Parks and Recreation is a delightfully intriguing series. It was originally conceived as a spin-off vehicle for Rashida Jones’ Office character, Karen, once she left the show as a regular guest star in the third season and it meant to follow her foray into the public sector. Instead, audiences who stuck with Parks from its premiere were treated to watching a series grow from a promising if not slightly painful first season (of only six episodes) to NBC’s top sitcom, arguably the best on American television today. Showrunner Michael Schur (who could be seen playing Dwight’s cousin, Mose, on The Office and developed the series with Greg Daniels) has guided Parks’ evolution from a weak imitation of the American Office to a series which has not only lived up to but surpassed the potential it always held. Indeed, Will Leitch of New York called the second season, “the most impressive comeback in the history of broadcast comedy.” We watched the brilliant and multi-talented Amy Poehler (whose recent split with husband and comedy legend Will Arnett has made me reconsider whether true love can ever last) transform from a female version of Michael Scott (well intentioned but socially starved professional in the right field though mostly frustratingly inept) to one of the greatest and best executed underdog stories ever told. Parks and Rec is that rare breed of television which improves with each new season and it’s due largely to two main elements – its world-building and its rejection to be content with simply spinning its wheels.
Just as some of the most interesting bands to follow are those who remain true to their roots while pushing their boundaries with each new album, some of the best TV series are those that refuse to let themselves become too comfortable in their surroundings and Parks has done just that. After an awkward initial test season, the series refined itself and showed us what it was really made of throughout its full 24 episode second season. This allowed the characters to really come into their own and the writers did an impressive job of defining the world in which they live. With the introductions of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, the third season saw the show transition from a successful comedy to a story with real stakes and real heart. Then in the fourth season the show went for broke again by fully embracing the political perspectives that often danced on the show’s periphery with stellar results. Parks has also proven itself deserving of being recognized alongside other series whose settings are as much a part of the cast as are its regular players such as The Simpsons, South Park, and even HBO powerhouses The Wire and Deadwood. So without further adieu, here are the reasons you should be excited for the fifth season premiere on Thursday, September 20th.
5. The Citizens of Pawnee, Indiana
So these first two are more series-wide, with the last three being fifth season specific. A community consists of its members, the people whom constitute its social fabric. If the citizens of Pawnee serve as the threads of the blanket which warms them, it is certainly an eccentric and nuanced warmth, if not a downright occasionally psychotic one. The comradery and support the main cast exhibit for one another is unparalleled in recent years, and this list would be much, much longer if I took the time to show off how hilarious and awesome each main character is, but it’s the town’s supporting players that I really want to focus on here. On the few occasions the members of the parks department have found themselves in the place of Leslie Knope, especially during the supervision of town hall meetings, they are utterly out of their depth in regards to how one copes with such blatantly bizarre individuals. Still though, for all their seemingly filterless stream of consciousness ranting, the many featured citizens of Pawnee have each made the most of their respective appearances, contributing to the series as a whole on a very profound level by making the community feel as real as the frustration the show’s stars experience when dealing with them. From the more “average” citizens like Lawrence and Mel to community staples like Joan Callamezzo, Perd Hapley, Crazy Ira and The Douche, and the Newports, the expansive Pawnee populace colors the canvas of the town like a kaleidoscope of crazy. Plus, who can ever resist the charms of Jean-Ralphio? SWAG!
4. Screw you, Gender Roles
It’s subtle, but it’s there. From the series’ lead being a strong and competent (almost to a fault) woman to one of its main focuses being that of the aforementioned lead’s friendship with another woman, Parks has always distinguished itself as a show which doesn’t cast women in overtly sexual or subservient roles. On the contrary, it’s consistently made it a point to address gender roles in especially progressive and sophisticated ways. Although he is the epitome of what can arguably be called an antiquated sense of masculinity (what I might argue as a simply more “classic” perspective, anchored by admirable values of genuine respect and equality), the overtly libertarian Ron Swanson has repeatedly proven himself just as much a feminist as Leslie.
From the second season premiere, “Pawnee Zoo”, in which Leslie defends her gay marriage of two male penguins, to the episode wherein the parks department go on their eponymous annual “boys’ club” hunting trip, to “Woman of the Year” where Ron is given an accolade from a feminist organization which Leslie has earned, to “Summer Catalogue” in which one of the former directors of the parks department can’t seem to say anything that isn’t misogynistic, to “Pawnee Rangers” where Leslie starts a Girls Scout-esque youth group to rival their male counterparts, to the more recent “Lucky” where Ron accompanies Andy to his women’s studies final exam, as well as each installment in what I like to refer to as the ongoing epic of The Tammies, Parks has taken great effort to clearly define its ideals in relation to gender roles.
Additionally, the characters themselves are equally influential on the series’ progressive take on gender. Having the less conventionally masculine Tom and Ben to balance out the ruggedly macho Andy and Ron while also writing the series’ quintessential schlemiel and schlimazel, Jerry, a gorgeous daughter (apparently she gets it from her mom) and “The biggest penis I’ve ever seen,” according to the perpetually downtrodden colleague of Ann’s, Dr. Harris, as well as other strong females in addition to Leslie, Ann, and the Tammies, including April, Donna, Tom’s ex-wife, Wendy, and Bobby Newport’s campaign manager, Jennifer Barkley, all certainly contribute to an equitable world of less conventionally gender bound individuals.
3. Everyone’s Better Than Jim & Pam
April and Andy. Leslie and Ben. Hell, even Tom and Ann! Though the first four seasons of The Office told the tale of Jim and Pam as a genuinely sweeping and gut-wrenchingly adorable love story, the latter half of the series has seen them transform into “that couple.” You know, the annoyingly happy couple with nothing left to offer once they’re finally together. All of the major Parks characters’ romantic entanglements have proven much more compelling and satisfactory than NBC’s other grand love story.
Take April and Andy for example; after Leslie ultimately let go of her unrequited hang ups on Mark, then boyfriend of Ann, the real tension of that romance wasn’t so much watching Ann realize she’s not actually into Mark for the long haul (though that was a very honest and intelligent portrayal of a very real and often difficult challenge to overcome), but watching Andy gradually get over ex-girlfriend Ann and finally get together with April. Unlike Jim and Pam, after Andy and April got together the characters didn’t loose their relevance, they actually became even more charismatic and engaging as they appear authentically in love and particularly well suited for each other.
The gradual evolution of Leslie and Ben’s relationship has also been very compelling to watch as it solidified from an unlikely coupling to a passionate affair to a full-fledged mature relationship based on mutual admiration and respect. Now that the two will go through a presumably similar, though exceedingly more realistic, long distance scenario as fifth season Jim and Pam, we’ll get to see Pawnee’s golden couple overcome the obstacles of physical distance in the face of emotional closeness. The reasons Leslie and Ben’s romance has worked better than Jim and Pam’s, despite being the most similar of all three of Parks’ most recent major romances, are urgency and authenticity. The flirtation and courtship between Jim and Pam lasted more than fifty episodes of The Office. They were the series’ best, but they clearly demonstrated the series’ reluctance to couple the two characters whose unrequited love anchored the show up to that point. After the truncated fourth season, the series struggled to find what to do with their couple besides the usual marriage and kids bits. Leslie and Ben on the other hand didn’t rush into their relationship but definitely didn’t resist it any more than absolutely necessary. After they got together they didn’t go the tried and true marriage and baby route, they dealt with the very real issues and consequences of dating a professional superior before further developing both their respective careers.
And then there’s the borderline absurd coupling of Tom and Ann. One of Parks’ few faults is that it’s never really found a solid place for Ann despite the character being integral to the cast’s dynamic. She’s always been Leslie’s friend and she’s been consistently dealt the girlfriend role, first with Andy, then Mark, then Chris, then a string of interchangeable nobodies, and now her and Tom are an item. Kind of. As mentioned, this is the silliest romantic pairing the show has seen (with the possible exception of Ron and Tammy II), but that actually really works for it. Almost an acknowledgement of the love story trope, this couple, in a perpetual state of breaking up and getting back together, is at once an underdog story (the adolescent Tom learning to be a more mature adult) and that of exploring the virtues of remaining open-minded (Ann’s willingness to even consider Tom as a romantic partner, a stretch that’s only just barely been able to work due to the bottom line that it makes the audience laugh).
No matter what, watching any of these romances in the fifth season of Parks will be better than watching the former great romance of PB&J (“Pam Beasley and Jim – GASP!”).
2. Officer Andy Dwyer (formerly Special Agent Burt Macklin)
Aside from the obvious build up season four cultivated concerning Leslie’s political victory and its ramifications, the only other fifth season plot foreshadowed in the last season finale was the suggestion that when he’s not blazing a trail for all future rock stars that he inevitably influences, Andy should moonlight as a police officer. For all its mad-cap silliness, Parks has always granted its characters with the realistic necessity to earn a living, like the rest of us, and devotes a certain amount of respect for that very human concern simply by acknowledging it. Many shows like to pay very little attention to how its characters can afford to entertain us all if not merely writing off that obligation completely with the simplest of explanations. But Parks takes effort to showcase what makes a community and a large part of that is what its citizens do. Andy hasn’t really known exactly what to do with himself these past four years, if not his whole life. After getting kicked out of ex-girlfriend Ann’s house he spent many of his days homeless and living in the pit before he moved on to being a shoeshinist and eventually elevated himself to administrative assistant during Leslie’s campaign, even becoming a college course graduate. Still, none of these occupations were designed to hold for long, but it seems this one could be a perfect fit for the possum hunter extraordinaire, cream pie vigilante thwarter, and Roadhouse enthusiast with a heart of gold.
1. The Political Satire
No other series besides maybe South Park has so poignantly turned the screw on the major flaws of politics and government with such a sweet smile than Parks and Rec. From the scathing indictment of big corporations holding sway over democracy which has come up again and again in the large shadow cast by the Newport dynasty and their Sweetums candy conglomerate, to the apathy it inspires, Parks has always been politically conscious and remarkably has been able to do so without being too preachy. This has been the most consistent strength of the more politically minded episodes of Parks. Gay marriage was explored in “Pawnee Zoo”. The relative merits of capitalism versus communism were pitted against each other in “Sister City”. “Jerry’s Painting” dissected the right to free speech. “Born and Raised” lampooned the “Birther Movement” surrounding the nationality of President Barack Obama. Political scandal has been the subject of “Christmas Scandal” and “The Trial of Leslie Knope”. Volunteerism and community outreach has been a strong theme of the series most notably throughout the first season as well as in “Kaboom” and the seminal “Harvest Festival”. The media has been touched on with every appearance of Joan Callamezzo, Perd Hapley, or Crazy Ira and The Douche. The more recently spotlighted economic crisis has been mirrored in several episodes, most notably “The Master Plan”. And the wide world of campaigning was examined throughout the entire fourth season. Not only does Parks satirize politics, it shows us its potential for greatness. What’s so amazing and impressive about Parks and Rec is its levity when dealing with such heady issues, always making a strong point but never at the cost of genuine and intelligent laughs.
So concludes the case for why everyone should be watching Parks and Recreation. Much more than the Office spin-off it was originally conceived as, the series has earned the attention of millions and the praise of casual viewers and critics alike. So I challenge all of you to naysayers to watch the new season and try not to fall in love with Pawnee: The Paris of America, Pawnee: The Akron of Southwest Indiana, Pawnee: A Town and a Place, Pawnee: Welcome German Soldiers, Pawnee: The Factory Fire Capital of America, Pawnee: Welcome Vietnamese Soldiers, Pawnee: Engage with Zorp, Pawnee: Zorp is Dead. Long Live Zorp, Pawnee: It’s Safe to Be Here Now, Pawnee: Birthplace of Julia Roberts, Pawnee: Home of the World Famous Julia Roberts Lawsuit, Pawnee: Welcome Taliban Soldiers, Pawnee: First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity.
Parks and Recreation premieres Thursday, September 20th on NBC.