The final episode of NBC’s single-camera comedy Parks and Recreation aired last week. This show has been one of my favorites throughout its seven season stint. And while I think it’s a good time to end the show, I will definitely miss it. This is my attempt at explaining why.
Story is important, but without characters, story doesn’t really matter. Parks and Rec is (was . . . *sniffle*) a show all about its characters–its flesh and bones, flawed and fabulous, deep-feeling and hope-believing people. Parks and Rec was Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, Tom Haverford, Donna Meagle, April Ludgate, Ben Wyatt, Andy Dwyer, and all the other complex and beautiful souls that graced that southern Indiana government building (even Jerry). And that’s why it worked, why it became beloved and remained beloved throughout the course of its airing, why it probably managed to stay on TV even with some meager ratings. Its characters and their collective heart were what made this show great–not formula, not setting, not sex appeal, not suspense, not even amazing musical numbers (all hail Mouse Rat).
And I think the beauty of Parks and Rec shows what we’re so often missing out on in our crime procedural, shock and awe, clickbait, record-an-entire-concert-on-your-phone age. We need stories about people, not just the exposition they give or the mysteries they solve. We need experience, but we also need relationship, in the entertainment we consume and in the real lives we live every day.
Strong relationships and true community are built more on knowing the stories of one another and actively participating in them than they are on collecting stories to tell later. Ron Swanson says in much in Parks and Rec when he gives Leslie advice about one of her former love interests:
“He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.”
That’s probably my favorite quote of the entire series, even with all the ridiculously funny moments and other Ron Swanson gold nuggets of wisdom. I really think it sums up what I love most about this show, what it’s ultimately all about: people learning to be selfless, or at least learning to to think of themselves less.
We’re all selfish people, and so were the characters of Parks and Rec. But over the course of time, these characters became a family. With plenty of obstacles and mishaps along the way, they started to put the needs and desires of one another before their own needs and desires (Jean Ralphio and company excluded). Their jobs were to help the community at large, and they certainly did a lot for the beautiful disaster town of Pawnee, but the true heart of the show was how these people helped each other. It proves that even people who love themselves can learn how to love one another. It proves that even we can put down our phones and start engaging with one another.
We see this in how the characters so often overcome the self-centric traits they cling to as part of their individual identities. Tom’s materialism and step-on-anyone-else-to-succeed attitude. April’s forced apathy and disdain for any type of affection. Ron’s addiction to complete privacy and individualism and disdain for any type of affection. Andy’s laziness. Ben’s fear of failure. Even Leslie’s stubborn need to always be right and always get her way. It’s important that they be themselves– they each bring so much to the table!– but it’s in overcoming some of these fears and insecurities that they become a team– a family– that can work together and bring out the best in each other. This theme was so well illustrated by the series finale, showing that these characters continue to be a team even when they don’t all work (or live) in the same place any longer.
The show had its ups and downs. If you haven’t seen it yet and decide to go back and watch it, be warned– the brief first season is the worst. It gets exponentially better– and funnier– from there. In fact, another way Parks and Rec used its characters well was in the show’s humor– the true test for any sitcom.
With running gags aplenty, so many of the jokes were so funny because of who said or did them. Sure, there were plenty of lines that could make you laugh no matter what, but the punchlines were almost always escalated by, or even completely founded on, the personalities that delivered them. The characters weren’t caricatures, but they all had some extreme quirks that added to the their potential for laughable moments. Yet you had the sense that there was always more to each person than you knew. There was depth to their characters, unknown yet not abrasive aspects of their personalities or interests that surface unexpectedly. It kept them human. It made them even more relatable. And it worked brilliantly.
In my opinion, while there a few shows left on the air that will sometimes make me laugh, Parks and Rec is the last great sitcom of its era. Here’s hoping the future will churn up comedies with just as much heart and just as many laughs, with characters that truly reflect ourselves and the times we live in.
Bye, bye, Parks and Recreation, I’ll miss you in the saddest fashion.
If you liked this post, you should also check out 15 TV Shows On Netflix You Should Be Watching, Leslie Knope: Role Model, Graduating The Office: How The Characters Have Grown Up.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Closing thoughts on Parks and Rec? Favorite character/episode/season? Leave a comment below!