While optimists have been given a reason to believe in the seventh season of Amy Poehler’s small town sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” pessimists still have plenty of reasons to doubt. Sure, it certainly sounds like “Parks and Rec” will survive for another year among NBC’s ratings-challenged Thursday night lineup, but should it? The recent departure of series regulars Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones — two of the show’s top talents — makes now the time to question whether Leslie Knope and Co. have served their viewers long enough.
This season on “Parks and Rec” has seen a slow regression of plots and characters from successful seasons of the past (mild spoilers to follow). From Leslie’s removal from her city council seat — a truly difficult reality to face after the heart-swelling campaign episodes of season four — to Tom selling his rather brilliant business Rent-a-Swag to Ann and Chris departing for a new life in Michigan, season six seems to be heading toward some form of unprecedented conclusion. With the recent announcement of the show’s biggest guest star yet, Michelle Obama in the season finale, that conclusion could be a whopper.
No matter what happens, though, the show has fundamentally changed. Losing the Leslie and Ann relationship casts “Parks and Rec” in an entirely new light. Thematically, it made sense for Ann to leave. After the writers chose to focus on more than just one park being built, it made it harder and harder to justify why a nurse was always in the Pawnee Parks Department.
Yes, Ann was friends with Leslie and part of the gang. But what should she be doing? She dated three central characters (Chris, Tom and the dearly departed Mark Brendanawicz, played by Paul Schneider) and even joined the department for a bit. The writers tried as hard as they could to hold onto the beautiful tropical fish that was Ann Perkins, but alas, her character finally ran out of reasons to stick around.
Without slighting Rashida Jones’ portrayal at all — I’m actually a massive fan of the subtly funny and whip smart actress — Chris Traeger as played by Rob Lowe is a creation so remarkable, so endearing, he will literally be impossible to replace. While it seems in poor taste to lament the mistakes of organizations like the Emmys and Golden Globes, especially when neither awarded Jason Alexander a trophy for his depiction of George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” their massive oversight when it comes to Rob Lowe will forever distort my respect for their authority. At least Alexander was nominated. Repeatedly. Lowe’s performance as Chris Traeger provided so many classic moments it’s simply criminal he wasn’t given his proper due. So let me say now, to the few people listening and for the many, many fans aware of his superb work, “Bravo, Mr. Lowe. A tip of the hat and hearty thank you to you, good sir. It was a joy to watch your creation unfold these past years.”
So why does “Parks and Rec” expect to recover from losing a character who formed the basis of the show’s original premise as well as the irreplaceable Chris Traeger? Probably because they’ve done it before. After a short six-episode first season, creators Michael Shur and Greg Daniels retooled the series. Characters were tweaked, storylines dismissed. Leslie in particular became stronger, smarter and more effective politically. Much like in the first season of “Veep,” the central political figure was at first too foolish to be taken seriously in the real world arena. So they ditched her prolonged fixation on the aforementioned Mark, moved on from Leslie’s park-building snafus, and shifted her awkward moments from the business world to the romantic realm.
“Parks and Rec” again transitioned before season three when Mark left the show after Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt showed up as state auditors. The writers and cast handled this transition more than just smoothly — they excelled. The show fell into an unbeatable comedic groove that’s lasted more than three years. Now, it’s been upset again and a new balance must be struck.
No matter what happens with “Parks and Rec,” Amy Poehler will be just fine. Hot off her Golden Globe win this year, the “SNL” veteran had a movie at Sundance, “They Came Together,” that’s expected to come out in June, and recently signed a three-year deal with NBC and Universal TV. “Broad City,” of which she serves as executive producer, was just renewed for a second season, and she has a pilot order for “Old Soul” starring “Orange is the New Black” lead Natasha Lyonne, Fred Willard and Ellen Burstyn. With all this and more, does Poehler have one foot out of Pawnee already?
I doubt it. Poehler is brilliant and ready to capitalize off her success, much like her friend Tina Fey who’s gearing up for her own ventures after a successful sitcom run. But I can’t imagine the comedian is eager to let go of Leslie Knope. Who would be? In last night’s episode, “Anniversaries,” Leslie tried to unite citizens after a forced, contentious merger between Pawnee and neighboring Eagleton by showcasing the love of an elderly couple, one member from each city.
The episode was as charming as the couple was cantankerous, with Leslie out of the office while her husband Ben (Adam Scott) tried to organize surprise after surprise for their one-year anniversary. It wasn’t so much a return to form as a reminder of what this cast is capable of — and consistently creating — every week. Most fans find it impossible to pick a favorite character, and even I would struggle placing Chris above Leslie, Ron, Andy, April or the rest of the crew.
Therein lies the beauty of “Parks and Recreation.” The show, time and time again, proves the people make the town and not the other way around. No matter the struggles facing our determined group of eclectically-minded public servants, each one finds their own way to rise above negativity. Leslie will never stop trying to unite these two rival towns. Ben will never stop trying to out-gift his wife.
Each episode focuses on the good in its characters, and each actor highlights those qualities in such a way as to keep any moment laced with cornball qualities or impossible sincerity honest. This is why Michael Shur and Greg Daniels have earned not only the right to keep their show on the air, but also the viewers’ trust in knowing they’ll end it exactly when and how it should end. Through turmoil, change, or untrodden paths, love perseveres. If only I was on “Parks and Recreation,” that wouldn’t sound so cheesy.