Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Character Appreciation Post: Ben Wyatt ("Parks and Recreation")

There are a few television shows that I’ve been convinced to watch solely because of the influence that my Twitter followers have had on me. One of these shows is Suits; the other is Parks and Recreation. As many of you who follow me know, I’m currently four and a half seasons deep into my marathon of the series, and loving every single moment of it.

“But Jenn,” you gasp, “I can’t believe you’ve never watched Parks and Rec before!”

I, in fact, HAVE watched many Parks and Rec episodes… just not consistently. When 8 PM rolls around on Thursday nights, my attention is focused solely on one thing – Community. And by the time 8:30 draws near, I’m busied with finding a download of the episode so that I can start on my notes for the following morning’s blog-review. I found myself half-watching episodes of Parks and Rec, while scouring for links on the Internet for Community. I knew enough about the series when I started my marathon – I knew Ben and Leslie would eventually be together; I knew who each of the characters were; I knew about Jerry’s tendency to ruin… well, everything. 

But I didn’t truly know each of these characters until I watched the series from the beginning. And then I fell in love with each of these characters, including one we will discuss and praise today: Ben Wyatt.

Jaime (@elspunko) is my faithful best friend and also my companion in compiling these Character Appreciation Posts. As I said our introductory post a while ago, these entries aren’t necessarily meant to highlight characters that are disregarded by viewers. Rather, they are meant to celebrate characters for their individual quirks, hang-ups, and arcs. Our Character Appreciation Posts strive to fill you up with feels, but also illuminate the qualities that make each of these characters worthy of our time. 

And Ben Wyatt is definitely worthy of our time.

In an ensemble series like Parks and Rec, it’s easy for certain characters to get overlooked or forgotten. But one thing I truly admire about this series (and one thing that is on my wish-list for season five of Community) is its constant shuffling of pairings – one episode may see a Chris/Ann, Ben/Leslie, and Ron/Donna/Tom storyline; the next episode may feature a Leslie/Ron/, Chris/Jerry, and Ben/April/Andy plot. And what’s beautiful and wonderful about this series – something that I have mentioned to Jaime as I’ve been marathoning – is that each of these pairings WORKS. Everyone on the show has chemistry with everyone else, which makes it genuinely difficult to choose a favorite friendship or favorite platonic pairing. It’s something really rare and magical to see on a series… especially considering the fact that Ben and Chris weren’t introduced until the very end of the second season, and yet both characters melded seamlessly into the fabric of the show.

But back to Ben Wyatt – I was warned that Adam Scott would ruin my life and yet, here I sit, still completely ruined by his perfect portrayal of a lovable, nerdy, sweet accountant. And I think that I’ve settled on the reason why I love Ben Wyatt (and why I love Nick Miller and why I love Jim Halpert): he’s real. Each character on the series is written with flaws, because flaws make us human. Each character on Parks and Rec and on New Girl and on Community and The Office and nearly every other show on television is written so that we love them, but also sometimes disagree with them. What makes Ben so swoon-worthy is the fact that he’s realistic – he’s imperfect, but he cares. He’s flawed, but he loves. He’s weird and dorky but he’s also compassionate and fun. That’s what makes a good romantic lead, in my opinion – not this intricate construction of sappy lines and lingering looks, but the realistic portrayal of someone who is flawed but who loves deeply. And without a doubt, Ben truly loves Leslie and it shows in the way that he cares for and supports her throughout the series.

So now, Jaime and I will talk about Ben Wyatt’s wonderful stories and qualities. Her insights will be italicized throughout the post! So are you ready? Swing by the Low Cal Calzone Zone and join as we celebrate Ben Wyatt!

Three years ago, my life was ruined when Adam Scott joined the cast of Parks and Recreation.  On a show that embraces quirky characters, he stood out: the disgraced former mayor of his Minnesotan home town, he grew into a huge nerd who originally comes to Pawnee to audit their budget, which quickly makes him Leslie Knope’s biggest enemy.  But she soon overcomes her initial impression of him, because he is just that awesome.

I’m gonna try really hard to be intelligent with my discussion of Ben Wyatt, aka Angelo, aka Jello Shot, aka Benji Wyatt, but as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I mostly just keyboard smash whenever he does something wonderful.  Which happens a lot.  So I’m gonna get it out of the way right now: he’s terrible face-wise, and I want to make out with him on his face.

(This is a good approximation of my feelings for him and his dumb face.)

I think one of my absolute favorite things about Ben as a character (and related to the formatting of the series as a mockumentary) is that he almost out-does Jim Halpert by glancing – often befuddled – at the camera crew. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons we loved Jim so much and we love Ben so much – when characters break that fourth wall, we (as the audience) feel more intimately connected with them. We’re raising our eyebrows pretty hard at Michael Scott’s sentences or Andy’s remarks, so when a character within the series echoes our own sentiments back to us, we feel a sense of connection. We like them all the more because this – as I stated above – makes those characters more real to us.

When I began marathoning Parks and Rec, I started from season one, even though multiple friends told me that it would be okay if I skipped those episodes anyway. (I’m a completionist, so there’s no way I would have allowed that to happen but that – as Joey Tribbiani would say – is a “moo point.”) I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, as I knew they joined the series eventually, and was pleasantly surprised to meet Ben’s uptight season two character.

Ironically, Ben’s introduction to the audience almost parallels Leslie’s, in my opinion. My friend Kate, when advising me that the first season of Parks and Rec was a bit rocky, explained that her issues fell mainly with how the writers portrayed Leslie Knope. She was a stick in the mud, Kate explained. They weren’t certain who she was, so she was uptight and kind of cartoonish. And when I viewed the first season, I had to agree. Leslie was tightly wound at the beginning but then again… so was Ben Wyatt, who was introduced to the Parks department and to us as a stiff, uptight Indiana State Auditor.

And Leslie Knope did not like him.

At all.

One of my favorite aspects of Ben’s character is watching him interact with Leslie’s friends in the Parks department.  The writers present it in a really interesting way: while he’s originally a villain to their department, Leslie’s really the only one who goes toe-to-toe with him over their budget and the future of the department.  He doesn’t interact much with the others until the animosity is gone from his relationship with Leslie, which makes sense: most of the characters view their job as just that, while Leslie sees her work as an extension of herself.  No one seems to blame Ben for shutting them down except for Leslie, but no one’s going out of their way to get to know him, either.  

But just as he comes to change his mind on Pawnee itself and Li’l Sebastian (well…as far as Leslie knows), Ben’s exposure to Leslie makes him believe in the effects of hope and determination.  After their joint success with the Harvest Festival, and the weeks leading up to it in which Ben sees countless times just how capable and amazing Leslie is, he begins to believe in her, and that’s when he starts spending more time in the Parks department, and even moves in with April and Andy.  The show loves to remind us how powerful Leslie’s optimism can be, and Ben’s change into a goofy nerd is just further proof of that.

I presumed – entering a series in which I already knew the “endgame” – that the Ben/Leslie dynamic would make me coo, but not much more. After all, I had already seen their wedding and their first kiss. Wouldn’t that excitement be lessened when I marathoned?

(No. No, not in the least bit.)

The fun thing about marathoning a series is that you’re able to clearly see the progression in characters and writing (or, conversely, regression) and connect (or, conversely, disconnect) with the relationships in the process. Watching Ben Wyatt and Leslie Knope’s relationship progress from antagonistic to friendly to flirtatious was wonderful. 

But the true joy, for me, was watching Ben Wyatt come to a place where he completely and utterly respected Leslie Knope – where he admired her strength, her determination, and didn’t find it off-putting or absurd. The moment he watched Leslie deliver a compelling speech while she was hit with the flu? That was the moment Ben began to really believe in her, not just tolerate her motivation. It’s this foundation of respect, admiration, and loyalty that makes Ben who he is as a character – he and Chris are both interjected into an already existing story as “outsiders” and yet… they don’t FEEL like outsiders because within episodes, they learn to care about the characters we have spent two seasons caring about. And we, in turn, then care about THEM.

Like everyone who watches Parks, I ship Ben and Leslie like whoa.  Their journey from adversaries to falling in love was so beautifully executed and interesting to watch, because of the changes Ben underwent in his attitudes toward Leslie and Pawnee.  Sometimes, the show feels a bit like a fairytale, with its constant reminders of how powerful love and friendship are.  Just look at Ben: Mean Ben who was supposed to stay in this small Indiana town wound up staying because he fell under Leslie Knope’s spell, and learned how to appreciate his work again.  He learned how to create roots and anchors; things that can make a small, unfamiliar town feel like home.  And eventually, when the people in it become your family, it will become your home.

What Jaime and I have pinpointed about Parks and Recreation as a comedy – and what she’ll mention in a few moments is this: it is a show about genuine support and friendship. I didn’t really make the comparison until my friend Heather brought it up recently, but Jerry is very much of a Charlie Brown-esque character: he can never really kick that football, falls flat on his back, and gets laughed at by his friends. But Charlie Brown is ALWAYS supported – by Linus, by Lucy, by Peppermint Patty, by Snoopy.

And that’s essentially what Parks and Rec is, at its core: a positive comedy. Friendship is the heart of this show – genuine, lasting, completely committed friendship. Jerry organizes people to cold call for Leslie’s campaign; Ben gets Freddy Spaghetti to appear at Leslie’s event; everyone in the Parks department makes Leslie the most beautiful, elaborate Christmas gift and then declares themselves to be her campaign team. These are people who truly love one another. They don’t trade mean-spirited barbs at one another. They don’t just tolerate one another.

They love and they love deeply, doing whatever it takes to support each other. And while Community boasts about… well, community and The Office promotes friendships and relationships, no other show apart from Parks and Rec is this celebratory of uplifting friendships and relationships.

Parks is often praised for its positivity, both in its characters and its sense of humor: the jokes don’t come from characters highlighting each other’s weak spots, but rather from their attempts to highlight their strong points.  These people are friends, and are aware and respectful of each other’s virtues, and as a result, you can see everyone’s affection and love for each other.  This is the idea at the heart of Ben and Leslie’s relationship.  He doesn’t mock her need to organize everything and general enthusiasm for life; he supports it because these things are important to her, even if it’s not something he particularly cares about.  Look at the recent episode “Article Two,” in which Ann and Ben team up to get a great gift for Leslie in order to end the constant holidays she’s set up for both of them.  They both acknowledge that they can’t outright ask her to stop celebrating Butt Day or Calzone Day, because that would imply that they’re ungrateful for the attention Leslie pays them.  

This, I think, is why everyone ships Ben and Leslie, and why I seriously don’t trust people who don’t ship them.  Theirs is quite possibly the most loving, rewarding, and supportive relationship I’ve ever seen on television.  One of their most emotional scenes comes in the season four premiere, “I’m Leslie Knope,” when Ben reveals that he knows Leslie is running for office and that they have to break up.  But there’s no anger on his part, and he even offers her a gift showing his support.  And he basically grieves the loss of his relationship the best way possible: he spends the day at the mall with Donna and Tom and cries while wearing a Batman suit.  It’s really the most emotional Ben’s ever been on the show, and it’s clearly not his proudest moment.  But it works well to inspire Ben to find other things to focus on besides Leslie, and it cements his place in the show.  He’s not just Leslie Knope’s boyfriend; he has his own dynamics with other characters, and desires of his own.  In fact, the contrasts between his and Leslie’s ambitions are often the most interesting conflicts on the show.  Still, they’re very often intertwined: he quits his job so he can be with Leslie (after SO AWESOMELY saying he loves her for the first time on the official trial transcript), leading to unemployment, which he doesn’t take very well.

I think that Ben and Leslie’s relationship is one heart of the show, and the platonic friendships are the other heart (because clearly, we’re a Time Lord here) – both may function separately, as we have seen storylines which focus strictly on Ben/Leslie and then Character(s) A, B, C/Character(s) C, D, E. But what works is when these two elements come together – when we see Ben interact with other characters who love and support his now-wife. This is where Parks excels – the balance between the Ben/Leslie relationship and Leslie/everyone else, as well as Ben/everyone else.

Interestingly, he is in a position of submission to Leslie: I already talked about how his relationships with the other characters was directly influenced (and even created) by Leslie’s acceptance of him.  Leslie saves Ben again when she asks him to be her campaign manager.  But these moments don’t portray Ben as being weak or pathetically dependent on Leslie; they depict a real adult relationship, a partnership entirely built on two people’s willingness to combine their lives and form something together.  Leslie comes to believe in Ben just as strongly as he believes in her, and makes him her campaign manager, knowing he’s the perfect person for the job.  And, like always, this support of each other grows and gives them both the opportunity to branch out.  They enable the other to succeed, because they so genuinely and passionately believe in the other and want them to succeed.

It’s pretty remarkable, actually, that a series is able to portray such a strong, stable relationship between two main characters without isolating other characters in the process. When Ben and Leslie began a relationship, it didn’t suddenly become “Ben and Leslie + The Other Parks People.” I think viewers (and perhaps writers) often fear that placing two central characters together on a series will isolate those characters from having other functional relationships. But I’d argue that – when executed properly – these relationships can serve as excellent mechanisms to further character growth and development. With Nick and Jess on New Girl, I believe this is the case – just because Nick/Jess as a pairing had a lot of screen time during the latter half of this season doesn’t mean that their relationships with the other loft roommates or Cece were compromised. Similarly, when Jim and Pam began a relationship on The Office, they were still able to have functional, solid stories with other characters apart from one another.

And truly, that’s what a good sitcom does to become a great sitcom – find a way to romantically bring two characters together without isolating them (and their growth and development) from others. 

After helping Leslie win the election for city council, Ben’s offered a job in Washington; when that job ends, he’s offered another one, which would keep him away from Pawnee and Leslie.  His indecision over this is played so beautifully; as always, Leslie tells him she’ll support him if he wants to take the job, but ultimately, he returns to Pawnee.

And this is such a radical departure from the Ben Wyatt we meet in season two.  In one of his first scenes, which is the first time the audience (and Leslie) really gets to know him, he reveals that he wants to return to politics if he can get rid of his former shame.  But two and a half years later, he’s willing to give up connections and power in Washington, all for his Khaleesi.

And you know, that seems as good a time as any to start talking about all the things Ben has done for Leslie.  This is the guy who gave her waffles and HOMEMADE CHICKEN SOUP when she was in the hospital with the flu.  He had a Li’l Sebastian doll made for her, even though Ben doesn’t get why everyone in Pawnee loves him so much.  And do not even talk to me about his present on Valentine’s Day, which was based around a dream she had: a playboy otter lost at sea, WITH A WAFFLES NECKLACE AROUND HIS NECK.

I think it’s really beautiful how deeply Ben cares for Leslie. In “Dave Returns,” Leslie assures Dave that Ben is a great guy and that she’s protected – he punched a guy in the face to defend her honor. And Dave? Well, Dave finally understands that. He recognizes, as much as he is in love with Leslie, that this woman is loved by Ben Wyatt. And the fact that, later in that episode Ben approaches an entire table of cops (who terrify him; really his fear of cops is hilarious guys) to try and convince the police chief to endorse Leslie Knope in her campaign.

I mean, COME ON.

This guy is completely, 100% head over heels for Leslie.  Parks has always thrived when it reminds us how much the characters respect and owe Leslie, but it’s so pure coming from Ben.  He has the most amazing girlfriend in the world, and he will literally punch you in the face if you disrespect her, guys my ability to discuss him intelligently is fading, I am so obsessed with that moment.

There’s one line that’s been spoken a couple times on the show, and it makes every single Ben/Leslie shipper weak in the knees.  You all know it.  Say it with me: “I love you and I like you.”  COME. ON.  It’s only been uttered on two separate occasions, which makes it even worse: when Leslie needed confidence in her debate while running for city council, and IN THEIR FREAKING WEDDING VOWS.  This just sums up their relationship so perfectly.  They’re not just in love.  They’re not just two characters thrown together for an interesting storyline.  These two characters complement each other so wonderfully, and are so unashamed of how deeply and all-consumingly they care about and respect each other.  They appreciate and enjoy each other so much, giving them such a strong foundation for their relationship.  You can feel how much he loves her.

And truly, I think that’s what solidified Ben/Leslie as such an amazingly iconic couple, to me: this evidence that he supports her as a friend, as someone he cares deeply about, as someone he wants to see succeed, and ALSO as someone he is completely and totally in love with. He doesn’t just feel those warm, fuzzy feelings toward her. He doesn’t just want to marry her or kiss her – he wants to be her best friend. He wants to be the person who supports her. He wants to have a silly handshake with her. 

Because she means that much to him.


I could go on and on about what makes Ben so great: his exasperation with Tom and the antics he’s constantly dragged into, his forced role as the only adult influence in Andy and April’s life, his deadpan view of the events around him… But arguably his relationship with Leslie is what shaped him into that person, who was willing to interact with these people and want to help them help themselves.

(I can’t believe I went this entire post without mentioning Ben’s fear of cops.  Well, let me assure you, it is the greatest thing you will ever see in your life.)
I can’t believe you didn’t either, Jaime!

I hope you have enjoyed our second Character Appreciation Post! We have had so much fun talking about the wonderful Ben Wyatt (and we had a blast in our first one discussing Winston Bishop) that we’re definitely going to make this more of a routine thing – combining our superpowers to shed light on some of our favorite television characters!

So if you have any suggestions, drop them into the comments below or tweet us!

For those of you who are New Girl fans, don’t forget that next week kicks off our #SummerRewatch of season 1! We’ll be viewing the pilot episode at 9 PM EST. If you have any questions about the logistics (or want to see the entire proposed summer schedule) check out this post.

And check back next Wednesday for my blog-review of New Girl’s pilot! Until then, folks. :)


  1. This is the best thing I've seen on the internet all day.

  2. The only thing that this character missed is impersonating a David Tennant Doctor Who. I bet he is a huge fan of the Doctor, and there is a resemblance between them. x3