Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Pawnee: First In Friendship (A Goodbye to 'Parks and Recreation')

I started watching Parks and Recreation because I watched Community. Every week, I would work on my reviews as the show would be airing and every week I thought: "Maybe I should take the time to marathon this entire show." When I finally did decide to marathon the NBC series, I was so enamored with it -- with the comedy and the heart and the spirit of the show. The thing about Parks and Rec was that it has always been a series founded on the idea of optimism and true friendship. I like New Girl a lot. I enjoy The Mindy Project. Community is pretty great and The Office was fantastic and iconic. But none of those comedies perfectly exemplifies the idea of optimism like Parks and Rec does. This is a show that chooses to focus on characters who genuinely and truly love each other, who are good at their jobs, who are passionate and driven (even if their goals are seemingly insignificant like turning a hole into a park). The reason that this show has been successful for so long and the reason it's beloved by critics and fans alike is because it represents the best of humanity. And with everything happening in this world and on television that can be so heavy and so dark and so violent and upsetting, it's always nice to know that you can return to Pawnee, Indiana and feel something hopeful swell in your chest as you watch Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson share a conversation over a plate of breakfast food.

Goodbyes aren't easy, especially in the realm of television. As I was contemplating why it's difficult to say goodbye to Parks and Rec, I realized an apt metaphor: It's like when you're a child and your parents take you to a park to play outside or a community pool to swim. I always loved those days during the summer when you could play pretend and run around or swim laps until your hair turned green and stiff from the chlorine. When the sun began to dip below the horizon and your parents started packing up the chairs and towels, all you wanted was just a few more moments to stay in the world of pretend. I once read on Tumblr that the feeling of finishing a show was sad "because... you just want to stay inside that world for a little bit longer, but you can't."

If we could all stay in Pawnee for another season or two or three, I think we would. And I think the cast would, too. The beauty though of Parks and Rec was that it never ran out of stories to tell, even at the end of its run. Often times, when shows approach their conclusions, plots become thinner (or recycled from previous seasons) and the show you once knew and loved is a shadow of its former self. Not so with this lovely NBC series, though. Arguably the final season of Parks has been stronger than some of its earlier years because it remained true to its characters, focused on relationships and emotional stories, and reminded everyone why they fell in love with Pawnee in the first place.

So below, I decided to say goodbye to the show the only way I know how: through writing thank-you notes to the actors/characters and reminding everyone of what we have learned throughout the last seven years in Pawnee, Indiana.

For Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler):

Where do I even begin with thanking Amy Poehler for portraying the amazing Leslie Knope for the last seven years? When this show began, Leslie was a bit off-putting. She was like Michael Scott in how socially awkward she could be. She was driven over small things, obsessive over controlling people and projects, and a bit delusional. Other people seemed to tolerate her in the department, not respect or admire (or even, really befriend) her. But there is one fundamental truth that has always been present in Leslie's character: she has always been passionate about things that make the world a better place, no matter how large or small. And that passion -- that unwavering desire to do good -- coupled with her eternal optimism, love for rules and order and structure, and compassionate heart have landed her onto lists of the most iconic female characters on television. If I spoke face-to-face with Amy Poehler and could tell her anything about Leslie Knope, I would thank her for portraying such a layered, nuanced character. I would tell her that Leslie's strength didn't come from physical prowess but from her desire to do good in her tiny town and that was admirable to me. I would tell her that watching Leslie grow and let go of control, little by little, over the years has been inspirational. That her love for her friends and for her world was revolutionary.

Leslie Knope taught us all that it wasn't just cool to care about things and people, but that it was something that made you STRONG: it was a trait that bettered not just yourself but the world around you. It's something that made you grow. Loving people wasn't weakness for Leslie Knope. This is the woman who remembered everyone's birthdays and gave them extravagant gifts because she wanted to show them just a fraction of how much they were loved by her. And everyone else loved Leslie Knope right back because they recognized how hard she worked and how much she sacrificed to give them everything she felt they deserved. The Ben/Leslie love story in Parks and Rec also reminded us that love is worth being vulnerable for, but love is also worth fighting for. And true love is one of equality, where there is partnership and respect in every aspect of the relationship.

I could write a novel on what Leslie Knope means not just to me, but to women everywhere: how her devotion and her love and her passion inspire us all to be better people for the world around us; that her heart and her thoughtfulness remind us to be compassionate and to express to the ones we love how much we care about them. Leslie also taught us that friendship was always more important than work, that female friendships were most important of all and deserved celebration, that it's cool to believe the best in people, and that waffles are the best breakfast food of all.

Basically, Leslie Knope is a freakin' hero and role model.

For Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman):

I never thought I would love Ron Swanson as much as I did, but after seeing how much he has grown and how deeply he has changed over the last seven years, it's hard to do anything BUT love him. Nick Offerman has such amazing dry, comedic wit and timing. I loved seeing him grow to not just tolerate his co-workers but genuinely love them and treat them as friends and family. It may have been reluctant at times, but Ron always protected and cared about the people who he was surrounded by (as evidenced in the extremely heartbreaking admission that once his friends had all left, he was going to ask Leslie for a government job in order to stay close to them). Ron has always been the advice-giver of this show. He helped Andy realize that April cared about him. He doled out wisdom on countless occasions to Leslie about her future (some of my favorite conversations include "End of the World," "Pawnee Rangers," and "London"). Ron has always been really smart and really dedicated to what he does. He's a craftsman and he cares about details. What's so wonderful is that Ron began this series as hardened and jaded and bitter. He didn't like relationships. He didn't understand children. He didn't want intimacy with his co-workers or anyone else. He liked keeping his secrets and he liked keeping his distance.

But that changed, slowly, over time. Ron began to feel more comfortable with the people in his life and recognized that even when he didn't care about them, they cared about HIM. It's rare for a show to be able to portray realistic character growth without fundamentally changing the character's personality, but Parks and Rec did that. Will Ron Swanson ever be extremely sentimental? No. He'll be gruff. He'll be distant, occasionally. That's part of who he is. He tries to not let things bother him -- to be stronger than his circumstances. And what's so lovely is that this part of Ron's personality didn't change, but he still began to. He married Diane. He has a son and two daughters now. He has a FAMILY he loves and cares about and he has co-workers who have become much more than the people he looks through his office window to see every day. He loves them. He'll never express it in the way that Leslie Knope does, and that's understandable because he's not her.

Ron Swanson has grown, though, and he has changed and Nick Offerman has done a fabulous job portraying his journey for the last seven years. Absolutely fabulous.

For Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott):

I love Ben Wyatt. I will always love Ben Wyatt and after watching his evolution over the past few years, I love that he's the exact same character who I fell in love with, but a better version of that character. That's all you can ask for in a series at the end of its run, really: to see the characters you once knew exactly the same, fundamentally, but better versions of themselves. When Ben came to Pawnee, he was kind of judgmental and standoffish and Leslie Knope did not like him at all (with good reason). He was all business -- he was jaded from his failures before -- and his constant glances at the camera rivaled those of Jim Halpert's. Ben began the series as someone who had no roots. He and Chris went from small town to small town and they were gone before they made any attachments. It was easier for both of them that way. But when Ben allowed himself to care about Pawnee and allowed himself to understand why Leslie Knope would put so much of herself into making her tiny town better, he began to admire her. And his admiration and appreciation and care for Leslie and her town turned into love (in both circumstances).

Ben has always been the kind of character who is admirable because of his adorable love for things no one else cares about. And that's partially why Ben and Leslie work so well together as a couple: they care about the small things, the insignificant things. They are passionate and driven and really intelligent. Ben is smart and he's very good at what he does and I love that he's an example of what a fantastic male character should be. He's supportive of Leslie, but he's also got his own set of dreams. He compromises. He messes up and he apologizes. He cares about his friends and helping them be better, do better, and work better. Ben Wyatt is such an amazing character and Adam Scott has always had this impeccable way of portraying him as endearing, nerdy, and the kind of guy any woman would be lucky to have for a partner. That's the thing about Ben too, that I noted above (especially evident in this season's "Pie-Mary"): he treats his friends like equals and partners and he treats his significant other that way, too. He wasn't always like that. He does still roll his eyes occasionally at other people, but Ben isn't as pretentious as he used to be. I think he's been humbled by enough circumstances in the last few years to make him realize he needs other people -- needs their support and their help and, most importantly, their friendships.

Ben Wyatt, you guys. Ben Wyatt.

For April Ludgate-Karate-Dwyer (Aubrey Plaza):

Out of all of the characters on Parks and Recreation, none has changed and grown more than April Ludgate-Dwyer. When the series began, she was this dark and detached young woman who didn't care about her job. It was a job that she got because of an internship and she was ambivalent toward it and the people she worked with. She pulled pranks and spat sarcasm and pretended that being alone was exactly what she wanted. Over the years, April has naturally evolved into this amazingly driven, wonderful, passionate young woman who had Leslie Knope (basically the human ball of sunshine) as the lightheartedness and optimism to her sarcasm and pessimism. All of this sounds like April was a terrible human being, but she really wasn't. She was hilarious in how unfeeling she could be toward others. But we always knew that there was more to her than just being the deadpanned young woman who played practical jokes on other people and laughed at their expense. April is still, in many ways, that same young woman: the one who likes to laugh at others more than with them. She'll never be like Leslie Knope entirely: never have the exact same level of energy that the blonde seems to have, but April is just as passionate as Leslie Knope. Isn't that amazing?

Over seven years, we have seen April grow from someone who cared about no one else to someone who fell in love with Andy and married him; who found that helping animals was her passion, and who realized that she needed other people. She needed Ron to be her father-figure: needed him to tell her when she was being calloused or what decision she should make. She needed Donna to remind her that she's soft, not in a bad way, but that she should let other people see how compassionate she truly is without trying to mask it behind sarcasm. She needed Ben to believe in her -- to see her potential, how smart and talented she was. She needed Andy, of course, to remind her that people love her just as she is and that he would always support her dreams, no matter how silly they seemed to anyone else.

Aubrey Plaza had this fantastic way of portraying April that made us relate to her and root for her. We wanted her to find her passion. We cared about what happened to her and wanted her to be happy. And now that April has found her passion, it's easy to see how much she has grown in that journey -- that young woman in season one who pretended to not care about anyone else? She now cares about other people and helping them find their dream careers. She's still stubborn and sarcastic, of course, but April has genuinely become the best version of herself and that's thanks so much to Aubrey Plaza's beautiful and fantastic portrayal of her.

For Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt):

Andy Dwyer started this series as kind of a jerk, let's be honest. It's hard to remember the days where he and Ann were an item but lest we forget... that actually happened. I like to refer to Andy as the "human puppy dog" in this show though, because over the years, he's learned how to be a better person for the people around him and how to support others in the way they needed to be supported. Andy is still this lovable goofball, who doesn't always say the smartest things but who has heart and compassion for the people around him. He has always been passionate about music, but I think more than that, Andy has always been passionate about being there for people. He's not the kind of character who always has the right or most intelligent thing to say. But the way that Chris Pratt has played him throughout the years has allowed us to see how soft, how caring Andy really is for the people he cares about. (The conversation between him and April about how she is what he loves and that she's not moving him away from his passion -- she's what he's passionate about was absolutely perfect.)

Chris Pratt has done an absolutely fantastic job throughout the years of playing Andy Dwyer as this comedic relief/resident goofball character. But he's also been able to take Andy's character and elevate it -- he may say something dumb, but in the next moment, he's unwavering in his support of Leslie. He may fall into a pit or a dumpster, but in the very next scene, he's encouraging April to follow her dreams. He may make a silly comment or misconstrue words, but then he'll hug Ron or smile at Ben or show his support for Pawnee. Because the truth is that Andy is always there for the people that he loves. And they are lucky to have him.

For Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari):

Tom used to be one of my least favorite characters on this show, which is weird because now I absolutely love him. He's grown up so much in the past seven years, from someone whose marriage fell apart and threw himself into parties and projects and Snake Juice, to the man who -- when given the opportunity to do something grand, flashy, and extravagant in order to propose to Lucy -- chose to express himself in the most subdued, heartfelt manner. I think that's what I've loved most about Tom's journey, really, is that all of his successes and all of his hardships have really humbled him. He's learned to care about more than money and more than fame or swag. He's learned to put his effort and energy into caring about people who are, arguably, the most valuable capital of all. He goes all out for Donna and surprises her with a vacation before her birthday. He supports Leslie, no matter how absurd her dreams are. And over seven years, Tom learns how to become a better person by being a better friend and citizen of Pawnee. He starts caring about himself less and about others more.

Aziz Ansari has done an amazing job at portraying Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec. I will always love Tom because of his expressions and because of his contribution to the greatest fictional event of all time (TREAT YOSELF) and because of his hilarious friendship with Jean-Ralphio. But I love that over the years, Aziz has grounded Tom as a character in his portrayal of him. He's made him more likable than I thought was possible and more humanized ("End of the World" is still one of my favorite Tom stories) and I am grateful to Aziz for that.

For Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones):

Even though Ann Perkins moved away, she was still such an important part of this series that it would be absurd to not mention her. Ann began this series as a kind of directionless nurse who was mad at there being a giant hole in the back of her yard. She was baffled by the enthusiasm of Leslie Knope and even more baffled when they (kind of forcibly) became friends. But Ann and Leslie's friendship is seriously one of the best parts about Parks and Rec: Ann went from begrudgingly accepting Leslie's zeal to flat-out loving and supporting it. As a result, this woman became more confident in who she was and what she wanted out of life. This wasn't without a few missteps, of course, often in the dating realm, but I loved Rashida Jones's portrayal of Ann because she was always such an honest, good, caring person who worked hard for what she did. She was the person who grounded Leslie most of all, who reminded her of when she was coming on too strong or forceful, but who also supported her when she had great ideas.

Ann was a beautiful tropical fish because she was stubborn and yet also kind. She never stopped trying to become friends with April and even when the latter would push her away, Ann continued to do her best to be kind and caring. And when she decided to become a mother, it seemed like an extremely logical progression for her character. Because Ann was always supportive and she was always driven and being Leslie's friend made her a better person and a better woman. Ann learned to stand up for herself more and to be more assertive. She learned confidence from Leslie and I love how wonderfully Rashida Jones played that transition. It's not extremely noticeable but it is extremely important. Leslie helped Ann become the kind of person Ann always could be but was never bold enough to dare to try and be.

And that's probably evidence enough that Leslie/Ann is the real love story of Parks and Rec. (Kidding... kind of.)

For Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe):

My sister's favorite character in Parks and Rec and one of her favorite characters ever is Chris Traeger. She and I love him for exactly the same reasons: he's hilariously optimistic and bubbly and outgoing and filled with so much energy that Red Bull should probably use HIM in order to provide energy to everyone else in the world. Chris was kind of this caricature for some time and that wasn't bad, necessarily: he was insanely lively and every characteristic of his was exaggerated. He was the character that others turned to in order for encouragement and advice. And Chris was such a delightfully energetic character that it makes the somber and quieter moments he has with Ann and Ben and Leslie feel so much more genuine. Chris spends his entire career trying to think about the town and also his friends. It's a testament to Rob Lowe that he was able to portray this eccentric, lively, delightful character with such poise and humility when necessary. Chris may have been someone who cared about being the best version of himself, but he also cared so much about seeing the potential in others, too. I loved that about him, truly: he was always willing to look at people through a lens of potential and optimism instead of skepticism.

He was the person who hyped others up, remember? And Rob Lowe always did such a wonderful job at portraying that. Additionally, I loved seeing Ben and Chris settle in Pawnee and create families. They both realized that life -- that thing that was happening when they weren't paying attention -- was so much more important than a career and that love and families were more significant and life-altering than any government job could be. Chris and Ben both moved to Pawnee, expecting to want to move on after their job was done. But what I think Pawnee really did for Chris Traeger was remind him that there is a lot more to life than just working hard and making the town better. You need other people to help ground you and help propel you and for Chris, that was what was most important of all.

For Donna Meagle (Retta):

Donna Meagle is such a fabulous character, you guys. She's strong and independent and takes no nonsense from the people around her. I love that she was always really outspoken and unafraid to voice her opinion, even when it contradicted what other people thought or believed. It's easy in the early seasons to see Donna as that tough, stoic character who didn't need anyone else. But what I really loved about the progression of the series is that it also progressed Donna's character, much like April's. Donna began to become a better version of herself. She was still confident and always will be, but she allowed herself to care more about people throughout the years. Moreover, Donna allowed other people to care about HER.

Retta has done such an amazing job at that last bit, to be honest, especially in Donna's relationship with Joe. You can tell that her romance with him allowed her to realize that it's okay to let other people care about her. It doesn't make her any less strong to be in love. In fact, I think Donna is stronger than she's ever been -- and happier, too -- because she's the same wonderful, intelligent, passionate woman but she's also in a committed relationship. When Donna talks to Ron about how he's softened in "One in 8,000," it's clear that Donna has, as well. She's allowed herself to become more comfortable with the idea of being vulnerable with other people. She is so astute at pinpointing how soft and strong Leslie and April are ("Donna and Joe") and I truly believe that she's changed for the better as well. Donna is the perfect example of what it means to be a strong and soft character and someone who doesn't just grow and change but who becomes a better person and woman because of it.

For Garry Gergich (Jim O'Heir):

Jim O'Heir did such a wonderful job of portraying Garry Gergich, the Charlie Brown of Parks and Rec. I love how this series never made Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry an insanely tragic character. We never felt bad for him because he consistently messed up or when the others made fun of him because he was such a good-natured, happy man (who had a beautiful wife and daughters at home). For him, working was never about doing everything successfully or without error. Garry was always most content to be around the people he cared about. That's what was most important to him. That's what kept him at the parks department for so long. And that's what made Parks such a fantastic and still-optimistic show, even when everyone was lamenting how Garry was the worst: they never really hated him. They were always frustrated with him, but they never outright loathed him. And Garry never felt sorry for himself. He was happy with his life and content with himself and who he was. I think that's admirable.

In a world that constantly tells us that we have to be someone else, Garry Gergich proved that as long as being yourself is enough for YOU, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or says.

For all the minor characters (Craig, Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, Mona Lisa Saperstein, Perd Hapley, Joan Callamezzo, Diane Lewis, Bobby Newport, etc.):

Thank you for being such a wonderful part of Pawnee -- for creating this amazing fictional town and making it feel so alive and so diverse and so hilariously weird. I will forever sing "the worst" like Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa and will quote them on a daily basis at work. I'll laugh hysterically at Craig's wedding trigger words. I'll continue to laugh at the morning talk shows and everything else that happened in this delightful fictional town. You all are the best.

For Greg Daniels, Mike Schur, all the writers, and all the producers:

I don't really know what else I can say to thank you for creating such an amazing series. You all have put countless hours, sweat, energy, and emotion into constructing a world that we all fell in love with. Pawnee is a place that reminds us that it's okay to chase your dreams and is, in fact, encouraged. Parks and Rec taught us that no matter how small your goal, you should throw all you have into pursuing it if you believe in it. It showed us that true love means compromise and sacrifice and supporting one another. It showed us just how important friendship is: how amazing your life can be once you let other people into it.

And it taught us that one small dream can lead to an unimaginably blessed and wonderful life. Thank you, Greg and Mike (and everyone who has ever written on this series, been a part of the crew behind the scenes, etc.) for giving us the comedy of optimism.

Parks and Recreation, you may be ending but your impact on this world will not end. Thank you for being the light in the darkness of television. Thank you for being so optimistic and caring and unashamedly so when it would have been easier to create characters that were snarky or calloused. Thank you for bringing such amazing characters to my television each week and stories that made me hopeful for the future of comedy. And I guess there's only one thing left to say to you, Parks and Rec:

I love you and I like you.


  1. Beautiful writing in honour of a beautiful show. It took me awhile to warm up to this show. Just like with the Office, at first I found most of the characters to be mildly irritating. But, just like with the Office, it was also like this amazing kind of alchemy. Something happened where I fell in love with all of them and it became a show that rejoiced in small wonderful things humans can do. Perhaps none of these people would be impressive or noteworthy or likeable at first glance but they are wonderful and amazing in their own unique ways. Each person felt so fleshed out and so real. They each struggled and grew and were portrayed and filmed in a way that exuded compassion. We love them all and you can tell that the cast, writers and crew all love them too.

    Your letters to each were so wonderful that I would just be restating things over and over. So I will just mention some tiny details about each that I will love forever.

    Leslie Knope: she loves breakfast food and sugar and breakfast food is certainly the most gorgeous thing in the world and I miss that about living in North America. She buys wonderful gifts and simultaneously enjoys seeing people happy and winning at gift giving. She freaks out whenever she meets someone she really admires.

    Ron Swanson: he is so dry and so capable and so deeply attached to his principles. He doesn't take the easy way out and he cried while reciting Robert Burns on the coast of Scotland (my adopted home). I want to learn all kinds of things from him. I love that he had a secret persona as a jazz sax player and he capitalized on his sexy voice. And I love his little smile with its dimples. I love that he loves wood.

  2. Ben Wyatt: I love this man. I love that he wears a Letters to Cleo t-shirt, that he is nationally ranked in Settlers of Catan, that he gets excited by accounting spreadsheets, that he writes Star Trek fan fiction, that he is both deeply kind and hard-nosed enough to run a congressional campaign. I mentioned this on Jaime's recap but my husband is a wonderful combination of the humour, nerdiness and soft heart of Ben Wyatt with the anti-social, principled, grumpy nature of Ron Swanson. And to be married to him does make me feel lucky. So I will always love Ben and love how his relationship with Leslie was portrayed.

    April Ludgate: she will always love animals more than people, she doesn't want to try hard for things or open up at first because she doesn't want to be hurt and disappointed, she is immensely loyal and she really scares people at the same time, she was so defensive with Andy at first but then just jumped at marriage to him, she loves watching her husband entertain children.

    Andy Dwyer: Once he was humbled and alone after the first season he started doing things for people (which shocked the heck out of Ann), he writes the most amazing random songs, he gets along with children because he still is one, he has a wonderful imagination, he doesn't get embarrassed by screwing up, he loves his wife more than anything in the world, he is easily pleased by the fun and beautiful and daily things that happen in his world.

    Tom Haverford: he was so beautifully vulnerable in his relationship with his fake wife and worked so hard on covering it up, he loved cashmere and soft blankets, every woman wanted to live in his apartment as soon as they saw it, he made a horrible perfume and he had to learn to be authentically himself, his Roomba that also played music was awesome

    Ann Perkins: she tended to mold herself around whoever she was dating until she realized it, she was our most "normal" person so we could see things through her eyes often at the beginning, she learned to listen to her gut and made a hard move when it felt right, her friendship with Ben was a beautiful thing to see, her relationship with Leslie made me miss my best friend every week.

    Chris Traeger: he dances like a crazy person (this made me love Rob Lowe more than anything), he says what he thinks all the time, I want to try the turkey burger he made, he made an amazing bachelor party for all of his guys, he always puts a great deal of energy into making each thing that he does the best he can. This is why the Chris/Ben relationship and the Leslie/Ann relationship were such interesting parallels.

    Donna Meagle: she was always so settled in herself as a person, you never knew what random places she had been to or owned property in, she loved to treat herself with Tom (I loved their friendship), she could fix anything in the office and everyone knew it, she sees through fake people immediate and appreciate authentic people even when they are really different from her

    Garry Gergich- he knew exactly what everyone thought of him but it never got him down, his family was his proudest achievement and he didn't need any validation beyond that, he enjoyed the anniversary activities that Ben had prepared for Leslie and they talked about Enchanted together, people were puzzled by how much his wife was into him.

    Thank you for your love letters to fictional characters. What a wonderful way to salute this series. It is truly remarkable and I will be forever grateful for it.