It’s strange times for Parks and Recreation, as what was once the red-headed stepchild of The Office, has quickly become the best, and soon to be last, show in NBC’s Thursday night comedy block as we know it.
Both The Office and 30 Rock are finally closing down at the end of this season, and even though NBC gave Community another 13-episode order, replacing the showrunner and moving it to Friday nights was like promising a slow death instead of outright execution. With Up All Night the only newish replacement with any sort of prospects, the pressure for Parks And Recreation to step up and fill the coming void in Nielsen family viewing schedules is greater than ever.
It inevitably won’t, of course, seeing as what makes Parks and Recreation among the best and most original comedies on TV, is that it puts most of its stock into the things that alienate new viewers jumping in on the new fifth season: characters and their shared history. That’s not to say the writers can’t come up with a joke that plays on its own merits; among the show’s greatest strengths is its ensemble, which can make just about anything funny. If you don’t get even a giggle out of seeing Chris Pratt hurl a tour guide book after Leslie tells him to figuratively throw it away, you probably don’t have a pulse.
But what turns that from a chuckle, into a belly laugh-inducing pre-credits warmup, is that we know Andy did it, not just because it would be funny, but because he’s a lunkheaded golden retriever in a man’s body, and will listen to Leslie’s advice no matter what. What separates shows like Parks from other, much more successful, comedies, is that the humour is written around our understanding of the person, not just the punchline. It’s the difference between having a wide range of archetypes at your disposal, and having a deep bench of characters, each with quirks and behaviours that play out in an entertaining fashion as they interact with one another, not just deliver zingers.
The latter style is a lot harder to get a handle on for newcomers, since the show is similar to a drama series in insisting on audience familiarity with the characters when coming up with material for the dialogue, and stakes for the story. The behaviours, not just the circumstances, of Leslie, Ron, and company, have changed dramatically over the three years the show has been on air, and during its golden run, lasting roughly between the midpoints of season two and season four, Parks was always able to bring its nuanced character development, brilliant comedic instincts, and infectious idealism into episodes that could go toe-to-toe with (and often outshine) the best work of its peers.
Which is why I’m excited, albeit with a hint of concern, that the show appears to be doubling down on the thing that brought the back half of season four just a fraction below the quality of the 35+ episodes preceding it: extended story arcs. Season 4 ended with more hanging in the balance than most network dramas can claim. Leslie wins the city council seat (along with all the new challenges that come with it), Ben heads to D.C. to run a congressional campaign, and Tom and Ann move in together. The exciting part is that the two most important of those cliffhangers don’t just wind up getting swept under the rug by the end of the first two episodes, and the one that didn’t matter comes to a much needed conclusion.
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