Apr 24, 2014

Parks & Recreation or How To Revitalize Your Show

By Josh Oakley

Spoilers for the Parks & Recreation season finale follow

The time jump is a narrative ploy, a hook to invest the audience in a future that doesn’t have to be built piece by piece, but instead can be shoved, fully formed, into the frame. It’s kind of cheap in one sense, an easy way to shake things up without having to construct an entire story behind the changes (or, at least, not having to tell that entire story). But I’ll be damned if it isn’t an effective ploy. In a way, it’s a fairly daring move, shifting the premise to a slightly modulated position, repositioning characters and relationships with gaps left to fill. We’ll have to wait until next season to see if Parks & Recreation delivers on the promise inherent in the trope, but this is the first time in years that I haven’t been able to wait to see what this show does next.

My favorite instance of the time jump is from the second season finale of Battlestar Galactica (this paragraph will detail that, so skip ahead if you’d rather not know). After the characters settle on New Caprica and the Cylons invade, we move forward a year, and see this world under the their cruel regime. It functioned, in a large way, as efficient story telling. Likely, a season spent on New Caprica would have been enjoyable, but this technique allowed the show to thrust everything into high gear, immediately moving into a rebellion and escape that energized the third season both in linear plots and flashbacks (“Unfinished Business” is the show’s best episode, to my mind, largely for the way it utilizes the year that was skipped over). In an interview with Mike Schur, the Parks & Rec showrunner, over at HitFix, he even uses Battlestar as a direct point of reference, explicitly in the way the transition was shot. This is promising news indeed.

This ultimately allows Parks & Rec to avoid the fits and starts that have “driven” much of the last few years. Seasons five and six especially have been burdened with a lack of momentum, as it was unclear exactly in what direction the show was heading. Leslie’s recall felt drawn out, and new opportunities for all of the characters seemed to come and go with too much ease, even for an amiable sitcom. With the missing three years presumably throwing the characters into fresh starts, the show is allowed to pick up their stories wherever it pleases, without it feeling out of character. Instead of Andy suddenly deciding he wants to do something else, he can start next season already in that place, and move forward from there. The time jump allows Parks & Rec to be somewhat of a new show without losing any of the trappings of what makes it great.

It should be noted that the twist is not the only promising factor of the season finale, “Moving Up”. This is also an exquisite hour of television, capturing what makes these characters worth loving, and providing ample energy even before Jon Hamm is compared unfavorably to Gerry/Jerry/Larry/Terry. Leslie’s decision to move her new job to Pawnee isn’t all that difficult to figure out, but the show wisely has her decide on the new job before figuring out a way to have everything. It seems, at least, that in a world where she failed to persuade the National Parks Committee, she would have left for Chicago. Yes, it’s the show having its cake and consuming it as well, but it does so without the slightest hint of character betrayal, which can be difficult to pull off. 

Many on twitter, including myself, commented on how much of a series finale “Moving Up” felt like. I think a large reason for this is that it played as an earned culmination of these people’s lives up to this point. Ben finds that his board game is immensely popular, and gains the rights from what may be the show’s best minor character. Tom is inspired by his friends to follow through, and it pays off. Ron comes out as Duke Silver and wards off Tammy seemingly once and for all.

I’m glad we’ll be getting another year of the show, though I agree with many that it likely will be and should be the last. Even so, “Moving Up” was a beautiful reminder of why this show used to be one of the best on TV, and how even if it’s past the best days, it remains enjoyable and often lovely. The characters showed affection for each other, the jokes were funny, and we even got a nice Ron/Leslie moment. This at once felt like a series finale and a promise for however many more episodes we get. A promise that this is a show that cares so deeply about its world, and put all of that on display. And a promise that no matter where next year takes us, no matter what this version of 2017 looks like, these characters will be there for each other and for us. The time jump would have been exciting under any circumstances. That it followed an hour full of beautiful and hilarious moments is why I’ll never truly be ready to leave Pawnee.

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