The Warmth of “Parks & Rec”
Cinema & New Media Arts | On May 02, 2013
More than any network sitcom since The Andy Griffith Show, Parks and Rec catches the spirit of Preston Sturges’s small-town comedies (Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) and the slapstick parts of Frank Capra’s movies (Pawnee could be Bedford Falls on laughing gas).
I love how all of the major characters have evolved, maybe even matured, without becoming dull. Marriage can be a humor-killer; it snuffs out the will they/won’t they sparks that ignite so much TV. Not so on Parks and Rec. The series explores marriage with a delicacy and attention to detail that critics are more apt to praise on sober-minded dramas. Leslie and Ben are hitched now, but they’re still settling into their partnership and coming to terms with personality traits they wish they could delete from their mate. (Ben compares marriage with Leslie to being “smothered with a hand-quilted pillow filled with cherished memories.” Then he pauses and adds, “I can’t believe I’m complaining about how thoughtful my wife is.”) Andy and April have shaped up into one of the great second-banana couples in sitcoms. They seem to get a perverse romantic charge from fraying each other’s nerves and having them frayed in return. (“He’s always sad and sweaty,” says April, after Andy falls into a post-police-exam-failure funk. “He’s usually happy and sweaty.” She sounds both annoyed and awed.)
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Most of all, I love how the show merges its individual silly bits into a crazy quilt of humanism, mocking each character’s myopia and self-importance at one time or another while insisting on his or her humanity. No sweet show is more cutting than Parks and Rec, or more perceptive about the tedious daily challenges of making the world work; ask anyone who’s worked in government, and they’ll tell you that for all its absurdity, this is the most realistic show ever made about their profession, just as any cop will tell you that their job often resembles episodes of Barney Miller, which consisted mainly of paperwork, office politics, and shooting the breeze. But it’s never a cynical slog. The series’ laid-back idealism about both government and individuals puts a spring in its step. Parks and Rec is as sunny a show as anything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote, and far easier to embrace, because it never suggests that the show is itself noble for showing you nobility, or that you’re becoming a better person by watching it. No current sitcom does a better job of making simple decency seem integral to the fullest enjoyment of life. (The moment when Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger gives Adam Scott’s Ben their recently unearthed letter of assignment to Pawnee is piercingly lovely because Chris presents the gift with no fanfare, as if it’s the sort of gesture that any friend would think to make.)
Amy Poehler’s Leslie exemplifies the show’s principle of karmic niceness as political tactic. Time and again, she’s faced with seemingly immovable human objects blocking a path to her goal; rather than force them aside, she convinces them to voluntarily move themselves by listening to them, figuring out what would make them feel appreciated or loved, and figuring out how to give it to them without sacrificing her integrity or pride.