Sitcoms aren’t supposed to make us think about change. They’re supposed to establish stasis, to remind of us of normalcy- the same bar, the same group of friends, the same stakes. Maybe two of the characters date, then they break up. They lose jobs, they get new ones, the dynamic stays pretty level.
Parks and Recreation, which wrapped up its stellar fifth season last night, somehow manages to feel familiar every year, while consistently expanding the inner and outer lives of its characters, changing the group dynamics but strengthening them at the same time. It’s basically the Mad Men of sitcoms. The characters stay largely consistent (or change in ways that feel true-to-life), but each season carries with it the weight of the previous ones, and as the characters grow, they seem complex in ways that make the emotional stakes higher and the payoffs more satisfying.
Amy Poehler’s lead character, Leslie Knope, was presented as slightly buffoonish in the 6-episode first season (aping the tone of The Office at the height of its popularity), but quickly evolved into the hyper-competent, loyal, and effusive character that powers the good spirit at the heart of this show. She’s evolved from the ineffectual bureaucrat that fell into a pit in season one to an elected city councilwoman, affecting change in the city she loves. Has the show spent an ample amount of time on her love life? Sure, but the conflict between her dedication to public service and her relationship with Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt was what drove large parts of seasons three and four. Instead of creating plot-devicey love triangles or relying on Chuck-Lorre-style passive-aggressive couple bickering, Leslie and Ben have to deal with the sorts of actual personal compromise and maturation that real couples do, which makes their eventual marriage this year the series high-water mark by far.
The show has impossibly fleshed out nearly all of its main supporting cast with season-long subplots that involve personal growth or ambition. Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford successfully launches his own business, learning to reign in his goofy “Tommy Fresh” persona and use it to his advantage. Aubrey Plaza’s April Ludgate shows both ambition and initiative this season, showing positively Knope-like enthusiasm for work at times (without losing her icy demeanor). Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson is now both a cartoonishly badass man’s man and father figure to his new girlfriend’s two daughters. Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer spends the majority of the year training to take the police academy entrance exam, which would’ve seemed beyond his attention span in the past.
Even the most cartoonish personality of the regular cast, Rob Lowe’s impossibly-positive, “literally”-abusing Chris Traeger went trough a season-long identity crisis, vacillating between joy and despair in the midst of as many as 15 (offscreen) therapy sessions a week. The only character that Parks has never known what to really do with is Rashida Jones’s Ann Perkins, which it all but admitted by having Ann realize that she’d been too-defined by her past relationships and go on a search for self-discovery – which ended abruptly with the decision to have a child via sperm donor, a seemingly out-of-nowhere decision that you just sort of had to shrug and accept.
All of these personal journeys make up the heart of the show in the long-term, cumulative sense, but the beauty of Parks and Recreation is that each episode deals with short-term, entertaining goals, and the other things just happen along the way. So all of the familiar things happened this year – jabs at snooty neighboring town Eagleton, visits with local TV anchors Perd Hapley and Joan Callamezzo, the hapless Animal Control employees, and so on. But it’s new versions of our main characters navigating this cartoonish landscape every year, so it feels familiar but takes us new places.
The only major change this year that didn’t feel right to me was the introduction of the show’s first true villain in Councilman Jamm, embodied with able douchiness by Jon Glaser. Pawnee is a city of many cartoonish and one-dimensional fringe characters, to be sure, but Jamm appeared in ten episodes and never was fleshed out beyond being a self-serving jerk, there to provide opposition to our beloved heroes’ ambitions – to the point that he rudely interrupts Leslie’s wedding in “Ben and Leslie” and gets punched in the face by Ron. It’s a minor quibble, but the show has shown so much affection for the weirdos and misguided citizens of Pawnee (I love Leslie’s dedication to town-hall meetings, even though the Q & A portions are always disastrous), that it feels cheap and easy just to have some asshole throw a wrench into things. Pawnee just doesn’t seem like a place where people punch one another. It’s a place where they throw someone named Ted into a lake every year (the town charter misprinted the word “tea”).
The town itself comes into play in the finale, which did a nice job of summing up the season. Leslie faces a potential recall after making several unpopular decisions over the course of her first year in office. It’s the first time the show has really addressed its main character’s progressive, very pro-government attitudes in the midst of what’s mostly been portrayed as an exaggeratedly conservative Midwestern city: the residents object to Leslie’s tax on 128 oz. sodas, her blocking of a new Paunch Burger location, and her teaching sex ed to STD-ridden seniors (84 percent of Pawnee-ans favor abstinence-only education). The finale also sets up new changes and challenges for Ron and April. NBC’s impossibly dismal ratings have made the show pretty much a lock for renewal, so it’ll be exciting to see if the show can reach new emotional heights next year.
Every year we get older and more complex, even though we basically feel like the same people. But each success starts to feel harder won, each failure hits differently, and, if we’re lucky, our relationships deepen and grow. I’m sure there’s a need for TV shows where nothing ever changes, where the CSI team solves the case every week, or the same half-dozen attractive people make the same witty comebacks. But we also need shows like Parks that tell new stories, that accumulate, that we can look back and realize were very different five years ago, and that back then we were different too.