What if Parks and Recreation Had Stayed Closer to its Original Tone?

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Parks and Recreation is iconic today to fans who remember it for the kumbaya tour of the later seasons.

It’s a show about friendships, people achieving their dreams, and falling in love.

The show is undeniably optimistic, but so much so that its fans seemed to give it a curious pass.

Parks and Recreation Group Shot

Anne’s friendship with Leslie was strangely set in stone despite the fact these two women met late in life when people’s friend circles are generally already relatively set. Did Leslie have a single friend before this?

Furthermore, Leslie wins the respect of everyone, and every single character finds love that results in a happy marriage. Is that realistic of any random sample of office mates and every marriage?

Leslie - Parks and Recreation Season 8 Episode 0

Everyone gets an amazing career. Again, why would one subdepartment of government produce so many success stories?

Even more disappointing is just HOW the characters are shipped. The characters are often designed as if a romantic collision is inevitable, and nowhere is this more apparent than Anne. 

A certain subset of TV viewers (ok, maybe the majority of TV viewers) love seeing characters fall in love, but how does it fit into responsible character development. Anne’s relationships, in particular with Tom and Mark, are extremely problematic.

For such a smart woman, there's something unrealistic about the way she is drawn to the wrong characters over and over. She even dates a character played by Nick Kroll named "The Douche."

Ann - Parks and Recreation Season 8 Episode 0

Tom’s first actions towards Anne on Parks and Recreation Season 1 Episode 1 (hitting on her in the middle of a public meeting) are pretty much the definition of inappropriate, and he rarely lets up.

Tom isn’t a complete creep or an awful character, but that he ends up with Anne is definitely a tacit rewarding of harassing behavior in the workplace: If you don’t succeed when a girl says no, then keep at it for three and a half more seasons?

Mark’s relationship with Anne isn’t problematic, but it’s pretty jarring to have Anne publicly state her disdain for him on Parks and Recreation Season 1 Episode 6, only to see them get paired up one episode later.

To refresh your memory, Mark showed a complete lack of class towards everyone’s favorite beat reporter, Shauna Malware-Tweep, after sleeping with her, and this incident happened IN FRONT of Anne.

Shauna: OK, well, since we're, you know romantically involved, I won't print any of it
Anne: That's great, thank you so much
Mark: Well, you know I wouldn't say romantically involved... going forward
Anne: (rolling her eyes) Oh my god!

Goodbyes Are Hard To Say - The Good Place

These character arcs came from showrunner Michael Schur, who introduced ethics and philosophy into mainstream television through The Good Place to encourage self-betterment.

Although Parks and Recreation came first, it’s highly disappointing that Schur seemed to be OK with the series relying so much on the oldest trope in the book for a cheap relationship pairing.

The show’s six-episode first season is widely acknowledged to have been a rough one, in which the show hadn’t yet established its footing.

Leslie Knope is overly awkward in a manner similar to Michael Scott, so oversimplified comparisons were inevitably made. 

Michael Kissing Oscar - The Office

The show also didn't have an expanded cast yet, so a lot of the weight leaned on a smaller group with less chemistry. Mark wass a bit of a buzz kill.

Having recently watched the first season, I found these things to be true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are negatives.

Leslie Knope was a bit awkward, and she could have definitely used tweaking (like a lot of sitcom characters in their first seasons), but that produced more conflict than a later-season Leslie Knope, who had all her teammates behind her.

The way that her colleagues reacted with less enthusiasm seemed like the most natural course of action for people dealing with government drudgery.

Mark Brendanawicz  Picture

I have to confess that actor Paul Schneider alienated me when he gave an interview in the early 2010s trashing Parks and Recreation for changing the show to something that he didn’t originally sign on for.

Upon rewatch, though, I do appreciate how Schneider was definitely a jagged edge in the feel-good atmosphere of the show.

Ron Swanson was, of course, anti-government, but he’s pro-social in his own way.

Ben Wyatt was fiscally conservative and socially awkward, but he wanted to be included.

Mark Brendanewicz, though, was not someone you could imagine ever being friends with Leslie Knope nor possibly the rest of the gang (at least the Season 1 version of him).

And that’s real life.

Not everyone gets married, not everyone finds their bliss, and not everyone at work becomes your lifelong friend.

But you still have your little work victories, your fun nights out, occasional great friendships, and, most importantly, some unforgettable memories from every job you have. 

Ron: We will get along just fine, though hopefully not too fine, because I am not looking for any new friends. End speech.
Leslie: Well said.

Ron - Parks and Recreation Season 8 Episode 0

Instead, Leslie Knope's social awkwardness was gradually refined by the writing room into a pro-social mantra.

Characters were shipped together and bonded to inordinate degrees. That's generally the fan version that has been embraced by fans, even as it falls into the realm of fantasy. 

Far be it from me to counter popular opinion, but I wonder what could have been if they had kept things a little more in line with the first season.

If you have thoughts on Parks and Recreation and the contrast between the first and final seasons, please share your thoughts below.

Let's get a conversation started.

Orrin Konheim was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. He retired in October 2020. Follow him on Twitter and his personal blog at Sophomore Critic.

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Parks & Rec Quotes

April: You know what? I think men are better than women.
Ann: She's kidding.
April: No I'm not. They provide for us and we must obey them because they are our masters.

Wow, look at this room. So much wood ready to be worked.