Tonight’s Parks and Rec features the return of Louis C.K.’s lovable, oft-missed Officer Dave, who goes toe-to-toe with Leslie’s new boyfriend Ben. It’s a sweet, awkward storyline, and C.K.’s always a welcome presence, plus it’s easy to imagine how things will go, thanks to these three characters’ strongly established personality quirks: Leslie with her need to please, Ben’s intense distaste for police officers, and Dave’s slight dopiness. Compare these detailed characters with the one resident of Pawnee who has no such definition, one who rarely gets quotable lines and seems only rarely to be essential to the story: Ann Perkins. She deserves better — and she can have it, too.
Let’s be clear: Parks is one of our favorite shows, and it’s close to impossible to dislike Rashida Jones. If anything, it’s our persistent fondness for her that makes us wish Ann had more of a deal on the show. “Ann, you beautiful spinster, I will find you love,” Leslie vowed in last week’s episode. We’d settle for finding her a story arc or character trait.
Leslie is perky and almost naively ambitious; she’s a goofy drunk and has an outrageous sweet tooth, but is also a hoarder. April is sulky and sour and hates everything — except Andy, Ron, and Neutral Milk Hotel. Ron is a libertarian meat-lover with outstanding survival skills and even more outstanding one-liners. Jerry is the worst. Donna’s a fox. Tom’s a high-energy wannabe-douche who’s secretly a nice guy, Andy’s a human golden retriever, Chris is a health-obsessed perfectionist who can’t stop saying “litrally” and believes he can live to be 150. Ann is … a nurse. We know she sort of dislikes jogging, appears to own a home, and is Leslie’s BFF, even as she looks perpetually quizzical at Leslie’s intense outbursts. She works for the health department now, as an excuse to have her physically present at the office, but she rarely has stakes in anything that’s happening.
The show seems to slowly be suggesting that Ann’s major shortcoming is in romance: She broke up with Andy, and Mark Brendanawicz, and then she got dumped by Chris, and now she’s maybe sort-of dating Tom. Slightly unlucky in love doesn’t quite compete with “believes he can convince his body to ‘stop pooping’” or “has a secret identity as a saxophone player” on the quirk-o-meter, though. She doesn’t have a hook. How does Ann see the world, and in what way might that be different from the way an ordinary viewer might? What does she fear? Who does she love besides Leslie? Does she have a particular strength? Weakness? Passion? Problem she runs into over and over? Anything?
Pawnee has room for approximately one normal person. Initially, the central normal person was Mark, but then Paul Schneider left the show, and Ann took center normal-person stage. But then came Adam Scott’s Ben, and like so many best friends through history, Ann got shoved aside because now Leslie had a new boyfriend. Ben is comparatively sane, adopting Jim Halpert’s penchant for the can-you-believe-this? mugs, and he’s completely superseded Ann as the foil for Leslie’s loopiness, at least in part because Ben also has a few small dings in his sanity armor: He doesn’t “get” Lil’ Sebastian, he’s overly fond of calzones*, he’s a former child mayor and still lugs around some of that baggage, and he’s a super geek. There’s no similar depth to Ann, no edge, no weirdness, no silliness, no dorkery.
Parks needs to give Ann a little more character heft, a little something viewers can think of as so typical Ann. If the show wants to explore how hard-up she is for a dating life, let’s see that blown all the way out: Terrible dude after terrible dude, but all Ann sees are her own shortcomings? (Until Leslie gives her a pep talk, maybe?) Is Ann trying to impress her parents for some reason? Explore it. Let’s see her lose herself in something, or have her professional success tie itself to something personally important, too. The other characters on the show are so well-defined outside of their relationships with Leslie. Ann should be, too.
* This article has been corrected to reflect that Ben is actually a huge calzone fan, hence his depression-induced desire to found the Lo-cal Calzone Zone. It is in fact Leslie who dislikes calzones because she considers them pizza that’s harder to eat. You can’t even believe how much Vulture regrets the error.