Monday, April 28, 2014

Parks and Recreation (Season 6) (2013-2014)

Parks and Recreation Season 6 Cover

Up until that shocking twist to close out the season, Parks and Recreation was, in its sixth year, a show definitely feeling its age, tired and spinning its wheels, as the characters just kept acting out the same formulaic jokes week after week. Even big moments, like Ann and Chris leaving Pawnee, or the Unity Concert (which turned out to be, not only a season finale, but essentially the finale to the entire series as it had been up to that point), were unable to move me, because it just felt to me as though the show had, some time ago, already said all it had to say about these characters, and these farewells were only reiterating once more their love for this town that, many times during this season, seemed not to deserve it.

The high point of the season was surely the addition of Craig (Billy Eichner), the fearsomely intense, hilariously overdramatic new member of the parks department, who, while fairly one-dimensional in his humor, at least brought something different to an office dynamic that was growing stale. I also quite enjoyed villainous Councilman Jamm's appearances this season. I had found the character irritating when introduced last season as Leslie's nemesis, but, given fewer opportunities this season to stand in the way of progress (since Leslie herself seemed less often to be working toward any significant reforms), he came off more as just an amusingly creepy weirdo. Jamm's photoshopped pinup of Michelle Wie was, along with Craig's regular blowups, probably the most chuckle-out-loud gag for me this season. My favorite episode, meanwhile, was Episode 8 "Fluoride"—a bit of a throwback story, 1) because it featured Tom involved with and invested in his government job, and 2) because it followed one of Leslie's projects through its complete process, more or less, from proposition to strategy to execution—a crude yet effective primer on how the bureaucratic game works.

The topical elements, which, at the show's best, were always as core to Parks and Recreation's identity as its humor, this season included the vote to recall Leslie from city council, an episode titled "Filibuster," and a major plot line involving Pawnee absorbing its bankrupt neighboring town of Eagleton. Even as the Pawnee-Eagleton merger was ostensibly the central story of the season, however, it felt more like a subplot, consistently the "B" story in episodes more concerned with Ann and Chris's relationship, Tom's entrepreneurial endeavors, and, finally, Leslie's pregnancy. Even on the occasions when episodes would actually focus on the work of the parks department, the challenges always proved mild and short-term, the resolutions easy. Once again, the answer was to stage a big community event, which this time came together with nary a hitch. And this was a season where, with the recall, Leslie suffered her greatest setback on this show that has, for years, been a rare font of optimism about government and politics in the U.S. Yet even that seemed, for Leslie, the "B" catastrophe, compared to her best friend leaving Pawnee.

The recall was a move that struck me as disappointing yet necessary. On the one hand, it was disappointing, because it so quickly undid what had been the culmination of four seasons and, in my opinion, the proper climax to the series—Leslie winning a seat on the city council at the end of Season 4. And it was necessary because the show would never have been able to progress further dramatically to top Season 4, so long as Leslie remained stuck in her new city council position through its normal term. Even after the recall freed her up to pursue larger ambitions, however, how much further could she realistically go in the span of this consistently low-rated sitcom? As soon as Season 4 ended, I wanted only to see Leslie Knope go on to become governor, then president. But unless the show was going to continue on for another decade at least, that wasn't happening.

Which is why the three-year time jump in the final scene of Season 6 was so exciting. Even if it doesn't lead into a presidential run for Leslie, at least it will allow us to skip over years that, although probably productive for her in the parks department, might appear stagnant to viewers. Other shows have pulled similar stunts before, to varying degrees of success. Sometimes it's a desperation move—a "hail Mary" play to try to reinvigorate a dying series. In the case of Parks and Recreation, this year was actually an unusual case, because, despite the show's mediocre ratings, it got renewed for another season fairly early on. Nevertheless, it was in need of a creative shot in the arm, and I hope this twist does the trick, because, even as the show has declined, I maintain that it's an important program, without which the TV landscape would be bleaker.

Again, a fairly steadfast source of optimism in an area where pessimism is the rule in this country, Parks and Recreation, beyond just the laughs, employs the television sitcom as a platform to teach its audience, not only how government works, but that it can work. A cynic on politics when I first started watching this show (and, to be honest, still so in my most sober moments), I've since gone from thinking, "The system is hopelessly rigged," to "Well, it could work, if only everyone in government were like Leslie Knope," and, finally, to "I want to be like Leslie Knope when I grow up." Indeed, the character of Leslie Knope has been a more outspoken voice for progressivism than most of our real-world elected liberals—ahead of the curve in firm support of such issues as same-sex marriage and equal pay for equal work—consequently more inspiring a role model than our most prominent real-world officials, Obama included. Such is her influence beyond the scripted world of the show, in fact, that it has pulled into the fiction such real-world players as Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama. And so I hope that the time jump works to give us one more season at least to see how much further Leslie Knope can go as one of the few public servants we can believe in.

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