TV discussion

Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) – Best of Decade

We’re taking a look back at some of the top TV shows, movies and music from the 2010s, in our Best of Decade series.

Contains spoilers for Parks and Recreation.

We live in very turbulent times. Politically and socially, the world has rarely felt more troubled, and sometimes we cannot help but turn to shows that we love or have seen a million times before; the comfortable and familiar being a blanket that can help us escape somewhat from periods of uncertainty.

Parks and Recreation may very well be the best type of security blanket television show that one can watch as a means of escapism. Centred on the smaller political sphere of Pawnee, Indiana (in reality the series was filmed at Pasadena, California and makes frequent use of the City Hall there in establishing shots) and the work of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler in what may very well be the best performance of her career), the series is frequently hillarious, incredibly silly, charming, very moving, and has one of the best runs of any television series in recent memory.

I may be bringing on the wrath of someone who disagrees with this sentiment, but at seven seasons, Parks and Recreation never outstayed its welcome and never had a dud season. Except for season one. Maybe.

Created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, Daniels had hit gold developing and showrunning the American version of The Office, a series that Schur had come to prominence in as one of the main writers (a writer’s room that also included Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak). Initially conceived as a spin-off from The Office, Parks and Recreation quickly became its own entity, albeit one with a similar format, utilising the documentary and ‘talking heads’ style that The Office had popularised (although it would never make it a vocal part of the storytelling in the manner that The Office would in its final season).

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However, not only would there be certain similarities in terms of filmmaking style to The Office, but its trajectory in terms of quality would also be similar. Like The Office, the general consensus is that the first season of Parks and Recreation is very hit and miss and it’s not until the second season that a more successful tone is nailed down and the series begins to fly. The first season is admittedly not the greatest; Leslie Knope can be a little annoying, Andy Dwyer (a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt) is a horrible character clearly taking full advantage of his girlfriend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) due to his leg injury, and the sight of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) always wearing a suit feels wrong.

The little things that would make the characters delightful company are there, such as Andy’s musical talent, Ron’s libertarianism and Leslie’s devotion to her job, but there is a feeling that the series is trying too hard to be somewhat cynical like The Office. It’s only when the kindness and quirkiness take over the series that it really begins to find its feet; a facet made more complete when it ditches the somewhat dull character of Mark Brandanowitz (Paul Schnieder who never really felt as if he fitted in) and replaces him with the double whammy of Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe putting in the greatest work of his career. Yes, even better than The West Wing).

Instead of making Leslie an annoying presence, the series makes her legitimately brilliant at her job, caring in a manner that it sometimes feels as if Pawnee truly doesn’t deserve her, complete with binder-making skills and acts of friendship that are never annoying, but heartfelt and filled with love.

Leslie is a character that pretty much sums up why Parks and Recreation may very well be the greatest American comedy series ever produced, and the series surrounds her with an ensemble that frequently gets moments that steal episodes and are tailor-made to be turned into gifs and memes that can sum up how one is feeling.

Like all great US comedies, the series cannot help but devote itself to a central romance. Brandanowitz never clicked, but the appearance of Adam Scott brought with it lovely chemistry between Poehler and Scott and the series had a lot of fun with a romance that initially was against the rules but where love won out in the end. Poehler and Scott’s chemistry was charming and lovely and builds up to one of the best impromptu television weddings. That the relationship never runs its course and frequently remains engaging comes down to the writing here (some of which is the best to appear in a mainstream network comedy in forever) and Poehler and Scott’s performances.

A major MVP for the series, however, has got to be Ron Swanson. Nick Offerman’s portrayal of the libertarian whose ex-wives happen to be named Tammy (one of whom is played with a horrifyingly scene-stealing level of comedy by Offerman’s real-life wife Megan Mullally), along with his love of meat, breakfast food, woodwork and the occasional glass of Lagavulin whiskey, especially at the right time, may very well be the greatest work of any actor in any comedy series in forever.

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Best of all, his friendship with Leslie is one of the most positive portrayals of difference in political opinion ever put to screen. Diametrically opposed politically, the two always find common ground and despite their differences remain the best of friends, with a brief exception of their falling out at the beginning season seven. In fact, even though the series gives us a great love story via Leslie and Ben, one could argue that the most important relationship at the heart of the series is Leslie and Ron.

The image of Swanson at peace with a government job, albeit one with the Park Rangers meaning he can spend his time in nature and on a canoe, while ‘Buddy’ by Willy Nelson plays over the soundtrack, is one of the most beautifully portrayed final moments of any character in a television series and cannot help but make one a touch misty-eyed.

Unlike The Office, Parks and Recreation never allows itself to stray too far into cruelty or nastiness. There are some moments of cringe, including a moment involving Leslie beginning her election campaign for city council at an ill-advised launch at a ice rink which may very well be the funniest moment the show has ever done (unless you count Ben’s attempt at making a claymation film in the very same episode and it not turning out quite the way he imagined), but nastiness is never in the series’ interests.

Even a character like April Ludgate, another star-making performance from the show, this time from Aubrey Plaza, never feels mean-spirited or nasty, staying on the right side of genuinely funny and the series managing to give her a great ending, much like Ron, without copping or selling the character out, which brings us nicely to its finale.

The final episode of the show, which wraps up everything beautifully, may very well be the best finale of any television series, complete with flashforwards showing us that everyone ends up okay, but opting to end with Leslie hoping for the best, all the while letting the audience know it will be, is as beautifully crafted a finale of any television series in recent memory.

It sums up the kindness, the hope, and lovely feeling that the series can evoke. The series led to Schur going on to create The Good Place and co-create Brooklyn Nine-Nine with Dan Goor who came to prominence here as well, but Parks and Recreation is still the most consistently great series that Schur has put his name too and as the world becomes crazier, the series remains a firmly comfortable blanket that welcomes so many rewatches.

Best. Television. Series. Ever.

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