Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Best TV Shows Start With the Letter 'P'

On the surface, Parenthood and Parks and Recreation may not appear to have a lot in common. After all, Parenthood is a family drama and Parks is a workplace comedy. But when the labels are stripped away, Parenthood and Parks are remarkably similar. Both have skillfully handled developing large casts of characters and they value what is becoming a rarity: human connection.

Parenthood follows Zeek and Camille Braverman’s four grown children, all of whom now have children of their own. Adam, the eldest, is raising a headstrong teenage daughter and a son diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Eldest daughter Sarah, still struggling to find her place in the world after a failed marriage, swallows her pride and moves back in with her parents. Younger son Crosby, the likable goofball, is forced to grow up when he learns of a five-year old son he did not know he had. Youngest child Julia is coming to grips with the fact that having the career she wants and being the kind of mother she wants may not be as easy as she once thought. In addition to the four siblings, all of the secondary characters are given a life all their own. Zeek and Camille hit a rough patch after decades of marriage; the siblings’ children grow, change and move on. While those subjects may read like typical television fare, all of the characters are so uniquely formed that Parenthood successfully steers clear of stereotypical storylines and instead skillfully and honestly reflects the ups and downs of family life.

Parks and Recreation follows an equally large group. Leslie and Ron are the sun in the Parks universe, but all of the characters that orbit around them are just as important to the makeup of the show. Among them: Leslie’s self-professed Geek husband Ben, brooding April and lovable lug Andy, ‘treat yo self’ proponents Tom and Donna, and office punching bag Jerry/Gerry/Larry/Terry.  And let’s not forget characters come and gone: Mr. Positivity Chris Traeger and kind-hearted goofball Ann Perkins, Leslie’s best friend in the world.  And whether it is Andy navigating adulthood from shoe shine boy to kid’s singing sensation Johnny Karate or Tom’s grasping for greatness through Snake Juice, Entertainment 720 and Tom’s Bistro, all of the characters navigate life in a way that is unique to each of them as individuals while still being easy to identify with.

It is a credit to the creators, writers, and the rest of the crew on these amazing shows that the characters have not been reduced to stereotypes and that portraying the frustrations, anxieties and joys of life was not avoided. Too often, characters on television become diluted versions of their early selves, but not so in the world of Parenthood and Parks. Each character, and their reactions to life’s curveballs, pulses with an energy that is all their own and that did not diminish after many seasons on air.

Perfect gift: The gang made a gingerbread Parks Dept for Leslie
Parenthood and Parks also share a core value: the importance of connection. One of the foundations on which Parks is built is the notion that a group of people can care for one another, that not every group (especially those portrayed in pop culture) is ripe with false niceties, backstabbing and animosity. They may have strange ways of expressing their feelings and it does not mean they will always agree with one another, but the tie that binds cannot be broken. Ron, in general, is not open to new people or ideas but when he shows Ann how to perform simple home repairs, during a Halloween party no less, he reveals that not only does he trust that she is capable, he is also surreptitiously teaching her valuable skills. When Donna and Tom attempt to cheer up a heartbroken Ben by inviting him to partake in their “treat yo’ self” day of luxury and overspending, we see that underneath their too cool exterior they are kind, caring individuals. But the true heart of Parks beats in the relationship between Leslie and Ron. They are opposites that don’t necessarily attract. Ron and Leslie recognize each other’s value and that they are better people because of their relationship. The examples of he unique quality of their friendship are numerous, but the most recent episode “Leslie and Ron” was an incredible summation. The beginning of the episode begins with Leslie and Ron nearly boiling over with hatred for one another (for a reason not yet known by the audience) until their friends lock them in the parks department office with the hope they will resolve their differences. Their reaction to forced togetherness, from both of them trying to trick Terry to unlock the door, to Leslie covering Ron with Post-Its in an effort to coax him to talk and their eventual reconciliation was hilarious, heartfelt and carried out with perfect tone.

In a culture that rewards self-sustainment and relies on social media channels that, in actuality, often results in a lifestyle that is the opposite of social, Parenthood champions the fact that family can be our greatest lifeline. When Crosby is frightened by his lack of connection with his newborn daughter, he turns to his brother Adam for reassurance. And when Sarah’s son, Drew, is shaken by his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy he goes first to his sister and then to his mom for support. Parenthood truly soars in the scenes that feature just the four adult siblings doing what all of us with siblings can relate to: talking about kids, about work and about our parents. Their conversations are at times tense and confrontational and others are filled with joy. 

When Parenthood and Parks and Recreation sign off, on January 29th and February 24th respectively, they will leave behind a hole in the television landscape. Where will one turn to find smart, funny, realistic characters that demonstrate the value of human connection?

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