Serality + Theme: “Parks and Recreation”

I know, I know, where tf have I been?! Quitting👏my👏awful👏 job👏! It’s crazy how stressful situations can just suck the fun and creativity out of your spirit and what’s the point of working your butt off to be too tired to talk about your favorite thing?! Anyway I just repeated that to myself a million times within a week period and here we are.

But enough about me already (I write in order to stop myself from typing more, I’m excited), let’s talk about “Parks and Recreation”- hereafter just “Parks and Rec” because I don’t trust anyone who says the full title. I will also accept “Tommy’s Place”. 

As you can see on this chart (insert: me gesturing a la Vanna White from that time I went to a  “Wheel of Fortune” taping), “Parks” is the least episodic “episodic” show. Falling just two points left of center, notably mirroring another show that follows a political career on the right, “Parks and Rec” is one of the easily most bingable shows because you can start anywhere and jump right in, but the arc (and ascendance) of Leslie’s political career remains a core factor in determining the series’ theme.

Who doesn’t love Leslie Knope? I could talk for hours about how the success of this show is rooted in Amy Poehler’s infectiously optimistic and dangerously well-intentioned heroine, but that wouldn’t be doing the writer’s team justice. By taking the successes of ensemble-based, every-day character-driven shows that came before it and adding a subtle through line surrounding Leslie’s ambition, this show created a unique structural build that tailored the storytelling to the character’s growth.

If every episode was just Leslie and her workplace compatriots trying to solve one-off problems within their city hall….well then I’d just be watching an episode of “The Office”. Which would make a lot of sense; I mean the first season is in many ways just a more high-energy reboot of “what if they were in Indiana the whole time?” In fact, the first two seasons generally follow the most basic sitcom structure of “stasis-problem-solution” with character or story arcs starting and finishing all within the same episode. If I were rating only those seasons, it would almost certainly be up there with “Arrested Development” in terms of serality. There is some character reshuffling, from Donna’s glow-up to Andy’s upgrade to a series regular- and a few notable relationships like Andy/April, Anne/Mark, Leslie/Dave that evolve over the course of the early seasons- but plot-wise, each episode starts and ends in generally the same emotional place. The only episode to episode conflict we really witness is the proposal to make the pit in Anne’s backyard into a park (I can’t even tell you how many times a week Andy’s song about the pit gets stuck in my head…like right now)- and even the pit (I WAS IN THE PIT, YOU WERE IN THE PUT) is rarely moved forward. There are hearings and setbacks and small victories, but many episodes go without referencing it and it generally serves as a plot point to highlight to slow, red-tape pace in government that frustrates Leslie (and, by extension, the audience). I am not saying any of this to discount the first two seasons of “Parks and Rec” and, given the route the show eventually takes, the time your able to spend getting to know the characters and truly caring about their goals is invaluable to staying engaged for the more narratively complex seasons. Simplicity isn’t easy when it’s done this well, however, the first 28 episodes could basically be watched in any order. You might get confused on whether you’re suppose to like Andy if you throw some season one episodes in at a weird time, but you’d pretty much be able to explain the set up to someone in under 15 seconds. And then there’s the season 2 finale.

It’s not that the narrative gets more confusing (you could probably still explain it in about 30), but it gets vastly more complex. The Pawnee government is shut down. It’s like if the merger/downsizing actually affected anyone on “The Office”. Suddenly, everyone in the show has to fight to maintain the stasis created in the first two seasons. They can’t even all come back in to work and hang out. It was very interesting to me to watch the narrative shift to the question “how do we keep this department alive?” The show doesn’t suddenly switch to some “Game of Thrones” level complexity, but there’s an underlying fire burning underneath each other characters, and especially Leslie, that pulls the season into a more cohesive narrative and allows for more tension to build and, thus, more discoveries to be made. Think about the Harvest Festival episodes. We knew Leslie was a bad ass before, but what about when you have the flu and you need to make a presentation to a bunch of vendors or you and everyone you care about will lose their jobs? Or Ben, Major or Icetown? What could have just played before as a funny antidote to tease him about becomes a major insecurity when he starts to think he might be bringing down the success of the festival. Ambition elevates the stakes to a much more compelling level and allows the writers to push them to limits inaccessible in the light-hearted conflict of previous seasons.

At the end of Season 3, Leslie gets her first offer to run for office. Little did I know as a viewer (that binge-watched this all after the 7th season aired. Don’t know how I haven’t brought that up yet. I never watched this as it was on the air. I saw it all in less than a week when everyone was freaking out about the time jump which I love)…where was I? OH. Little did I know as a viewer that this show was about someone running for president. I mean, you can take that finale how you want, but- when you rewatch the show after finishing the series- this show is low-key the origin story of a future president (be it Mr. or Mrs. Knope) starting at Season 3, Episode 16. Here’s where the “Veep” references start. Both shows actually follow a somewhat similar arch; from running for office, to having a hard time in office and being forced out of office to confront “what’s next?” However, where “Veep” asks “how low can you go?”, “Parks” asks “what sacrifices do you have to make?” While the show still revels in contained episodic conflicts that are presented and resolved (more so than “Veep”, hence their reflective positions on the graph), there’s something that builds to a larger legacy of a young politician’s illustrious career. In many ways, it’s like we’re watching a typical political show but where the tape got rewound all of the way back. We’re starting from the very beginning and meeting the people who got Leslie where she is now. We get to watch her make her first campaign ad- where she doesn’t want to sacrifice decency for votes and finds a compromise- we see her first debate and her first election. We see her get voted out of office and refuse to quit. And then we jump three years forward.

I love that they do this. I mean, in the context of the narrative focus being slowly put on Leslie’s future, it only makes sense to wrap it up with some answers of what that looks like. This season is notably different than the rest because, to make up for lost time, there are plot holes to go back and fill in over multiple episodes. And the characters have all moved a little bit forward in the last few years, but even more so since the first season and I think it’s very narratively interesting to have them reflect on “how did we get here?” and “are we happy?” April and Andy were notable stand outs for me in this season. Much like the audience, who slowly got pulled along into Leslie’s orbit of ambition, we find ourselves looking at very different people in episodes 1 and 125. If “The Office” is a show where you find your home within your office, “Parks and Rec” is what happens when you’re inspired to leave it and I think that is singularly carried by the narrative switch from “funny park people solving funny park problems” to “here’s one of the future President’s first government jobs.”

There is definitely still an episodic basic structure that this show follows. I think you could jump into any season with a stranger (I say stranger because you’re not my friend if you haven’t seen this show), and they would basically get the gist. However, since we’re examining serality and theme here, I think this show is impacted so much more for the better by utilizing a more serialized narrative to tie all of these little moments together. One of my favorite things to do when I finish the last season is go back and watch the first episode. Leslie, in those dope pantsuit combinations that always seemed unbearably stiff when she was out doing field work, pushing a drunk guy down a slide and making a promise to do right by her “constituents” at a town all meeting. It’s a very cool moment in hindsight and, to a little excel sheet nerd like me, very hopeful that hard work and good people will get the job done.

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