Tuesday, 23 June 2015

PARKS AND RECREATION: Ruinous Optimism - Tea Time w/ Thomas Zachary Toles

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The Ruinous Optimism
of Parks and Recreation

By Thomas Zachary Toles

More TV Trash Talking from
The Film Corner's
Tea Time Columnist

The series finale of Parks and Recreation was as saccharine and excessive as a Sweetums Child Size soda. With astonishing conviction, the episode whipped up embarrassingly perfect futures for each of its recurring characters. Tiny fleeting conflicts were drizzled onto certain epilogues as if a couple squirts of lemon could deepen the flavor of 512 ounces of refined sugar.

When did the once tasteful show let itself go?

It did not start in Season 7. Parks and Recreation has, for years, been such a staunch defender of the goodness of its characters that it refused to let anything truly bad happen to them. This was no doubt an attempt by the show runners to distance the series from their previous hit, The Office. Indeed, early in the run of Parks and Rec, it was oft-described as an Office knock-off.

Hoping to escape this identity crisis, creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur sought an alternate characterization for the show’s central character, Leslie Knope. Between Seasons 1 and 2, Knope transformed from bumbling manager type with delusions of grandeur to one of the most stubbornly ambitious, generous, and hard working characters on television. The joke was no longer on Leslie, but on the whiny, ungrateful people of Pawnee for whom she so tirelessly advocated.

This new approach borrowed significantly from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s film centres on the personal sacrifices George Bailey must make for the sake of his average little town. Despite the film’s euphoric ending, these sacrifices weigh heavily on George, pushing him to the brink of suicide. He severely compromises his own needs for the sake of others—the perfect metaphor for devoted public service.

In its first few seasons, Parks and Rec followed Capra’s example by ingeniously making comedy out of Leslie’s wildly under-appreciated labor. Historically, comedy thrives on that particular Chaplinesque brand of optimistic hopelessness and all sitcoms especially benefit from such cyclical premises. For a time, Pawnee’s stubborn mediocrity landed its Parks department reliably back where they started, reaching like George Bailey for detectable impact from the drab valleys of Indiana.

Parks and Rec bravely imbued modest goals in potentially soul-draining circumstances with real value. Not everyone had Leslie’s ambition, of course. Ron’s primary commitment was always to avoid any government action; Tom’s commitment was to himself; April’s to macabre cynicism. There was more to these people than those simple descriptions, and fortunately they were allowed to develop over time under Leslie’s arm-twisting, inexhaustible guidance. Yet all the show’s main characters were most interestingly defined by their confinement in the feeble Parks department, a station that seemed to suit none of them perfectly, including Leslie. The possibility of doing meaningful work in such imperfect conditions was the faint ray of sunshine Leslie tenaciously sought after.

Unfortunately, as time went on, Parks and Rec allowed the clouds of stifled ambition to float away to Eagleton and beyond. Its writers became so attached to Leslie’s tireless optimism that they refused to place any immovable obstacles in the way of its characters’ desires. The exception that proves the rule is the Parks department’s incessant bullying of Jerry, which is too endless and frivolous to sustain any bite.

Eventually, Leslie could do anything, putting inhuman amounts of work into even the least significant projects. With seemingly unlimited resources and energy, compromise was less and less a part of her life. The same came to be true of the rest of the cast, who grew increasingly successful separate from the Parks department and ever more enamored with each other.

Parks and Rec remained only superficially about the importance of teamwork in adversity, overlooking all the underlying struggles that might make such collaboration inspiring. Without real conflict, like so many sitcoms before it, its characters were allowed to transform into Platonic ideals of themselves, losing their human complexity:

Ron should say something manly here.

April should be cynical to hide her sweetness.

Andy shouldn't get it.

As early as Season 4, an uncomfortable shift can be felt in the ethos of Parks and Rec. Convincingly awkward comic figures like Mark Brendanawicz and Dave Sanderson were replaced by absurd caricatures like Chris Traeger and Craig Middlebrooks. Caricatures were always a colourful part of the show’s background (Jean Ralphio often soars during his infrequent appearances) but had no place in its main cast, further undermining whatever shreds of emotional stakes remained. Ethan Alter noted the somewhat surprising absence of former principle Mark from the finale but the city planner’s credible disenchantment simply would not have made sense in the exaggerated world of the series’ later seasons.

By the finale, the caricaturization reached its apotheosis. As Parks and Rec had already abandoned pain and complexity for broad humour and shallow positivity (becoming as vacuous as the hollow self-help literature affectionately mocked in this final episode), it seemed a fait accompli for every major character to find seamless happiness in both their work and personal lives.

Tom’s improbably bestselling book literally boiled each figure down to three generic traits; meagre summaries as empty and hackneyed as the type of book Tom is peddling.
“April: Individualistic, intense, intimidating."

"Ron: Self-reliant, uncompromising, inner-directed."

"Leslie: Leader, tireless, optimistic.”
Optimism—and comedy—separate from struggle, compromise, and disappointment, does not have much impact. By the end of the series, Leslie’s overbearing idealism was the sole lens through which we were forced to view Pawnee, and governmental work more generally.

A once wonderful, weird, feminist delight deteriorated into a gang of cartoon characters embarking on a happiness scavenger hunt. In the series finale, we were assaulted by a future of boundless false satisfaction.

By that point, to put it in the show’s terms:

Parks and Recreation was beating a dead mini-horse.