Saturday, March 16, 2013

Parks and Recreation is Settling Nicely Into Old Age

Recently, I had a revelation that the way most viewers feel about a comedy's lifespan is similar to the way they do about relationships.  There's that beginning stage, say season 1 or so, where you're still feeling out the show, trying to decide whether this will be the one.  By season 2, everything has clicked and you're at the height of your infatuation with the show.  This could last another season or two, but eventually you hit a point where that "newlywed" phase ends, and you just don't love the show with the same intensity as you used to. With every show, this next stage progresses differently.  Sometimes you find a new show to fall in love with (for many right now, that's New Girl) because it's fresh and it makes you feel all of the things you forgot that a show could make you feel.  Other times, you stay "happily married" with a show for its duration -- most fans of Cheers would argue that it was consistently good-to-great for the majority of its run.  The worst case scenario is when a show begins to treat you so poorly that the relationship completely corrodes and rots, to the point where you can't remember how you could ever love it in the first place (The Office).

Then there's Parks and Recreation.  I don't think many fans of the show would go as far as saying "Parks and Recreation sucks now!" but there has been some grumbling about the show lately.  It started from a few in season 4 who were displeased with the election arc, but it's even harder to ignore the cries of the show's complacency in season 5.  Like any other show, Parks is following that relationship trajectory.  Season 1 was the feeling-out phase, where the show was rough and still trying to define itself outside of being an Office clone.  For the next two years, the show was at its peak, producing two of the finest seasons of comedy ever, and hardly anybody could complain.  But eventually, like being in a relationship with a real person, that sheen begins to wear off.  You've been with them for so long and known them so intimately that nothing feels like a surprise anymore.  Little things about them start to bother you, like the way he/she speaks for you sometimes when people ask you a question.

Similarly, little things about Parks and Recreation have been starting to bother fans of the show.  Many people have complained about the show's lack of conflict.  Where before it found ways to make the constraints of bureaucracy roadblocks for the goals of the Parks Department, it now felt like the show was content with just letting everybody succeed with no real difficulty.  It's one thing to have a hangout comedy, but could a show sustain itself on the fact that every character loves each other and is warm and fuzzy all the time?  Along with the gripes about a lack of conflict, fans have been upset with the character development.  Andy's intelligence seemed to be regressing, Ron hits the same 3 beats every time in an episode, Ann's plotlines still never work, etc.

Personally, I've never been as down on the show as some of its more unhappy fans have been.  Do I feel as enthusiastic about Parks as I did in seasons 2 and 3?  Of course not, but just because the show is not at it's peak doesn't automatically mean that it is no longer good.  I think that much of the grumbling about the last season and a half are exaggerated by how familiar people have come with the show.  Parks and Recreation season 5 is not drastically less funny, it's just that we're so used to what the show does.  This is the dangerous territory that shows find themselves in when they reach this age.  Do they try to shake things up and risk betraying the core of these well-established characters or stay in the same gear and risk becoming repetitive?

Somehow, Parks has managed to take a little bit from column A and a bit from column B and retain its pluck and charm.  The show may not deliver laughs as big or emotions as raw (and even that's debatable after "Ben & Leslie"), but it's settled into a breezy, enjoyable groove.  In that sense, Parks and Recreation is like the old married couple of the comedy world.  That's not to say that I don't have problems with a few elements -- particularly Councilman Jamm, who was a weak villain along with being unfunny -- but I still consider it to be my favorite comedy on television right now, even though there are some weeks where I adore New Girl.

One edge that I would have given to season 4 over this current season is that it seemed to have a stronger stable of "minor" episodes.  Because the election storyline began to consume the back half of season 4, it's easy to forget just how many great episodes there were that felt small, like the brilliant "Trial of Leslie Knope."  Season 5, on the other hand, has seemed like it's swinging for the fences on every at-bat, as if it's aware of some impending cancellation that the viewers aren't privy to.  There had been some fantastic episodes, sure, but they all felt big and sweeping.  "Halloween Surprise," "Ron & Diane," "Ben & Leslie" -- they all were engineered to provide that all-consuming sense of crowd-pleasing joy that the show excels at.  However, the season often stumbled when trying to tell smaller stories about Pawnee, as seen in the season's two worst episodes, "Leslie vs. April" and "Correspondents' Lunch."

Last night's episode, "Bailout," was remarkable not only because it was extremely funny and heartwarming, but because it proved that the show was still able to do a "minor" episode and make it feel as satisfying as something like Ben and Leslie getting married.  It would've felt right at home in the middle of seasons 2 and 3.  Each of the storylines were enjoyable, but the most notable was the A-plot, where Leslie's desire to provide a bailout to the local movie rental store causes Ron to wake from his apathetic stupor and stand up for his Libertarian beliefs.  The storyline was an example of the show generating a solid internal conflict, which has been largely absent from the season, and did a great job of representing Leslie and Ron's ideals without making their opposition feel cruel.  Elsewhere, April and Ann bond in a particularly sweet way and Tom tries to mature a bit more by learning how to properly handle Jean Ralphio's little sister (played by the perfectly cast Jenny Slate).  Throughout the episode, I was almost taken aback by how joyous I found the whole thing to be.  It reminded me that although the newness is gone in my relationship with Parks and Recreation, it's still capable of making me feel things that no other show is able to.

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