Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bye-Bye to PARKS AND REC: The Last Great TV Comedy

PARKS AND RECREATION - Goodbye to the Last Great TV Comedy

- With tonight's series finale of Parks and Recreation, it truly is the end of an era. Parks is the last of its breed - the last broadcast network sitcom that tried to bring edgy, Millennial-friendly comedy to the mainstream. Parks is perhaps the most beloved low-rated sitcom ever - in the grand tradition of The Office, 30 Rock, and Community - all NBC shows that had increasingly small on-air audiences, even if their actual fanbases were much larger. Sure, there are some spiritual successors to Parks out there in TV land. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the most obvious - it is, after all, from Parks and Rec's Michael Schur (along with Dan Goor). And that show has found solid ratings success on Sunday nights. The Goldbergs on ABC is another potential successor - a family sitcom that combines very traditional sitcom tropes with a surreal and subversive, pop-culture-obsessed streak. But mostly, the best comedy these days is on cable, where it is increasingly able to get weird and niche-y. I love the likes of Broad City, Nathan For You, and Garfunkel and Oates. But those shows are going for very specific audiences. In theory, Parks should have been the biggest comedy of the last ten years. It was jam-packed with a great cast of diverse characters, and had a ton of heart. Parks' humor was razor-sharp, but it was also unabashedly earnest and sweet. It wasn't about off-putting well-off LA one-percenters (hello, Modern Family). It was about hard-working small-town Americans. And in an age of political divisiveness and gridlock, Parks and Rec was a constant reminder of our potential to put aside our differences and work together towards a common goal. Like I said, the fact that this *wasn't* the #1-rated comedy on TV speaks to the reality that no comedy is mainstream anymore. With most shows, I get it. But Parks was so funny, so good, so heartfelt, so universal in its themes that you have to wonder if, upon its end, we'll ever see the likes of it again.

Parks and Rec didn't start out amazing. In a strangely similar fashion as its predecessor, The Office, Parks' first season got out of the gate wobbly. Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope was, well, sort of annoying. And the focus on her undermined the stellar supporting cast. But like The Office, Parks came into its own in Season 2. The show became more of an ensemble comedy, and what an ensemble it was. If the show were launching today, it would have the all-star cast of all-star casts. Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Retta, Adam Scott ... and the list goes on.

I heard someone say that the characters on Parks were so perfect because it was as if each represented a certain part of our personality. We all have aspects of these characters inside of us. Leslie is the ambitious go-getter. Ron Swanson the stubborn iconoclast. Andy the big kid. April the sarcastic teenager. Ben the nerd, Tom the would-be player. Jerry/Larry/Gary the loser-dork. There's that, but what makes Parks' characters so fantastic is that, at the same time, none could be reduced to one-note cliches. Leslie was a go-getter, but also a devoted friend who put her BFF Anne above all else. Ron Swanson was a stoic man's man, but he also moonlighted (hilariously) as local jazz legend Duke Silver, and had a kryptonite-like weakness for his ex-wife Tammy. Andy and April seemed polar opposites, but both found joy in each other and became a delightfully oddball couple. Tom, it turned out, was a romantic at heart. Hell, even Jerry was revealed to have an insanely idyllic home life that completely contrasted with his sad-sack reputation in the workplace. Parks never shied away from contradictions and complexity - and showing how and why these characters worked so well together despite their differences.

My favorite example - the one that to me is the heart and soul of the show - is the relationship between Leslie and Ron. Vulture published an essay a few weeks ago about how Ron represented the last gasp of the old man's-man stereotype, how he was the last of a dying breed. I argued that the essay missed the point. What's so brilliant about the Ron Swanson character is that he has his very strong likes and dislikes - he's got a freaking "Pyramid of Success" - but he also was never beholden to outdated views if those views were ugly or mean-spirited. Sure, Ron Swanson doesn't like Europe or skim milk. But he also is a man who sort of transcends specific politics. He likes what he likes. But not because of any ulterior motive or agenda. And that means that when push comes to shove, he admires Leslie's drive and fire and friendship. It's why the "Ron and Leslie" episode in Parks' final season, in which the feuding pair is locked in a room together and forced to hash out their problems - is such a legitimate tearjerker. The show brilliantly led us to believe that the rift that had formed between Ron and Leslie during the two-year gap between Seasons 6 and 7 was about clashing politics. But the real reason behind it was heartbreakingly revealed to be Ron's feeling that his unlikely friend Leslie - wrapped up in her new job - had left him behind.

But even when Parks does have its characters disagree on politics, the disagreements have a purity to them that is inspiring. Ron and Leslie often have different philosophies on government - but again, those views come from a pure place. The political fights on Parks would often see Leslie and Ron united - because it wasn't about Democrat vs. Republican vs. Libertarian - Leslie's battles were about smarts vs. stupidity, integrity vs. shiftiness and hucksterism, community vs. homogenization, and sticking up for friends and family. It's no wonder then that Leslie and Ron were ultimately on the same side when push came to shove.

Aside from all that, from a sheer comedy perspective, Parks is a bar-setter. I don't know all of the behind-the-scenes people who made the show as sharp as it was. But what's amazing is how, over the years, I've discovered new comedy voices who were associated with the show. Sure, going in, comedy fans knew creators Greg Daniel and Michael Schur's bonafides. And we knew Amy Poehler from years on SNL and Aziz Ansari from his stand-up. But aside even from the breakout cast members like Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt, we've seen people like Megan Amram, a writer on the show, become a cult comedy favorite. And tragically, one of the show's Co-EP's - Harris Wittels - a guy who was by all accounts the show's go-to joke puncher-upper, and an emerging stand-up comedian and comedy writer - passed away last week. One only needs to look at Wittels' Twitter to see what an incredibly hilarious voice was lost. But his ability to nail jokes and joke construction - and just the overall talent of the writing staff - was evident on any given episode of Parks. Amazingly, the show is going out sharper than ever. This final season has been a veritable comedy master-class. Each episode is jam-packed with instant-classic quotes and perfectly-constructed jokes. The comedy has been able to swing from character humor to parody (as in the impressively unique Johnny Karate episode from last week), from pop-culture references to absurdism. And yet ... I (and suspect many of you) have been left misty-eyed by nearly every episode this season. To be that funny and that emotionally-involving is a rare feat for any show to pull off.

And that's why I say Parks and Rec might just be the last great comedy. There's something to be said for comedy that doesn't have to swing for the fences, that can just be what it wants to be and get as weird as it wants to. I love that stuff. But there's also something to be said for comedy that can be funny and smart and challenging, but also have the characters and heart and real-world relatability to ensure that there's something there for everyone. It's hard for me to imagine *anyone* giving Parks and Rec a try and not digging it. But increasingly, the Parks-esque shows are disappearing from the air. They're becoming watered down like Modern Family. Or going to Netflix (Tina Fey's upcoming Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or the web (Community's upcoming sixth season). And as that happens, comedy won't need to appeal to a broad audience anymore. There's a part of that that's cool, sure. But there's also something sad about the end of shows that unite us in laughter, just as the characters on Parks were united around their beloved town of Pawnee. That sense of community is evaporating - we're all separating off into our little tribes where our super-specific tastes are catered to with web series and podcasts. And in that environment, you have to wonder if any show will again be able to be a true national-conversation starter again. Parks was never that show, but it was to a lot of the people that mattered. People who were smart and funny liked Parks. Parks people were my people. And it was watched by the funniest comedians and most important politicians (everyone from the Obamas to Joe Biden to John McCain - who cameo'd multiple times - were fans). The ending of Parks and Recreation makes me sad - it's the end of a great TV show, but also sort of the end of an era for TV. But as long as the spirit of Leslie Knope lives on, as long as Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness hangs on college dorms and office cubicles, as long as we still reference DJ Roomba and Burt Macklin: FBI and JJ's Diner and the Cones of Dunshire and Jean Ralphio and Perd Hapley, then Parks and Rec will *literally* live on forever in Lil' Sebastian-esque fashion.

So long Parks and Rec. It's been an amazing, legendary run.

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