Jul 31, 2013

Ann Perkins!: Why Rashida Jones’ Departure Should Signal the End of Parks & Rec

By Josh Oakley

Parks & Recreation is a show built upon a base of positivity often lacking in this Golden Age or post-Golden Age or whatever age television currently resides in. The NBC sitcom, entering its sixth season this fall, wears its beating, goopy heart on its sleeve in the manner of the best Frank Capra films: the cynicism of the world is addressed, but quickly toppled by the hope simmering within the protagonist. Parks’ lead, Leslie Knope, is one of the great characters of our time: an effusive bundle of optimism that gets her way by caressing skulls rather than cracking them. Though the character has been slightly mistreated (both the fourth and fifth season had patches where she bordered on the obnoxious nature largely erased after season one), Amy Poehler maintained a Leslie's shining core, quoting Friday Night Lights and marrying Ben Wyatt, to tremendous effect. But before she met Ben, and before her position in city council, she had Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). As the departure of Jones (and Rob Lowe) has recently been announced, it may be time for Parks & Recreation to say goodbye as a whole.

Jones and Lowe will leave the show in the upcoming season’s 13th episode. This will leave a back half of a season devoid of the two, but for whatever reason (likely contract-based) this is now unavoidable. The final nine installments of season six will go on, and certainly be good, as the show has been since episode six, often veering into “great” for entire seasons. While the show’s fourth and fifth years never quite lived up to its second and third (which I consider to be one of television’s all-time great seasons), Parks has hardly dipped into a territory below “fairly consistent excellence”. Four and five are just notches below two and three, but in ways that can be felt. One of the major deficits in season five was, unfortunately, the story of Ann Perkins. While Jones gave a great performance throughout, the show was often at a loss as to what to do with her, which only became more jarring as the show went on and a little steam ran out of other characters’ stories as well. So, it seems, Jones leaving Parks & Rec is not tragic. It seemingly pales in comparison to even Lowe’s absence, as his story, while also a weaker aspect of the show, normally provided more pure laughs. But this line of thought forgets one of Parks most important elements, the friendship of Ann and Leslie.

Ann Perkins and Leslie Knope have one of the best female friendships on television, especially when looking at shows that don’t focus solely on women. They have discussed boys, but don’t only discuss boys. They have major, concrete differences that solidify their yin-yang relationship. Though Ann’s stories almost always revolve around a man (or a baby), when she is placed in the context of this friendship, her character is more deeply felt. When we see what Leslie sees in her, she becomes a better character, and this happened quite often. So, it seems, the character needs the show more than the show needs the character, yes? This may be ultimately true, and the existence of quality in Parks & Rec is by no means dependent on this friendship. But, to the larger point of waning interest, the lack of this distinctive quality is a sharp cut to a show that, while far from floundering, has slightly receded in recent years.

Few episodes saw Leslie and Ann’s friendship as the centerpiece. The recent “Article Two”, one of last seasons’ best episodes, played the friendship mostly as a joke, but Leslie’s over-exuberance was still sweet, even when comically heightened. So the show can, on a practical level, retain quality without Ann. But should it? One of the show’s main features is its sense of community; these characters look out for one another not out of obligation but because of the inherent goodness in their hearts. The show’s villains are one-note and purposefully so; those that lack these basic virtues are not fully formed, but cartoons. Ann and Leslie’s friendship is emblematic of this idea, as these two distinct personalities are tied together by an affinity for each other, not a narcissistic need to latch on to that which is similar to oneself. In fact, almost every relationship on the show, from Andy & April to Jerry & his wife is founded in this idea: it is our virtues, and our good hearts that tie us to others, not a superficial similarity discovered by an algorithm.

It will be with a heavy heart that Ann and Leslie break-up, a scene that will likely reflect the Michael/Jim goodbye, one of the best scenes The Office ever produced. This is not the departure of a protagonist, but of the person who grounded said protagonist. Yes, Ben serves a similar function, but the romance in their relationship coats that basic friendship, as much as they may love each other. There is something more, whereas the Ann/Leslie friendship is purely based around the aid of one another. Narratives have always been obsessed with romance over friendship. This show has done a consistently excellent job at distinguishing the two most important people in Leslie’s life beyond her sleeping with one of them and not the other. These two sides are rarely explicitly played against one another, but the effect is ultimately there: there are things she may not discuss with one of them but will quickly divulge to the other. This triangle of her relationships has become vital to grounding a buoyant character, and without Ann Perkins, she may begin to float away.

This is all, perhaps, a prelude to my main point: I’m ready for Parks & Recreation to leave. This is not an attack on Parks, which has and likely will always land on my favorite shows of any given year. This is more a wish for the sitcom to go out on a high note, to end gracefully. Instead of shoehorning in a new friend for Leslie, or relapsing into well-trod ground, let’s hope for a beautiful goodbye from a beautiful show. After Ann (and Chris Traeger) have left, there will be a void, and while I’m not worried about the pieces left surrounding that emptiness, I am concerned if the show attempts to fill it. Ann and Leslie have a history that would be impossible to replicate, and Leslie Knope needs a best friend (in addition to her husband). With a show this warm, saying farewell to even two characters will be difficult, in the vein of close friends that move to a new city. Leaving the show behind will leave stores sold out of tissue boxes. But the time must come for everything. Our friends do leave, like Ann will leave Leslie. But those departures, with friends of that magnitude, are the ends of chapters. Those of us obsessed with narrative slice our lives into chunks defined by schools, or cities, or those around us. This particular friendship breaking apart is a distinct end-point in one portion of these characters’ lives. But know that even if we do near the conclusion of Parks & Recreation, Leslie Knope, Ann Perkins, and Pawnee, Indiana will reside in our hearts as long as we have them. And this show has proven that with effort and good friends, they will never cease to beat.

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