Review: John Winterson Richards
Most British viewers first encountered Amy Poehler when she reunited with her former Saturday Night Live collaborator Tina Fey as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin respectively in a comedy sketch that went "viral" during the 2008 US Presidential Election. The general reaction on this side of the Atlantic was "Who is that with Tina Fey?"
By that point Fey was reasonably well known over here, at least among the discerning, for her highly acclaimed situation comedy 30 Rock - a satire on satirical shows like Saturday Night Live. Poehler was relatively unknown to those who did not watch SNL, i.e. most people.
To remedy that, Poehler launched her own situation comedy the following year. It seemed determined to be different from 30 Rock. Where the latter stuck to the comfortably familiar by setting itself in a television studio in glamorous New York, Parks and Recreation went out of the comfort zone of the entertainment industry to the eponymous local government department in the Mid-West State of Indiana. It also adopted a challenging format, the fake "fly on the wall" documentary or "mockumentary" pioneered by This Is Spinal Tap.
The show was not always consistent in its use of that format. Sometimes it is an excuse to enable characters cheerfully to "break the fourth wall." There are other scenes in which they appear to forget about it altogether.
The principal protagonist is Leslie Knope (Poehler), a relentlessly friendly, optimistic, and ambitious municipal official in the fictional town of Pawnee. It is not stated, but Leslie's education seems to have consisted of memorising 'The Power of Positive Thinking,' 'How to Win Friends and Influence People,' and the whole library of American success literature. This could make her totally intolerable, but she is so well meaning that it becomes impossible to dislike her.
She is also ferociously energetic and well organised. Like a miniature whirlwind, she picks up all the people around her and propels them in the direction she wants - to help her with all her many projects. She is full of ideas, most of them about how to improve the slightly seedy town in which she takes disproportionate civic pride.
In fact whenever she gets an idea about anything into her head, she is very hard to stop. She decides to make a rather bemused nurse, Ann Perkins (played by Rashida Jones), her best friend because... well, anyway, Ann goes along with it because... well, because she is Leslie Knope. Resistance is futile.
Her official soul mate is Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), a nerdy accountant who shares her passion for public life: he was America's youngest mayor before he bankrupted his town, a fact that did not stop him being employed as a state auditor.
His superior is Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe on top form), a keep fit fanatic with something of a Peter Pan complex who is so polite that his courtesy becomes almost aggressive and whose fanatical positivity is obviously hiding something. This is another character who could very easily be obnoxious but is played with such skill and charm that he becomes loveable.
The same is true of Andy Dwyer, whom we first meet as Ann's stupid, lazy, selfish musician boyfriend. Indeed, he is so unpleasant that we wonder why the beautiful and intelligent Ann would ever be with such a loser.
Andy's secret weapon is that he is played by Chris Pratt - in his breakthrough role - and no one can stay mad at Chris Pratt. Indeed, it seems that the character was only intended to last a few episodes, but the producers liked Pratt so much that he stayed. It is also an encouraging message for slightly chubby layabouts everywhere that they have the potential, if they are willing to work hard and get the breaks, to become popular leading men in major film franchises.
The key to Andy's rehabilitation was ending his exploitative relationship with Ann, whom he did not deserve - she is so perfect that no one does - leaving him free to find the missing half of himself that Plato claims we all have. This turns out to be April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), a poker-faced anarchist with a wicked sense of humour. These two weirdos turn out to be made for each other, and become one of the cutest couples in television history.
All they have in common is that they are both in different ways a bit strange and that makes their marriage strangely believable. The easygoing Andy and the mischievous April need each other, and we end up hoping that life will be kind to them both - which may not have been the immediate reaction when we first met them as individuals. One of the strengths of Parks and Recreation is that it acknowledges over its run that things change and people grow - and are in any case more complicated than they first appear.
This maturity puts it ahead of most other "sitcoms," including some that are much funnier in the "laugh out loud" sense, in which the characters seem trapped in aspic for season after season in order to keep exploiting the same familiar jokes.
Even Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), an employee whose obsession with his various entrepreneurial schemes is one of the less amusing subplots of the show, matures. However, the best character arc is that of Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry/whatever Gergich - no one bothers to get his name right - played by Jim O'Heir. A fairly incompetent employee of very low status, it is gradually revealed that, outside the office, he seems to be living the absolute perfect life, with an unbelievably attractive wife (Christie Brinkley, yep) and three charming daughters. He ends up serving ten terms as Mayor of Pawnee and living to a hundred. It was a hugely satisfying pay off to a clever series-length running gag.
Despite being set deliberately in the middle of nowhere, the show managed to fit in a lot of cameos by real life national political figures, some of them real heavyweights, including then Vice President Joe Biden, 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee Senator John McCain, and then First Lady Michelle Obama.
However, despite being called a "political satire," the show was simply too nice to have much satirical bite. It was probably at its best when Leslie was obviously having difficulty trying to reconcile aspects of the rather dubious history and traditions of Pawnee in which its citizens take such fierce price - and no one has more fierce pride in Pawnee than Leslie herself - with modern sensibilities.
Being written and produced, like most American shows, by people who are either Democrats or having to pretend to be Democrats for career reasons, the political intent of the show is obviously to suggest that Government - as exemplified by likeable, smiling, eager to please, hardworking Leslie Knope - is Good.
If so, it fails. First of all, most people's experience of bureaucracy suggests that any likeable, smiling, eager to please, hardworking Leslie Knopes out there - and there may indeed be some - are few and far between. More directly, the comedic necessity of the situation demanded that the municipal government in Pawnee be as dysfunctional as possible. In this, the show succeeded completely, but at the expense of any "Government is Good" message.
However, the final self-inflicted wound on any attempt to make a pro-Government comedy was the character of Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman. Swanson, a fanatical anti-Government libertarian, who took a job in local government to destroy it from within and who hires incompetent employees deliberately to that end, was obviously intended to be an object of mockery.
As it turned out, it was Swanson rather than Leslie herself who became the "break out" character of the series. It is to the credit of Poehler and her fellow writers that they approached Swanson with integrity and gave him integrity in his turn. So, along with opinions so extreme that they assumed would make him look ridiculous, they gifted him with an extreme sense of honour: whatever else, this was a man who believed what he said and lived what he believed.
Offerman played him in a perfect laconic style, like John Wayne with a bad moustache or perhaps Sam Elliott (who turned up in a great guest slot as a sort of Anti-Swanson with opinions directly opposed to Swanson's on everything). The result was a hero to libertarians, but also the next door neighbour anyone would want. Lucy Lawless herself was brought in as his love interest, only to be given a wholly uninteresting, underwritten, and unfunny character, so the wonderful comic potential of a Swanson-Xena marriage was, sadly, never explored.
While Parks and Recreation equalled 30 Rock in making it to the magical seven seasons, it never quite matched it in terms of ratings, awards, or critical acclaim. However, it may end up being the better remembered of the two thanks to Ron Swanson and Chris Pratt.
About writer John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 50 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found at John Winterson Richards
Published on March 29th, 2020. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.