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The Parks and Rec Hall of Fame

26 Feb

As anybody with a two eyes and a heart knows, Parks and Recreation came to an end last week after seven seasons. I am both okay and not okay with this. I get it: seven years is a long time to tell a story; better to go out more or less ahead than fade into infinite joyless seasons; nearly everybody involved with this show is massively more famous than they were seven years ago, and probably wants to do other things; the entire series exists for my re-watching pleasure on Netflix. On the other hand, what other fictional people will assure us that goodness, loyalty, and beneficent enthusiasm exist in the world?

Truthfully, the Parks and Rec finale was not my favorite—hour-long sitcom episodes almost never are, especially when they have to Get Things Done—but it was very them: a series of reassuring flash-forwards, showing us the appropriate and fulfilling futures of the former employees of the Pawnee Parks Department. A lot of people loved it, and I’m sincerely glad they did.

But there were a lot of things I did love about Parks and Rec, and so here we are: The P.S. BTW Parks and Recreation Hall of Fame, a collection of favorite episodes, scenes, moments, and characters from seven years of greatness:

1. “Practice Date”

Season two was so long ago, and yet so much happens in this episode! Among other things: the introduction of Duke Silver, Louis CK in his recurring role as Leslie’s awkward cop boyfriend, the revelation of Tom’s green-card marriage, and a spectacular embodiment of dating angst in the person of Leslie Knope. This is also one of Ann’s finer moments of best-friend-hood/Leslie-wrangling. And hey, remember Mark Brendana-quits? That guy’s here, too. It’s a really good episode.

2. Ann + Leslie + April + Donna

Here’s a wish for the world: that every woman would have friends like the women of the Pawnee Parks Department. This is a show that created a fictional holiday to celebrate women’s friendships; even better, Ann and Leslie and April* and Donna act like real friends pretty much all the time, in ways that are disappointingly rare on TV. That includes showing up for one another, encouraging each other, telling each other painful truths, and refraining from backstabbing, in addition to the standard duties of brunch, relationship counseling, and the previously mentioned Leslie-wrangling.

(*April, of course, prefers not to act like real friends with anybody, but we all know her secret.)

3. “Andy and April’s Fancy Party” (aka April and Andy get married and I cryyyy)

I’m sorry, The Mindy Project, but “April Come She Will” has now been retired for sitcom purposes, and I feel like you should know that already.

4. “End of the World” (aka April and Andy go to the Grand Canyon and I cryyyy)

“End of the World” is a strange, sad, and wonderful episode for lots of reasons, but April and Andy’s spontaneous road trip is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful moments of the series. There’s that Gabe Dixon Band song, and the Grand Canyon at golden hour, and a flash of unbridled earnestness…and then that perfect Chris Pratt line delivery at the end. It’s perfection.

5. Treat Yo Self

treat yo self

Truly, probably Parks and Rec’s greatest contribution to society at large. “Fine. Leather. Goods.”

6. Garry-Jerry-Larry-Terry Gergich

I once read an interview where the creators of Parks talked about the writers’ vision for Jerry, which I found really reassuring: the joke of Jerry, and the writers’ justification for him, is that Jerry is the office scapegoat who quietly lives the life every other character ultimately wants—and because of that, he doesn’t really need their validation. (Which: it’s a good thing.) Jerry lives in a beautiful home with his adoring wife, played by Christie Brinkley; he has four devoted daughters, cherishes every moment of work at the Parks Department, and spends his free time making beautiful paintings. Everybody is terrible to him—but he just might be the happiest and most well-adjusted person in Pawnee.

7. “Ben & Leslie” (aka Ben and Leslie get married and I cryyyy)

The fifth-season episode “Ben and Leslie” is like the series in miniature: A harebrained idea of Leslie’s causes the Parks Department crew to band together and make beautiful things happen, against all odds. Love triumphs. Ron says practically nothing, and saves the day. Leslie looks amazing in a dress made of newspaper. You know, the usual.

8. “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” A pop song about a Li’l Sebastian, a deceased miniature horse

FYI, you can get tabs and chords for this online.

9. Ben Wyatt & The Cones of Dunshire

Ben Wyatt is a passionate guy: passionate about Leslie, obviously, but also passionate about Batman, about Game of Thrones, about Letters to Cleo, about claymation (“Requiem for a Tuesday”), and about “the ninth highest-selling multi-player figurine-based strategy fantasy sequel game in history.” Adam Scott’s performance is always terrific, but these occasional geek-out monologues may be his best work.

10. Andy Dwyer on Rollerblades/Andy Dwyer jumping over things

Or jumping over things ON Rollerblades. “…Nailed it.”

This isn’t even a remotely comprehensive menu of everything that’s wonderful about this show; that would be a very, very long list. But it highlights a few of the qualities, people, and moments that have made Parks and Rec such a joy. Thanks, Pawnee.

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Parks and Rec and the American Way of Cancellation

14 May

knope2

NBC announced over the weekend that my favorite show, Parks and Recreation, will have one final thirteen-episode season, and then go to the big public forum in the sky. Done! Gone! Cancelled! But I have to tell you: I think this is okay news.

Parks and Rec has lived a good life. It’s had a surprising number of seasons for a show that spent its entire run on the brink of cancellation (just today, a 2012 episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour referred to the then-imminent fifth season as “almost certainly its last”). It’s still pretty strong creatively—the season finale was a wonderful, tears-inducing hug of an episode—but it’s getting short on runway, a fact that was addressed in the final moments of that finale by a three-year fast-forward. Best of all, the decision to end the show appears (according to creator Mike Schur, on Twitter) to have been a mutual decision between the show’s producers and NBC. They’ll have plenty of time to wrap things up in style, and everybody involved can move on to new adventures with a fully formed series behind them. In the TV business, this is about as good as it gets.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll spend a few disappointed Thursday nights without new Parks and Rec to show me the good in the world. I still look forward to new episodes, and I still tune in as soon as the DVR has enough of a lead to skip the commercials. But unlike other shows that are more about plot and less about beloved characters in a well-rounded universe, more episodes are just icing on the cake of six whole seasons of delight. As long as I have the show we’ve already loved, I think we’re good.

Cancellation is a weird thing: it sounds like tragedy, and it can be. Nobody likes seeing a good show, or a promising show that’s still finding its voice, cut down for commercial reasons. And our natural human response is, if three seasons is good, six or eight or (heaven help us) twelve must be better! But let me tell you, there’s a whole lot of long-running television out there, from Grey’s Anatomy to the extreme case of The Simpsons, contradicting that impulse. Even for good shows, cancellation can be a blessed relief: I’ve been watching Mad Men for nearly a decade, and I’m watching Don’s spiral into the 70s with as much interest as anybody, but that doesn’t mean I’m not counting down to the final half-season, which won’t air until 2015. Even the cancellation of Community, a show equally beloved to Parks and Rec but far more hotly contested due to production-side drama, doesn’t bother me. Community‘s fun and interesting and innovative, and I’m so pleased that we got to have it in the world, but I think maybe it’s said what it had to say. It makes NBC like seventy-five dollars a year, because only nine people—nine very vocal people—watch it. Five seasons may not be #sixseasonsandamovie, but it’s still a long time. I see why the network might want to give that space to something else, and I don’t think that, after giving it five seasons, it’s an unfair decision. 

Parks and Rec isn’t the only show to get a season’s notice, but I think it embodies the recent trend of  cancelling shows well, giving producers and audiences time to prepare. I also think it embodies a show that’s ready to go: it could keep going, but it doesn’t have to; its cast is almost uniformly on the brink of bigger things; its producers have been doing this for seven years. (I, personally, have never had the same job for seven years.) I think it’s a show that’s prepared to let go, and I’m prepared to let it go.

 

On meaning and character: Some frank talk about Lost

25 May

I learned two things from the series finale of Lost:

1) It doesn’t matter. Destiny or free will, science or faith, different sides of the backgammon board—it’s all irrelevant. What matters is people. People, and love.

2) Don’t forget to set up an afterlife meeting place, like when my family goes to the mall and we all decide to meet at the pretzel stand if things don’t go well.

And, you know, I think I’m satisfied with that.

To those who are throwing up their hands: I get it. I do. If none of it mattered, if all of it were just erased, if Lost was six years of wasted viewing time, then that’s incredibly disappointing.

(To those hating on the finale because it’s fashionable, in the same way that hating on SNL is perpetually fashionable, I have no patience for you.)

But nobody—not even Desmond, in his scene with Jack—ever said that what happened on the show didn’t matter. What happened on the show, in the past, matters deeply—all that tromping through the jungle, all that shared experience, all those fish-and-mango dinners on the beach, all the sacrifice and the tears and the laughter and the Star Wars jokes, they’re redemption for those characters. So maybe the outcome of Jack and John’s personal battle doesn’t matter, per se. Maybe—and I’m not actually clear on this—the status of the Man in Black and his giant cosmic bottle of wine isn’t the most important thing. Maybe nobody was actually saved from anything with Kate’s saved bullet. But in the context of this band of people snatched from their angsted-out lives, what happened is everything. And that’s why the finale, so rooted in memory and relationship, makes sense.

Answers are satisfying up to a point—but on TV, answers are bound up with characters. After six years, we have answers: we know about Jacob and the Man in Black, and we know what the Smoke Monster is and how he came to be and what he ultimately wants. We know who the Adam and Eve skeletons are, and we know all about the four-toed statue. We know about the hatch and about the numbers, and about why Richard Alpert doesn’t age, and about the cool infinite back-and-forth of his and Locke’s shared pocket watch. But none of these things are the heart of Lost, and no single gimmick or structural point was going to provide the kind of emotional and intellectual satisfaction that we as audiences are always looking for . Better, then, to actually have Jack successfully fix something, after six years of botched heroism. Better to let Sawyer be with the woman who grew him up back in 1977. Better to let Hurley, the pure at heart, be a leader, and to let Ben finally be chosen for something—after all, it’s all he’s ever wanted. Better to let the structure of Lost be a vehicle for its characters, rather than the other way around—even if that vehicle isn’t as neat and all-inclusive as we’d like.

It wasn’t perfect. I wish I had a better grasp on the relationship between Desmond and Daniel—constants and variables and such—and their significance to…well, basically anything. I could go for a quick run-through of who belongs on the Afterlife Express and who doesn’t, and why. I’d like another run-down on numbered time-traveling bunnies. I wonder about characters like Eko, who never turned up again.

(Would I like to know how the castaways created the purgatorial Sideways for themselves? Yes and no. Yes, because that’s some business meeting. No, because the literal translation of the Lost mythology has never been the show’s strong suit—I’d rather admire the pretty light-up cave from a distance than sit through another temple debacle.)

But as a finishing statement, as an arrow pointing us towards the characters and not just towards the fascination of the universe, I think the finale—and, really, the Sideways, if we consider it as an extended portion of the finale—did its job. As the end of an arc, it allowed us to remember the highs and lows that came before, and to pinpoint the very redemption of each character by way of the characters around them. It’s the fulfillment of Jack’s ultimatum back in the first season, and the definition of living together—even for those who have already died alone. And that is the very thesis of Lost.

You’ll thank me later

27 Oct

I am what you’d call a TV imperialist. Like any good empire-builder, it’s my mission to spread the glory of my riches to those who have no desire to receive them (or, you see, to those who don’t know what they’re missing! We will be greeted as liberators!)—I’m forever recommending shows to people, trying to coax them onto my favorite sections of Hulu and threatening to buy them whole seasons of my favorite shows, hoping they’ll want to talk about it. I pretend it’s for their benefit, but mostly it’s because I like creating new fans. I like watching people enjoy something they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I like sharing stories.

Today, in the spirit of spreading democracy the joy of good TV, I present two of my favorite television shows—shows that you would love, whoever you are, but probably are not already watching. Don’t make me send you my DVDs (Hey, man, shipping is expensive).

Bones

Thursdays, 8 p.m., FOX; perpetual reruns on TNT

Bones

Premise: A socially awkward forensic anthropologist and her hottie FBI partner solve murders using the victims’ skeletons. Grossness, hilarity, and crazy sexual tension ensue.

Warning: Statistically, if you begin to watch this show, you will not stop. You will tell yourself that it is nonsensical, or inconsistent, or that you don’t really care about these characters, or that you’re going to do something else after just one more, but it will not matter. You will have discovered that murder and forensic anthropology are, in fact, made of puppies and rainbows and light, and you will be sucked in for good. And it will be a happy, happy day.

The thing is, you will not be wrong about those first things—Bones has been, on various occasions, nonsensical and inconsistent and a variety of other unpleasant things. Sometimes it still is, but it doesn’t matter: in its fifth season, this show may actually be the happiest show on television, and it’s still getting better. It’s funnier and gutsier and weirder and sweeter and maybe a bit smarter than it’s ever been, and how many shows can say that?

The secret of Bones is all in the cast—the story revolves around Booth (David Boreanaz) and Brennan (the grossly underrated Emily Deschanel), and they are delightful together, but the concentric circles of well-cast supporting characters, from the lab crew to Brennan’s family of (mostly) well-meaning convicts, are what make every episode feel like all of your favorite people are coming together for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the power of a great ensemble: you will love these people, and they will make bad TV ideas seem like good TV ideas just by showing up.  Crazy, apparently ill-advised plot points will arise (Remember the time Booth and Brennan went undercover with the circus as a Russian knife-throwing act? Remember the time Booth shot the head off an animatronic clown, and Stephen Fry became his therapist? Remember the time they did an alternate-universe episode where Booth and Brennan were married and owned a bar where a murder took place? I do!), and you will just think to yourself, “I did not know how incomplete my life was without that moment.”

How to watch it: Bones is currently in its fifth season; all previous seasons are available on DVD. TNT also runs constant reruns, and rumor has it that FOX will be rerunning it on Fridays this winter, as well. Finally, this isn’t a heavily serialized show—watching it in order is helpful, but not necessary. Cherry-pick at will.

Parks and Recreation

Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., NBC; Hulu

parks and rec

Premise: An ambitious and sometimes oblivious public servant (Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler) attempts to do good works (among other things, turn a huge dirt pit into a city park) in Pawnee, Indiana.

This show got off on the wrong foot in so many ways. The first few episodes were a mess—the characters were vague, the dialogue was clearly Office dialogue that didn’t make the cut, and nobody seemed to take Poehler’s comic voice into account. Disaster seemed imminent.

It’s infinitely, unspeakably better now—one of my favorite shows, and WAY funnier than the current season of The Office, if you must know. Summer was obviously kind to Greg Daniels and Friends; they’ve gotten a handle on their characters, Leslie Knope (best government worker name ever, yes?) no longer speaks with Michael Scott’s cast-off dialogue, and they’ve figured out what to do with Rashida Jones as Ann, the “normal” girl in this story. Even better, they made Chris Pratt a regular as Ann’s freeloader ex-boyfriend, who sometimes lives under a tarp in the pit (“Yeah, the hardest part is keeping my suit pressed”)—he’s completely hilarious. It’s light, it’s quick, and it’s really, really funny; if you like awkward humor but find The Office painful, try Parks and Recreation instead.

How to watch it: P&R had one previous season of six episodes; it’s on DVD, but doesn’t seem to exist anywhere (legally) online. In any case, only the last two or three episodes are worth really watching (the one where Leslie takes Ann as her date to an awards ceremony is, however, pretty priceless). The most recent episodes of the current season are on Hulu and NBC.com.