort of your typical “ladies man with a sensitive side”, but he's able to add a twist to the energy Leslie and Ron create. Tom is also responsible for Jean Ralphio, his playboy-wannabe friend who isn't a regular cast member but appears frequently, and never fails to amuse.
Andy Dwyer (played by Chris Pratt) has had the most turbulent journey through Parks and Rec. He started out as an inspiration for Leslie Knope's park project, living with his girlfriend Ann Perkins. She kicked him out when she found out he was taking advantage of her, so he became homeless. He became a shoe shiner at city hall, found an apartment, married April Ludgate, and got a promotion to administrative assistant. He did all this while never giving the viewer the impression he had a clue what he was doing. Andy's in a band, and “Mouse Rat” has provided the soundtrack to some of the show's episodes (famously, “5000 Candles in the Wind”, a song to mourn a tiny horse that needed to be “like ‘Candle in the Wind’, only 5000 times better."), and Andy has never lost his optimism even though he's had a difficult road. Andy is the show's metaphor for the “American dream”, and shows optimism that anyone can make it, anywhere.
Rounding out the cast are April Ludgate, the cynical intern-turned-office-assistant, Ben Wyatt, the former teen-mayor turned accountant, Chris Trager, the optimistic, energetic exercise nut, Gerry Gurgich, who Ron calls both the schlemeiel and the shlamazel, and Donna Meagle, who enjoys the finer things in life. Parks and Rec is one of those shows where it just looks like everyone is having fun, that they genuinely enjoy coming to work every day to work with people they genuinely enjoy.
The chemistry is that strong, between everyone. None of the characters are just funny, none of them are just slapstick: they all have heart. We identify with them. You know that thing you do where you say “so-and-so at my office is exactly like Ron,” or “so-and-so and Tom would get along great”? My theory is you do that more when you empathize with the characters like you empathize with real people. And I'll tell you this: I have a person at my office in mind for every character in Parks and Rec.
It's worth saying that the writers and actors play equal roles in the success of the characters. Without Nick Offerman's acting chops (and mustache chops), the writers would have to explicitly write jokes for Offerman to repeat, but instead they can write “Ron makes joyful facial expression” and the effect is just as good.
Conversely, the writers, given Nick Offerman's considerable talent, must face incredible temptation to take Ron too far, or make him jump the shark, so to speak. This happened with The Office. At some point, someone asked “wait a minute, wouldn't Dwight get arrested for setting a fire in a populated building and sealing the exits and almost causing a heart attack fatality? Wouldn't Stanley sue?” Since I noticed that, Dwight has become a caricature of his former self. Most of his humor is self-referential, and most of his continued funniness relies on the imagination of the writers to imagine new things for Dwight to do or become. In fairness, this happens with most shows, even dramas, like Kramer or George in the last couple seasons of Seinfeld, or like Jack Bauer in the last couple seasons of 24.
This hasn't happened with Parks and Rec. It might happen at some point, like it did with The Office, but hopefully not before they've exhausted the considerable comedy of Pawnee, IN. Because the writers and actors work together to force each other to keep the characters themselves, Ron, Leslie, Tom, Andy and everyone else continue to surprise and entertain us each week.
I wrote that Parks and Recreation started during one of the better arcs of one of The Office‘s better seasons. A big part of why season 5 was great was what was going on in the world at the time. The economy was failing (and getting worse), and companies all over the US were laying off workers and closing their doors. The economy of the world also affected Dunder Mifflin, and for that reason we felt connected to The Office in a more real way than before. Dunder Mifflin became your typical, struggling small business and we got to see how these characters reacted to those circumstances. Louis CK once said that comedy is about taking the audience somewhere they're afraid of and making them laugh, and if you believe that, season 5 of The Office was the purest form of comedy.
As I write this, it's February 2012. In less than nine months, we'll either reelect President Obama or elect another contender to take his place. Thanks to YouTube and social media, it already seems like politics are everywhere and we're being force-fed them whether we like it or not.
But getting involved in politics is tricky. Our country is deeply divided and what offends one side delights the other. Parks and Recreation wasn't stupid enough to pick sides. Rather than making election references and having fans’ favorite characters come out in support of a candidate they don't like, the writers have created their own election. This is genius for several reasons. First, it's a lifelong dream of Leslie Knope so it fits with her character. It's almost like they planned for this year, this season, since the show's beginning (when Leslie was talking about taking her White House staff through her park). Second, it's gotten everyone in the department to contribute in ways they haven't in the office. For some characters (Tom, Ron, April, Andy), this means playing to their strengths, and for others (Ann, Donna, Gerry), its getting them out of their comfort zone. It's a change of pace for a show that didn't even really need one, and it's worked out perfectly.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, it allows the writers to parody the election without taking sides. The writers aren't saying Mitt Romney is trying to buy the election, they're saying Bobby Newport (who was played last month by Paul Rudd) is. Again, it stays within the confines of the Parks and Rec universe while being relevant in the real world. They've already done this successfully with the Councilman Dexhart arc (parodying former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford), and the government as a whole shutting down wasn't out of character for the show or the real world.
By keeping their commentary as satire restricted to the show's universe, the writers are able to use real-life comedy as material without alienating their audience.
(They even do this with Pawnee's town slogan: “First in friendship, fourth in obesity.")
When The Office launched, the primary web communication medium was blogging. As such, sites like OfficeTally played a pivotal role in developing the cult following of the show.
Today, the web is much more social, much less wordy, and has many more cats (edit, per the comments: and dogs!). Because pictures with short captions are easier to read and share, they spread more quickly and virally than blog posts, and have thus sprung up as the communication medium of today. Parks and Rec has a bunch of meme-sites (seriously, just Google “parks and rec tumblrs” (NSFW site names ahead)) that are each their own cult following, of sorts. All of this is free word-of-mouth advertising.
Did Parks and Rec plan this? Probably not; the meme-ification of the show is more a function of the times in which we live. But making characters and episodes memorable makes people want to memorialize them (go figure). The writers and creators certainly didn't make the show memorable to create a bunch of meme sites, but it's done nothing but help them.
So in essence, there are a lot of reasons why Parks and Recreation is doing so well. And while it might not stick around forever, it's certainly on quite the run. And until either Leslie moves to Eagleton and Ron shaves, or the show goes off the air, I'll be watching.