Three or four years ago, we went to California as a family and one of the cool things we got to do was go to the Parks and Recreation set. We got to do this, of course, because the executive producer of the show is my friend and permanent PosCast guest Michael Schur.*
*If someone is a permanent guest to a show, does that actually make him actually a “co-host.” Probably so. Yes. Probably so.
In any case, while on the set we ran into Nick Offerman, the actor who plays one of the really great comedy characters ever on television, the steak-loving, government-hating, wood-working, hug-loathing, Tammy-marrying Ron Swanson. He looked at my daughters and said, in the perfect Ron Swanson voice and rhythm, “OK children, you may go into my office. However, you may not touch anything on my desk. Make no mistake: I will know if you touch anything.”
The girls, of course, still talk about this brush with Ron Swanson, and I think about it a lot too because tonight is the final episode of Parks & Recreation and while I admire so many things about the show, there’s something I think about most of all: It is a show about people who like each other.There’s absolutely no reason for them to like each other. They have wildly different philosophies about life, love, music, food, coolness, politics, sports, Star Wars (“Is that the one with the little Wizard boy?” Ron Swanson asks).
But they like each other. They deeply like each other. And, even more absurdly, we like them all.
Ron Swanson is an in-the-woods loner who believes government is evil and should be shut down. Leslie Knope is a pop-culture loving liberal who makes thick policy binders in a whir and believes there is nothing that government cannot solve. Jerry/Gary/Terry Gengrich is a helpless shlemiel who spills coffee on everything and loses his keys constantly and has an awe-inspiringly beautiful wife and supermodel daughters. Tom Haverford is a me-first hipster who believes the most important stuff in the world is stuff. Andy Dwyer is a lovable dunce, April Ludgate is a slacker who either hates everything or pretends to, Ben Wyatt is a number-crunching nerd who likes inventing fantasy games. Ann Perkins is a nurse who can’t quite find her way in life, Donna Meagle is a fashion-loving diva with a famous past no one can quite grasp, Chris Traeger is a fitness fanatic who calls people by their first and last names.
And they all like each other. More to the point: They all find something admirable in each other.
This is something Michael and I have talked about a lot, actually: There seems so little middle ground left. As a nation, we always have disagreed with each other on things — politics, religion, race, the economy, foreign affairs, women’s rights, guns, death penalty, abortion, state rights, Peanut or Regular M&Ms — but it did seem like we could still like each other.
“You read stories of what the Senate was like 30 years ago, for example,” Michael says, “and there was a mutual respect and sense of discourse that kept the body politic woven together. They would debate, fiercely, about the issues of the day, and then they would go have dinner at each other’s houses and remain collegial. That does not appear to exist, anywhere, now.”
Michael says that this concept — a place “where people can disagree and fight and butt heads, but also drink good Scotch and remain friends, and find areas of agreement and solve problems through a dialectic” — became the whole point of the show.
And it worked. It wasn’t the first show to build around the idea. Cheers was, in the end, a comedy about people who liked each other. So was Seinfeld. In the end, that was true of The Office too.
But I don’t think any other show gave us such divergent characters who liked each other … a show without a villain. And we liked them too. Sometimes, for fun, I ask my daughters to name their favorite characters. They have named every single one of main characters at some point (along with their favorite minor character Perd Hapley, the genial television personality who says things like, “For a female perspective we turn to … a woman”). What do my daughters have in common with Ron Swanson or Tom Haverford? Nothing. But they see the humanity in every one of them, they see that even though people may say ridiculous things or offer opinions counter to your own, those words come from a human place.
“I think most people would rather be nice than cruel,” Michael says. ” Now, power corrupts, and the higher you climb on the political ladder the more power you have, and thus the more you are risking by acting in a reasonable, dignified manner. If Mitch McConnell had said even one respectful or nice thing about President Obama — literally, even one — in the last election, he would’ve lost in a primary challenge.
“That is sad, to me, because I think if you could give Mitch McConnell truth serum he would say that President Obama is a smart person who has some good ideas (and vice-versa). The show was an attempt to describe a different path. … I think it’s possible to disagree and remain respectful, and even to love and admire the people with whom you disagree. This is not pollyanna pie-in-the-sky naivete. It’s a basic human reality.”
Good sitcoms tend to follow a path. They usually have rough early days when characters are being developed, often painfully. The focus of the show shifts. Then, something clicks, something else clicks, something else … and the show has a wonderful ride where every episode is fantastic. The comic possibilities seem endless. The characters mold into people as familiar as family.
And then — slowly you hope — the edges begin to crinkle, and bits start to sound the same, and certain people become too famous and cliche. Then people begin applauding when Fonzie or Latka or Kramer enters the room, and other characters leave, and themes start losing any spark, and sometimes producers feel the need to insert a major new theme just to liven up the show, a new baby, a new boss and new location.
Parks and Recreation went through all those phases. No, it was never a hit. It was never a ratings winner. But it started sluggish, and found its speed, and was great. Then, perhaps, it faded a bit. But unlike The Office or Cheers or M*A*S*H or Seinfeld or most of the other good shows I’ve loved through the years, it found one more burst of energy at the end. Michael and the writers and everyone always knew this would be the last year and so they decided to go out blazing. They put it three years in the future, and they created all sorts of frantic plot twists, and they made every show something of a finale.
That’s been a wonderful way to send off, but it also makes tonight a bit sad. There seems more to do. I want to know what happens to them all. I want to hear from Leslie, laugh at Jerry, have breakfast food with Ron Swanson every now and again. I guess that’s what happens when you make a good television show filled with people you like. The only good ending has you miss them.