Thursday night’s season 5 finale of Parks and Recreation went out with more of a whimper than a bang. It’s no secret that the show’s fate is uncertain – a sixth season is not yet a sure thing – and so the finale was careful to build in a variety of new potential arcs, from a mysterious pregnancy to a committee hoping to oust Leslie Knope from her city council position. But overall, other than some top-notch Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa moments, plus a few zingers from Donna, my personal favorite, many of the shows main set pieces fell rather flat. Even Andy’s return to the character of Bert Macklin, FBI, a sure laugh generator in seasons past, did very little for me.
One of the main staples of and also issues with the show is how incredibly successful Ben and Leslie’s relationship has been for a long, long time now. The closest the two trade to a barb is Leslie telling Ben how much she likes his butt, and Ben getting mildly uncomfortable with her touching said butt in public. They are unflaggingly supportive, kind, generous, happy, and generally just sickeningly in love. From their perfect will-they-or-won’t-they courtship to their perfect wedding to their perfect marriage, the two have gone from stomach-fluttering in their early days to predictable and – it has to be said – dull.
It’s hard to gauge whether the pair is believable or a complete, over-the-top fantasy on the part of the show’s writers. Is anyone, anywhere this happy? In a way, it’s refreshing to see a television pair not rife with drama. Most of our favorite television couples are interesting because their relationships go through trials and tribulations, but that can get exhausting. Sometimes you just want to root for a pair to stay together and to be happy. Jim and Pam’s current arc on The Office is a great example of a couple that served as the warm, gooey heart of an otherwise prickly show, a heart that maybe shouldn’t have been messed with. An older example of the eternally happy couple might be Monica and Chandler on Friends, but their marital bliss was offset by the shenanigans of the other characters, most notably (gag) Ross and Rachel.
So there are precedents for a smooth-sailing relationship like Ben and Leslie’s, and they do seem to mimic real life love, especially at this honeymoon stage, more than on-screen couples whose relationships are marred by constant strife. The question, then, is whether happy couples make for good television. Sure, if Leslie was my best friend (and I like to think she could be), I’d be ecstatic that she found the man of her dreams, a man who treats her not just well but perfectly. In a human sense, good for them. But I also think the show suffers for it. Parks and Recreation has never been particularly dramatic – most of the fun comes from the mundane day-to-day antics of city government, complete with a funny and enjoyable ensemble of characters – but in the past, there have been at least some hurdles for these characters. Ben and Leslie had to fight for their relationship, and Leslie herself had to fight for her dream of serving on city council. These days, there’s very little fighting. Sure, there were scuffles this season with the odious and hilarious Jeremy Jamm, and Ann had her kind of ridiculous quest to find a father for the child she wants, but by and large, and especially for the show’s central couple, nothing really … happened. Part of that stems from the fact that, for an entire season, the show’s writers allowed that couple to be totally content.
I’m rooting for Parks and Recreation. I think it has been one of the funniest, sweetest, most enjoyable shows on network television for a while. But season 5 left me wondering whether happy characters make for happy viewers, and on that count, especially when it comes to Ben and Leslie, I’m still not sure.