After a hiatus that has felt much longer than it actually was, Parks and Recreation is finally back on television, gearing up to close out its fourth, and arguably shakiest, season. That's not to say this season has not been without its high points: The battle of the Tammys, the Pawnee apocalypse, Ron’s secret love for riddles, and the greatest piece of advice ever dispensed "Treat yoself!" But along with these Parks triumphs, there have been some questionable choices. Has Leslie’s campaign story really been handled with the strength it deserves? Are some of the characters becoming exaggerated versions of themselves? And — most controversial and shudder-inducing of all — are Tom and Ann really a couple now?
With only a few episodes left in the season, there is a handful of story lines Parks needs to begin working toward wrapping up. Here are what we’d consider some choices that could satisfy devoted fans, disappointed critics, and even Marsha Langman.
The Issue: One of the qualms some Parks lovers have had with season 4 is the way the show has delivered the story of Leslie Knope’s campaign for public office. It almost seems like many of this season's episodes fit a sort of fill-in-the blank regime, with the team breaking off into various groups of two to four to take on some mundane campaign task that turns into "Only in Pawnee!" wackiness. Once in a while, this formula can be considered a winner. But week after week, it becomes monotonous, unimaginative, and detrimental to the sincerity of the story line and the growth of the characters.
How to Fix It: What the show needs to do is handle each faction of the campaign with a little more gravity. Maybe spreading a particular issue over more than one episode would be a good idea. Something to break up the routine — this is the most important and most standout story line to happen on the show yet. It needs to feel that way.
The Character Problem
The Issue: At their strongest, the members of Pawnee’s Parks Department are tremendous characters, a rare combination of both off-the-wall hilarious and legitimately relatable and empathetic. Recent months have shown a few fan favorites — most notably, Andy and Tom — to be kicked up a notch in terms of their lovable quirks. When it comes to characters like these, less is more. Andy is funnier when he’s not so stupid you’d question how he’s survived to the age of 30. Seasons 2 and 3 made him out to be childish, naïve and uninformed, but generally capable, whereas season 4 has shown him to struggle with the English language. Subtlety goes a long way.
Tom is another, possibly more excruciating example. In the earlier days of Parks, Tom Haverford was the kind of guy you felt like you knew. Callous, lazy, vain, self-interested, and invested in some very specific and questionable tastes and ambitions. But he always balanced this with a sanity that played well against Leslie’s amped up idealism. Now, Tom is a walking cologne ad. Every line out of his mouth is another small parody of Entourage culture. Instead of distancing Tom from these childish antics as the man and the character grow, the show seems to be more succinctly immersing him in them.
How to Fix It: The solution to this problem is simple. Bring the characters back down to Earth. Imbue them with more humanity and more sincerity. Make Andy the voice of reason once in a while (as he has been in past seasons, lest you forget). Make Tom the compass of morality or sanity (again, as he has been). These characters deserve more than just a place delivering punchlines.
Tom and Ann’s Relationship
The Issue: Nobody wants them together. Nobody. Seriously, go on an Internet-wide excavation, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single “I think they work!” But just to play devil’s advocate here, there is some good that can come from this kind of storyline. Tom has always fancied himself ladies’ man with sky-high professional aspirations, but the audience knows him better than he knows himself. Tom is a soft-hearted good guy at the core who just wants to be loved. And a legitimate healthy relationship might be able to ground Tom once and for all, getting him off the track of his would be playboy lifestyle.
On the other end of the spectrum, this relationship actually seems detrimental to Ann’s character. Since the beginning of the series, Ann has been shown to immerse herself completely in her relationships, losing herself in the process. She let Andy drag her down. She let Chris take her over. After losing Chris, she threw herself completely into a promiscuous lifestyle, unable to accept herself without a man to define her. But Ann is worth more than this— as Leslie will tell you, readily and quite eloquently. ("Oh, Ann, you beautiful tropical fish.") What the show needs to do is keep Ann single, and give her something to love about herself, not somebody to love in place of herself.
How to Fix It: Break 'em up! Reunite Tom with Lucy (remember her brief comeback earlier this season?), and send Ann off to find herself. Win-win.
That said, some characters have made significant, needed changes over the course of season 4. April is growing up, and it's happening very organically at that. She is gradually revealing that she does care about people, and that she is more and more willing to show that. When the show left off, April was considering taking on more responsibility at the Parks department. Whether or not she should stay in-house is a big question, but as long as fans see her starting to make something of herself, and actually trying, it's a victory for her character.
Chris is another example of something season 4 has done right. Whether you loved Chris' upbeat attitude, or hated him for the selfishness he always seemed to exude, it's hard to say that his season 4 change-up has been quite interesting. Chris does need to get out of his depression one of these days, but hopefully he'll wind up more grounded and serious than his previous flighty, head-in-the-clouds self. But what might be able to get him there?
And then there's Ron. Lovable, mustachioed, wood-working, government-hating, wise old Ron. He's doing just fine. Never change.
Catch Parks and Rec tonight at 9:30 PM ET/PT, in its first new episode to round out the rest of the season. What else do you hope to see before the big finale? Be sure to check back in tomorrow for a full recap.