I recently came to the realization that NBC’s Parks and Recreation is in its fifth season. I was surprised, because, for one, it’s quite a feat for a smart comedy to still be on the air these days. But I was also surprised because the show’s still on and I’m not tired of it. It doesn’t feel like season five. Parks and Recreation has managed to carve out an interesting space for itself in an era of television in which stale shows are often in it for the long haul and original shows inevitably get cancelled after a couple of seasons. Parks and Rec is original and (relatively) long-running, plus it hasn’t fallen victim to shark-jumping. And you know why that is? It plays it safe – in a good way. Since tonight marks the finale of a strong and steady season five, I can’t think of a better time to discuss the show’s magical balance of ingredients and why it keeps us watching.
You could say Parks and Rec is a show made up of happy mediums. It gives us just enough inventiveness and change to keep us interested, but not so much that we think it’s trying too hard to be daring or out-there. It’s also nice to sit down to a great TV show week to week without worrying about whether or not this will be the episode that ruins its chances of getting picked up for another season.
Parks and Rec doesn’t take a lot of big storytelling risks, so you know what you’re getting into week to week. And there’s a magnificent comfort in that. Compare it to a show like Community, which does something unique every week, from paintball sagas to bottle episodes. While you have to give them credit for trying, and the risks often pay off, there’s always the occasional flop. But on Parks and Rec, you know you can expect that classic documentary style and plots poking fun at small-town government. There are no gimmicks needed, just good old-fashioned storytelling enhanced by quick wit and well-rounded characters.
And let’s talk about those characters. Season five has been an excellent example of television characters experiencing relatable life changes that transform them for the better and don’t cause us to lose sight of why we fell in love with them in the first place. Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie (Amy Poehler) got married this season, and several episodes later they’re still wonderful people whose relationship only highlights their best qualities. Ron (Nick Offerman) started dating a character played by Lucy Lawless, and the romance has done nothing but soften him into an even more lovable character. Ann (Rashida Jones) and Chris (Rob Lowe) have started the process of having a baby together, and the storyline hasn’t gone the route of a couple-episode lark, but rather as a believable plot emphasizing their characters’ positive development – with a lot of laughs along the way. Meanwhile we’ve learned that Tom (Aziz Ansari) might actually be able to succeed in a business venture with his new rental company, and Andy (Chris Pratt) has proven he’s not as dumb as we’ve always thought by passing the written portion of his police exam. Once again the show has found a happy medium between keeping the character development stagnant and changing the characters so much that you can barely recognize them. Just look at what’s happened to Andy (Ed Helms) on The Office. He embarked on a boat trip and came back as one of the most intolerable people on the show. In contrast, Parks and Rec’s character changes only emphasize how much we love to watch them.
It’s also become clear that Parks and Rec benefits from a positive outlook. I don’t know if there’s a more optimistic show on television. Sure, a dose of cynicism is nice every now and then, but it’s a relief to watch something that inspires you to look on the bright side, which is what you expect from a comedy, no? I hate to bring The Office up so many times, but I think it’s really good example of what could potentially happen to Parks and Rec but hasn’t yet. In this case, the final Office season has taken on a bitter, depressing tone. Not so on Parks and Rec. Jerry is a breath of fresh air and eggs, bacon and toast. Leslie’s last name should really be changed from Knope to Yep. Chris can literally see the good in everybody. Even tell-it-like-it-is Donna lives by the self-assured mantra that you should “treat yo’ self.” The show doesn’t try to explore heavy topics like marriage troubles or adultery, because hello! It’s not Mad Men. It’s a feel-good comedy. It knows it’s supposed to make us feel good, and it delivers. No undue experimentation involved.
Parks and Rec is like that reliable friend with whom you rarely fight because they’re just such a good person. The show doesn’t go searching for problems where there aren’t any. It knows that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or instead of fixing it, just make it work even better. And I think that’s why the show is still going, closing out a satisfying fifth season. Hopefully it’ll last for a sixth season and beyond. The golden presence of Amy Poehler doesn’t exactly hurt.
(Lead Image: Salon)