“Binge watching Netflix series’ has become a staple of the entertainment diet of the teenage – early 20’s population of America. With nearly unlimited access to all your favorite shows (and some good movies I guess) it is slowly but surely consuming the majority of the free time of myself and countless others. This is why I’ve brought you here today; to tell you the tale of how Netflix is taking over my life. This is, “The Netflix Chronicles”. – Tim Dunker
Parks and Recreation – the spiritual successor to the Office, Amy Poehler’s first real starring vehicle, and the final remaining tentpole of NBC’s high-quality/low-ratings comedy lineup – ended in May, and as such, it recently came time for me to spend all of my free time aggressively binge watching the show. The last week of my life included 79 episodes, 1738 hours, and thousands of laughs thanks to Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Adam Scott, Aziz Ansari, and the rest of Pawnee’s humble bureaucrats. This is the conclusion of my obsession. This is
I was actually an original patron of Parks and Rec, watching the entirety of the first two seasons in real time. However, as with the The Office, I initially failed to engage with the material. Poehler’s Leslie Knope was ambitious, driven and passionate, but the show failed to capture the gist of her performance, lacking the intensity of its lead. Offerman’s offering, the now-immortal character of Parks Department Director Ron Swanson, was more one-dimensional than the sax-wielding, rustic family man that he became. Meanwhile, the rest of the uniquely diverse cast served as comic relief. Even the effervescent Rashida Jones couldn’t shake the feeling that the show was having trouble finding it’s footing, as early reviews of the show would later corroborate. By the start of the show’s third season, I was definitely out, only tuning in casually if I had nothing else to watch. I switched my attention to my beloved Community (which was entering its 2nd, and maybe best, season) and Tina Fey’s critical darling 30 Rock, and neither failed to disappoint. Now, almost 5 years later, I decided that all the acclaim Parks and Rec had inspired throughout the past couple years meant it was worth another visit to Pawnee. Needless to say, picking up where I left off was the best decision I made…this week.
I re-engaged with Knope and friends at the beginning of season 4. Rob Lowe and Adam Scott had by this point been made permanent members of the main cast, and Lowe’s Chris Traeger reminds me of why I loved Sam Seaborn so much in The West Wing. Though Traeger is not the intellectual, high-minded communications guru that Seaborn was, he is, at least at first, a shining ball of fitness and optimism with lovable quirks. In fact, every single character had magically become relatable–I wanted to be friends with all of them (even you, Gary/Jerry/Larry/Terry). Action hero Chris Pratt wins hearts as the dimwitted Andy Dwyer, and even walking Kristen Stewart caricature April Ludgate, played by the forever scowling Aubrey Plaza, shines as a morose and sneakily capable young girl with much untapped potential. Isn’t that what a series like this is meant to be about? Watching TV shows like True Detective has made me realize that there’s a reason prestige TV doesn’t make money and get viewers like The Big Bang Theory can. Even though movies and television are often meant for escapist viewing, it’s often the idealized portrayals of close family relationships and everyday mundane events that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. This is magnified even further while binge watching, a comfort activity with spectacularly lazy consequences. How often are you in bed, surfing Netflix, when you stumble upon a new horror movie or prestige drama and decide that it’s perfect for your lazy Tuesday evening? Probably never, right? What’s more likely is that you watch that episode of Friends for the 30th time, reciting all the lines and still grinning like an idiot when (Spoiler Alert) Rachel gets off the plane. The sit-com, the rom-com, the com-com, the rom-dram, and the rom-dram-com – they all exist for this purpose. As life gets harder, scripted lives become closer, and you dive into the fictional problems of your favorite characters. And in Pawnee, as much as any show since The Office, there is a simple pleasure in how characters are shaped by the doldrums of ordinary events in sites as boring as local governments.
No character, of course, renders you as speechless in this show as Amy Poehler’s Parks Bureaucrat turned City Councilwoman turned Parks Bureaucrat again Leslie Knope. Leslie transforms from an overly enthusiastic and very capable control freak local government official, to a more successful overly enthusiastic and extremely capable federal government official with kids… Well, okay, large scale change isn’t necessarily the strong suit of any of these characters, but the changes Leslie does make are meaningful in a way that echoes real life personal change. She begins to realize her ambition, expanding her government role, capitalizing on her dreams of being in city council and running the parks service, and even manages to find and juggle love along the way with the lovably nerdy Ben Wyatt and her “sunflower” Ann. Leslie is a juggernaut in the mold of C.J. Cregg, a dynamic representation of career driven women who struggle to have it all. Luckily for us, Leslie comes as close as most people get to fulfillment, establishing lasting friendships with her previously distant co-workers, marrying a man who perfectly handles her aggressive mannerisms, and acting as a mother to many, from her own children to April. I just finished the series finale about 2 and a half minutes ago, and the stirring conclusion to Leslie’s journey (I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen the end) definitely inspires even more love for Amy Poehler than I thought I had.
Make no bones about it, this is an Amy Poehler show. The show lives and dies on Leslie’s insane plans, and putting the absurdity of characters like Tom and Donna and Andy and April alongside the straightlaced Ann is only possible because of how much they love Leslie Knope. I can’t go through and label what’s special about every character, since my word counts are already (as always) out of control, but I will highlight the best things about the show for me, characters included.
Ron Swanson can always be counted on for a laugh. His farcically taken straightforwardness delivered more humor than any other character in the show. From his desire for privacy to his conciseness to his hidden saxophone talent, his absurdity really epitomizes some things about everytown USA, embodied by Pawnee, Indiana. Any words or displays of happiness (however small) from Ron also provided the most poignant moments in the show, because you got the sense that even outside the realm of the show they were reserved for the most important moments.
The story of why I love this overly-literal television anchor is a simple one, and that story is: that he’s funny. But really, any television segment with him, from “Lights, Camera, Perd” to “The Perdples Court” was so brilliantly done. He was by far my favorite peripheral Pawnee citizen, and though the wonder twins Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa gave him a run for his money, I’ll forever be a Perdvert.
Ben and Leslie
I’m a big sucker for dramatic television relationships that end in big reunions and romantic moments – Ross and Rachel, Robin and Barney, J.D. and Elliot, even Dan and Serena (I’m sorry, I’m sorry). But the beautiful thing about Ben and Leslie is that they never wavered. If we daydream about a love as strong as Ross and Rachel we ought to aspire to a relationship as supportive and perfect and simple as Ben and Leslie’s. It’s more like the Marshall and Lily or Turk and Carla, except these two weren’t part of an ensemble or supporting characters meant to show the protagonist a thing about love. Leslie was the protagonist, and so rarely do we find a protagonist that is allowed to be so profoundly happy all the time. They’re nerdy, they’re awkward, and they’re relatable. Ben’s proposal was simple, sweet, and classically interrupted by Leslie “needing to remember every little thing about how perfect [her] life is”. From that moment on, they never once wavered in the important and imperfect perfection of the relationship, and I think it speaks to the show’s intelligence that fake drama was never created by ruining an amazing thing. That goes for Andy and April as well. They got married pretty quickly, and from then on Andy did nothing but love April powerfully, unconditionally, and, well, dimwittedly. These two relationships epitomize the quirky but lasting bond that people who write thousands of words after watching 80 episodes of TV in a week strive for – they’re perfect in a realistic way.
Plus, they have a scene that almost beats Ted’s 2 minute date in the adorable contest.
I’ve never actually taken a seat and written down my thoughts immediately after the finale of a show I really loved in this way. The Office was different: I pieced it together and to be honest, the comedy-inducing awkwardness was never my style. I watched How I Met Your Mother in real time from beginning to end, and even though I was in my pledging hell week at airtime, the finale of that show traumatized me more than anything else that spring. When the Friends cast took their final bows I was 9, and sin e I wouldn’t watch the series through until 8 years later I definitely didn’t feel like it was my show to write about, especially considering that I first watched it with my mom as she was cooking or as we were getting ready to leave for practice. On top of all that, I simply wasn’t writing at the time. This is truly a unique experience.
What’s great about Parks and Rec (and The Office, for that matter) is that it is about the lives of ordinary people. Yes yes, all the previously referenced sitcoms are supposed to be like that too. But Scrubs is about doctors while Friends about “poor” Manhattanites who happen to have ridiculously nice apartments/things, and How I Met Your Mother is the same way. No, I don’t work in local government, but I did grow up in the American heartland. Pawnee is an amalgam 1 of all the overlooked small towns in the Midwest, and Leslie Knope represents the enthusiasm that lives there. This is really exemplified when Leslie goes to submit a grant request in person and the receptionist asks her to pick her Pawnee from a list of 15. At its core, Parks and Rec is about ordinary people doing little, but extraordinary, things with a combination of intense drive and passion. Tom fails at many businesses, Gary/Larry/Jerry/Terry/Garry is unappreciated by his peers. Leslie struggles to find life/work balance. April randomly took an internship and then found herself in the same place 10 years later, still unsure of what she wanted. We all know people like this from home; hell, we probably are at least one of them (footnote – The Tom’s Seven types of successful people bit was heartfelt and amazing, even if the Gary thing was played out). The beautiful thing about the show is summed up with a quote from Poehler in her finale interview. “If you work hard, you spend a lot of time away from your friends and family, and if you’re lucky you love what you do and the people you work with become your friends and family.” We should all be so lucky to find that one day. In the meanwhile, we’ll have Parks and Rec to remind us what we should aspire to.