Why ‘Parks and Rec’ Was the Best Comedy of the 2011-2012 Season
Wrapping up this season, we asked some of our contributors to write about some of their favorite comedies that have aired since the fall. Instead of handing out accolades to just one show, we’re looking at a number of shows that all deserve to be called the best comedy of the season.
Watching Parks and Recreation’s fourth season finale earlier this month, I was struck by a series of poignant moments — bits of genuine, hearfelt emotion — sprinkled throughout the episode. It takes a lot of confidence for a comedy to put laughs aside for a few minutes to work in some serious stuff, but doing it well is a whole other thing entirely. In the Apatow Age, blending comedy and drama is something a lot of comedies try to do, but “try” is the key word. There are so many ways this can go wrong — emotional beats feeling too syrupy or forced — but Parks and Rec manages to avoid these pitfalls completely and balances multiple tones ably, much in the way The Simpsons could during its 90s heyday. In fact, Parks and Rec is perhaps the closest thing to a real-life Simpsons yet.
Beyond the Simpsons DNA in the Parks and Recreation writing staff (co-creator Greg Daniels wrote for The Simpsons from ’93 to ’96 and former Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully is a consulting producer/occasional writer), similarities to the classic Fox cartoon abound in Parks and Rec. There’s the deep bench of supporting Pawneeians (Jean-Ralphio and Perd Hapley come to mind — they’re our real-life Disco Stu and Kent Brockman), the central town’s horrifyingly racist history, and a cast of characters who are at once cartoonishly broad comic types and fully-realized, three-dimensional humans. On paper, Ron Swanson is wacky with a capital “W,” but the writers and actor Nick Offerman ground him with a humanity that makes him one of the most convincing characters on TV.
Then, there’s the cast. I can’t stress what a privilege it is to watch Parks and Recreation’s central eight performers bounce off each other week to week. It’s perhaps the greatest ensemble in sitcom history, and this is only the first full season they’ve all been together, since late additions Rob Lowe and Adam Scott were added right before the show’s truncated third season. Because of how well the group gels, it’s often easy to forget how different they all are — and how many different worlds they’re each conquering outside of the show. All crammed into one series, we have: one of our top standups (Aziz Ansari), an otherworldly character actor (Nick Offerman), the lead from an unjustly canceled critical darling (Adam Scott), a straight woman who’s adept at keeping the show’s wackiness moments from becoming unrealistic (Rashida Jones), a mostly-dramatic actor in his biggest comedic role yet (Rob Lowe), a pair of blossoming young performers with big movie careers on the horizon (Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt), and an improv comedy pioneer (Amy Poehler). They’re like the Traveling Wilburys of comedy. Each of these performers is so good that, if they were on a different show, no matter how bad it was, I’d watch that show every week just to see them. For example, if Nick Offerman was playing the neighbor on the recently-axed Rob Schneider sitcom Rob, I’d have been watching Rob every week.
What’s even more impressive than the impeccable cast is that the writers find stuff for everyone to do and no one in the large ensemble gets lost in the shuffle. In just one season alone, Tom and Jean-Ralphio’s ill-fated business venture Entertainment720 rose and fell, Ben and Leslie dragged their relationship troubles into a model UN meeting, Ron Swanson’s first ex-wife Tammy and his mother Tammy made their first appearances, Tom and Ann kicked off one of the most illogical (but fun) relationships in TV history, Ben broke down in tears while wearing a Batman suit, the always-chipper Chris Traeger hit rock bottom, Andy and April adopted a three-legged dog, Leslie barged in on Jerry in the middle of his birthday bath, Ron Swanson shaved off his trademark mustache, Leslie heroically debated the field of incompetent city council candidates, and the whole staff slid across an ice skating rink so Leslie could make a campaign speech. Not to mention the string of guest spots by some of the funniest people going, with Paul Rudd, Louis C.K., Megan Mullally, Carl Reiner, Bradley Whitford, (comic mastermind) Detlef Schrempf, Kathryn Hahn, and more stopping by Pawnee.
While Parks and Recreation is part of a block of top-notch NBC sitcoms, what sets it apart from the rest of the pack is its breakneck character development and long-term plotting. The way the writers keep the show moving forward, sending the characters’ personal and professional lives into new, exciting directions in every episode, is something you normally see in a TV drama, not on a sitcom. The writers have proven masterful at finding funny things to play with and quickly abandoning plot elements before they get stale as they trudge into the great unknown. Each season of the show has a vastly different flavor, and the way the story constantly moves forward episode-to-episode makes Parks one of the most ambitious comedies on TV. It may not be toying with the form like Community does, but it doesn’t need to in order to elevate the sitcom and tell compelling comedic stories.