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modern classics

Seitz on Parks and Recreation: Never Has Simple Decency Been So Simply Hilarious

NBC’s Parks and Rec doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger of cancellation — my colleague Joe Adalian explains why in this piece — but since there hasn’t been an official announcement yet, why not prod the network by singing the show’s praises?

Bottom line: It’s a classic. 

I’m looking over the lineup of season-five episodes right now and I don’t see a single one that didn’t make me laugh out loud at least a half-dozen times, often at jokes or character beats so basic that I file them under “mitochondrial humor.” Like the way that April blurts out what she really thinks even in situations that call for diplomacy, in that stoned-without-weed, half-sneer voice of hers. And the recently lake-dunked Ted calling for a repeal of Ted Day, an article in the Pawnee Charter allowing the annual dunking of a guy named Ted. (“It was a misprint!” he cries. “They clearly meant ‘tea’!”) And the way Pawnee government employees reflexively shudder every time Jerry Gergich’s name is mentioned — and the dignity-saving, Leslie-puzzling reveal, in “Jerry’s Retirement,” that the professionally useless Jerry was a great family man with a gorgeous, doting wife and four adoring daughters. And pretty much any exchange between Leslie and concerned citizens during hearings. (When Leslie asks an applicant for the city’s animal-control department if he has experience with animals, he replies, “A bat landed on my face once.”)

Mitochondrial humor isn’t the show’s only area of expertise. The writing is a veritable periodic table of silliness, every element accounted for and some newly discovered. I love the show’s event, holiday, and place names: D.J. Jazzy Vern’s; the Sweetums Foundation; Waffle Day and Mail Day; Pawnee Video Dome; the Pawnee Department of Emergency Preparedness. I love the awesomely self-important titles that characters give to their pet projects (Leslie Knope’s emergency preparedness manual is titled Mission Im-Pawneeable: The Knope Protocol), and how, in the name of spontaneity, they create disasters or near-disasters (Leslie and Ben’s impulsive wedding; the black-tie gala silent auction), and how those same disasters sometimes resolve into authentic moments of sentiment, camaraderie, even grace. (The implosion of Leslie and Ben’s unplanned nuptials led them to the perfect location, Pawnee City Hall — though Ron Swanson’s one-punch answer to their heckler was worth the misery, at least from this viewer’s perspective.) 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.) And no TV couple since Charles and Morticia Addams has made ghoulish humor seem a natural part of courtship. “I found a dead rabbit on the side of the road and cut its feet off and made it a lucky charm,” April says, giving him a pre-exam gift of road kill. He amends it, adding bubblegum devil horns and writing “666” on its side; a marriage of true minds, this.

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. The miniature-golf face-off between her and Ron (Nick Offerman, who surely never imagined that his face would launch a thousand memes) becomes a miniature showdown between liberal and conservative philosophies that ends in pragmatic compromise. In the Ted Day episode, Leslie is appalled by moldy clauses in Pawnee’s charter — including a provision allowing white citizens to seize Native Americans’ property, and one empowering a man to crack an egg on the forehead of a woman who raises her voice to him — and tries to modernize the document. The town’s traditionalists are represented by Patton Oswalt’s Garth Blunden, who knows every clause in the town charter and dreams of being able to work “Huzzah!” into everyday speech without seeming like a complete yutz. His epic filibuster outlining his plot for Star Wars: Episode VII holds the town’s constitutional congress hostage. Leslie tames him by offering him a seat on the Pawnee Historical Commission, which lets him join a club that would never have someone like him as a member. He gratefully accepts, but only after feigning worry over the time it might steal from his soap-making.

Every character is as grand a kook as Leslie, Garth, Andy, or Ron, even the ones that seem “typical” on first glance. Yet I never get the feeling that the show is trying to ridicule any of them. There’s something fundamentally warm and embracing about Parks and Rec’s worldview. It not saying, “Look at these fools — aren’t they laughable?” but, “Everybody’s weird once you get to know them, and once you get to know them, they don’t seem quite as weird.” Huzzah!

Photo: NBC