I understand that the first season is underwhelming, the concept seems tired and the setting is unexciting, but “Parks and Recreation” is still my favorite show on TV right now. Yes, the skeptics have valid points, but they’re wrong: properly appreciated, “Parks and Rec” is a great show with a few entirely flawless episodes. (For your reference, they are “The Fight,” “Fancy Party” and “Li’l Sebastian.”) The first thing to understand about “Parks and Recreation” is that it is not “The Office.” It’s a faux-documentary, single-camera, Thursday night NBC workplace comedy with Rashida Jones, but it is not “The Office.”
While “The Office” features the full spectrum of characters, from people you could meet in the real world to the over-the-top histrionic, pretty much everyone on “Parks and Rec” is somewhat cartoonish, albeit grounded by their circumstances (small-town bureaucracy). And while Scranton, Pa. is pretty remorselessly realistic, Pawnee, Ind. is a cross between satire of middle America (the town slogan is “First in friendship, fourth in obesity”) and straight-up absurdity. One of the strongest elements of the show is its cast of recurring secondary characters (shout-out to Jean-Ralphio), all of whom are flagrantly insane. Everyone in the main cast of the show is some kind of caricature, as well kind of a loser, stuck in the mechanics of small-town government. Most of them aren’t even especially likable (which is why it can take a few episodes to get into the show). With the exception of Ann Perkins, whose absence of quirks keeps everything somewhat lifelike, “Parks and Rec” is a collection of weird types and goofy ad-libs. And yet for all of its ridiculous, flawed, frequently flailing characters, what makes the show stand out is its depth. For such a silly city, Pawnee comes with a seemingly inexhaustible lore (the Fourth Floor, the murals at city hall, the infamous raccoon infestation). And while Leslie’s intense enthusiasm for her city is frequently satirized, it’s also deliberately admirable. Dumpy Pawnee, Ind. can be a great city; local government can transcend its role as what libertarian parks director Ron Swanson calls “a greedy piglet that suckles on the taxpayer’s teat.” More poignant still are the relationships between the characters. How a show so deliberately absurd can have such palpable emotional stakes I don’t know, but it makes “Parks & Rec” incredibly entertaining.
My personal favorite episode of the show is about a horse funeral, the most perfect horse-funeral-themed half hour of television ever aired. Li’l Sebastian, a miniature horse mysteriously beloved by the entire population of Pawnee, has died. Each character’s reaction is pitch-perfect, somehow both loveable and insane. Man, myth and legend Ron Swanson: “I have cried twice in my life. Once when I was 7 and I was hit by a school bus. And then again when I heard that Li’l Sebastian had passed.” Hyperactive health freak Chris Traeger responds with terror at his own unavoidable demise, while Leslie and Ben are forced to scramble to hide their illicit relationship (with the bonus revelation of their role-playing preferences: “And this is how Eleanor Roosevelt would kiss.”) The characters rallying together to put on a funeral that the little horse deserves is, of course, entirely weird, but there’s something touching about it for each of them: real-world emotional stakes for a horse funeral that features a character getting his eyebrows burned off in a giant fireball.
“Parks & Rec” uses its emotional power to create a wide range of successful comic duos (Leslie and Ron, Ron and April, Leslie and Ann, Ben and Leslie, Chris and Ben) with interesting and dynamic relationships. The fraught but affectionate dynamic between government-loving Leslie Knope and her boss, avowed libertarian Ron Swanson, would be less funny without its accumulated mutual respect, and less heartwarming without its constant snafus.
Incidentally, the formula created the most adorable sitcom marriage of all time. Screw Jim and Pam, who took six seasons to get married — Andy and April hosted a dinner party that turned out to be an undercover wedding, planned completely on a whim. (Andy: “I cannot emphasize how little we thought about it.”) April is Ron’s sarcastic, unmotivated intern who claims to hate everyone; Andy’s an overgrown man-child whose tenure on the show began when he fell into a giant pit. Together, they have a completely functional, relatable marriage that doesn’t need will-they-or-won’t-they tension to stay aloft.
April’s wedding vows: “I guess I kind of hate most things. But I never really seem to hate you. So I want to spend the rest of my life with you, is that cool?”