When word broke that Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe would be leaving “Parks and Recreation” after this upcoming season’s thirteenth episode, I had two reactions. The first was shock. The second was relief.
Now, let’s back up almost instantly here. That relief says nothing about Jones and Lowe, two talented performers that are pros at what they do. Rather, it says everything about the way in which “Parks” has used the pair over the course of its run, and particularly about how the show has reunited them narratively over the last half-season. There are many things to love about “Parks,” which still remains one of my favorite comedies on television five years into its improbably long run. But the Ann Perkins/Chris Traeger storyline is just short of an abomination, and getting rid of these two characters has the side benefit of unloading the show’s most problematic aspect.
Jones’ career is curious: She hasn’t picked a host of obviously bad roles, but it seems difficult for most programs to identify how to best use her comedic talents. As such, there’s a constant disconnect between what we as audiences feel she can achieve and what shows/movies actually get out of her. Sure, Ann Perkins has provided many laughs over the course of the series, as have all core members of the ensemble. Lowe’s departure is less depressing, because his entire run feels like it was done on borrowed time. Initially penciled in for a short run, “Parks” actually found a way to keep Traeger around far longer than organically necessary, and even introduced an interesting arc that found Chris increasingly depressed by his apparent lot in life. He and Ann started off together, almost instantly split apart, and found themselves back together not because they realized they had made an initial mistake but rather because they had no other options left before them.
To be sure, that’s not the show’s reading of the text. But that’s what actually unfolded, leaving this bizarre disconnect between show and audience that only increased due to the reason the show concocted to force these two back together: Ann’s desire to have a child. Rather than come from something we’ve always known about Ann, this choice seemed like a Hail Mary to give her something, really ANYTHING, to do as an independent entity. The show in later years tried to comment upon Ann’s self-definition as entirely dependent on her relationship to someone else, but such a meta-commentary didn’t wipe away the fact that “Parks” rarely saw Ann as a stand-alone entity. She was Leslie’s friend. She was Andy/Mark/Chris’ boyfriend. She was a sisterly/maternal presence for April. We knew Ann in relation to others, but knew not how to analyze her in a vacuum. To borrow a phrase from the political world that Leslie Knope knows so well, she served at the pleasure of “Parks And Recreation”.
Now, finally, the show has seen fit to send her and Chris into the sunset. But will the show actually change for the worse once she has Chris’ baby and the two (ostensibly) move away together to different pastures? (It could end badly, sure. But this is “Parks”! They will more likely ride away on a cloned version of Lil’ Sebastian while Sweetums decides to forgo candy and start producing kale chips in their honor.) Doing so will excise the weakest part of the show, but it’s also a part that doesn’t really affect the other aspects in a meaningful way. Neither Ann nor Chris have jobs that will affect the everyday life of the Parks Department, and those in the department all have storylines that more or less stand on their own. Tom’s business isn’t affected. Ron’s imminent fatherhood affected. Nothing ever seriously impacts Jerry and Donna. And while many lament the idea of losing the Leslie/Ann dynamic, let’s be frank: this is much more about watching Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones act than watching two close-knit friends. Thousands of words could be written about the imbalanced friendship* those two characters have, and while both get something out of the relationship, maybe Ann’s departure will force Leslie to realize that she didn’t always treat Ann as an equal.
* Another show I like, “Cougar Town,” also deals with imbalanced friendships, but that show calls Jules out on her bullshit infinitely more than “Parks” calls Leslie out. Showing this imbalance doesn’t make the leads horrible people. But playing the imbalance purely for laughs is a curious technique if you actually want people rooting for the pair to stay friends.
What I like most about the idea of Ann/Chris leaving isn’t that it ends this interminable pregnancy storyline, but potentially illuminates one of the show’s primary concepts: Life moves on. Staying in Pawnee forever makes sense for some people in this world, but not all. That doesn’t make one side better than the other. It just shows that people are different. If you look at the characters on this show now, almost none of them are remotely close to where they were as people when they first arrived in our living rooms. “Parks” takes the enemy of sitcoms–change–and builds it into its very DNA. For a few seasons, this worked like gangbusters. As the show unfolded, characters altered perspectives, forged new alliances, and found hidden depths. But then Leslie Knope got elected to City Council, and that progress suddenly slowed to a halt.
The main reason? Shows avoid change for a very good reason: it’s really hard to keep changing things and find ways to keep the show more or less the “same” for those watching. By all metrics, the show achieved its primary narrative goal for Leslie when she voted for herself in the City Council election. It was a beautiful moment that paid off four seasons of work and could not have been executed any better. But the show still had to produce episodes, and still had the same basic building blocks with which to work, and as such had to make its characters broader in order to keep up the show’s comedic bent. This isn’t a “Parks” problem: this is a sitcom problem. As shows get older, they almost always turn their characters in caricatures. “Cheers,” one of the best sitcoms of all time, fell prey to this very thing. Almost all shows do. There are increasingly tenuous reasons for these people to stay in such close contact with one another, and the seams are starting to show.
None of this is to say we should take “Parks” behind the barn and shoot it. But a reconfiguration is probably in order, and the Chris/Ann departure is just one thing that should change in order to not only keep the show fresh, but help it adhere to its own rules. If Leslie’s story, for all intents and purposes, is done, then maybe she doesn’t need to be the show’s engine anymore. Sure, you could in theory follow her for 20 seasons into The White House, but that mistakes the show’s plot for the show’s meaning. The MEANING of the show comes not from her political ambitions but the way her optimism, work ethic, and general kindness can’t help but rub off on those around her. Rob Swanson will probably find himself the patriarch of a new family soon, and he has his time with Leslie to thank for that. Without her, he never would have been open to being open with a woman again. Tom Haverford will end up a modestly successful businessman, and he’ll lead by Leslie’s example in spirit if not in actual everyday practice. These stories are full, rich, and don’t need Leslie at the physical center of them. Why? Because she’s already deeply embedded in the ethos of them.
But really, the most interesting story left in the show is also Leslie’s greatest achievement: the flowering interest of April Ludgate in the world around her. There’s no greater testament to Leslie’s worth than April’s transformation from snarky outsider to full participant in Pawnee society. Leslie has a job she loves and a man she loves. There’s no danger of either of those going away. But April? Her life still has an incredible amount of potential, not only in how she and Andy continue to define their marriage but how she defines herself as a citizen. “Parks” doesn’t have to reduce Leslie Knope role in season six the way “The Wire” reduced Jimmy McNulty’s role in that show’s fourth season. But as a recognition of how important change is to this show’s narrative morality, it’s important for “Parks” to zoom in on those for whom change is still volatile. Leslie is the bedrock of this show. But she no longer needs to be its narrative center.
I wish Jones and Lowe the best. But I also wish “Parks” the best, because its very nature means it absolutely can sustain all sorts of actorly losses and still be the same type of show. By embracing the change this casting announcement represents, it can free itself from being about specific characters and more about what it means to be an engaged member of a community. That’s the show’s greatest legacy, and it will not change after Ann and Chris leave Pawnee. If anything, the chance to reinforce its core strengths will be greater than ever.