Three weeks ago sources revealed that Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe would be leaving Parks and Recreation midway through its upcoming sixth season. News about the impending departure of unlucky in love Ann Perkins and perfectionist City Manager Chris Traeger was expectedly met with some sadness and disappointment by devoted Parks and Rec fans. The cast of the NBC comedy has developed into one of the strongest ensembles on television, and, with the exit of The Office and 30 Rock last season, Parks and Rec is poised to be NBC’s number one workplace comedy, with the citizens of Pawnee providing the most colorful and entertaining array of recurring characters and bit parts this side of Greendale Community College. Losing two main cast members is a bit of surprise, a curious altering of a formula that seemed to be working so well. But here’s the thing: we actual welcome the change, as it will solve the show’s most glaring problem, a significant flaw that has existed since episode one: what do you do with a problem like Rashida?
All the way back in the summer of 2009, between Parks and Recreation‘s first uneven season and its second much more successful outing, we laid out a plan for how to fix the show’s weaknesses, how to turn it into a Thursday night staple, like its predecessor The Office did during its own second season. Among our suggestions were to soften and humanize the lead character of Leslie Knope, something that the show and Amy Poehler have done remarkably, and to continue to develop the supporting cast, which the series has certainly accomplished, from expanded roles for Parks Department employees like Gerry and Donna to frequent cameos from Pawnee residents like Jean Ralphio and Perd Hapley. However, while the show took our advice on those two points, over the last five seasons they’ve failed to address our last note, and the one we felt most passionate about: figure out what to do with Rashida Jones.
When Parks and Recreation premiered Rashida Jones was fresh off her stint on the third season of The Office, showing impressive range, heart and natural comedic talent as Stamford and later Scranton employee Karen Filippelli. Playing Jim’s new love interest, and the main obstacle to his inevitable reunion with Pam, she managed to make the most of a difficult, thankless role, and somehow was able to encourage the audience root for her while simultaneously rooting against her. It was as if there was a rival to Kelly Kapowski that we didn’t hate; that, in fact, we nearly liked just as much, and even more in some ways.
And when Karen’s story was told and there was no longer a place for her in Scranton, it seemed that she was the perfect person to anchor an oft-rumored Office-spin-off, for Jones was the rare mix of good looks and natural acting chops whom you’d take pains to keep in your employ. And, indeed, for a time it seemed that Parks and Recreation would be an extension of The Dunder Mifflin Universe with Jones’ Karen representing the connective tissue. However, that conceit was soon abandoned, and Parks and Rec became a spin-off in spirit only, with Jones given the role of the hapless Ann Perkins, a Pawnee nurse also tending to her buffoonish, child-like boyfriend while living next to a sinkhole whose future as a park was the park in Parks and Recreation during those first couple seasons. She was portrayed as somewhat aimless but responsible, rational but prone to poor judgement, and good-natured but kinda square. In the pilot she meets and soon befriends Parks Department Deputy Director Leslie Knope, and the show becomes much less about the park and more about their recreation. And soon Ann is inexplicably spending more time at the Parks Department than she is at the hospital, until she conveniently, and also somewhat inexplicably, gets a job with the Health Department, fortuitously located under the same roof as the Parks Dept (later she also serves briefly as Leslie’s campaign manager, which is both less and more preposterous). And during this time she demonstrated a keen propensity for being unlucky in love, bouncing from dim-witted man-child Andy to the reliable but boring (and forgotten) Mark Brendanawicz to preternaturally cheerful Chris to whiny man-child Tom, the latter being the most insulting and unbelievable of them all (giving the feeling that the producers just matched up whichever characters were available; they had a leftover Tom and a leftover Ann, so let’s just put them together). It was the nadir of the Ann Perkins romantic roller coaster, and stripped away the last shreds of dignity she had retained after her previous failed dalliances. Indeed, it was almost enough (or, perhaps, plenty enough) to warrant April’s contemptuous and often vicious treatment of her.
What was the link in all of Ann’s relationships? It was that she was unable to find an Ann Perkins who could stand on her own. Has Leslie been romantically involved for most of the show? Certainly. But has that been the central aspect, her main conflict? No. But for Ann it has seemed that her constant romantic failures have been her defining characteristic, that Ann has been defined by her foils instead of her defining them, which has turned her into something of a needy, lame, cloying joke (indeed, the show recognized this and essentially mocked it in Season Four when Ann made a conscious decision to be an independent woman, one that characteristically ended with dismal results, serving instead to further diminish her worth and paint her into a desperate spinster).
So when the show exhausted all the romantic possibilities, what did it do? In a plot development cribbed from a sitcom trope handbook, Ann decides to have a child through in vitro fertilization, suitable male partners be damned! She doesn’t need a man, she needs a baby that she can love and care for and to which she can direct her nurturing motherly instincts. Of course, this circular logic results in her finding the appropriate male specimen in Chris, which ostensibly will lead to them falling in love again (after already getting back in bed together this past season), and then leaving the show in episode thirteen when Chris likely gets summoned back to Indianapolis and Ann decides she wants to raise her child near its father, if not under the same roof, eliciting a tearful goodbye with Leslie, her BFF (of four years), coworker and biggest supporter. And once Ann’s ridden off into the midwestern sunset with Chris, what has that six season arc said about Ann? That she wasn’t able to suitably exist without a man – even a clueless clown like Andy – and that her life wasn’t complete without a baby, a character arc (or straight line) which feels too simple and reductive even for an NBC sitcom. Which truly goes to illustrate that the show never did quite figure out what to do with Ann Perkins, and thus better to ship her off to the state capital now than to turn her into a hackneyed harried mom whose daughter ages up five years between seasons six and seven in a precisely calibrated attempt to up the cute quotient. It would be have been wonderful if they finally found the right story for Ann, found the character’s groove, her true emotional depth, but if it didn’t happen by now, why keep her around? It almost seems preferable that they cut their losses and cede the screen time to someone else in the main cast or call up someone from Pawnee’s talented minor league ranks.
Which, ultimately, is a shame and a waste of Rashida Jones’ considerable talent, something that she showed an abundance as “the other woman” on The Office, a difficult role that she pulled off gracefully. Certainly, she did the near impossible, inspiring us to still care about and appreciate the woman standing in the way of love. It was that nuance and charm and complexity that made her such an obvious choice to build a new series around. And such a disappointment that Ann Perkins never quite worked like Karen Filippelli. The latter unwittingly wedged herself between two star-crossed lovers, and the former became window dressing, an afterthought, a square peg in a small town composed of round holes and already overstocked on characters with more circular dimensions. It’s hard to look at Rashida Jones as Karen and not be confident that the talented minds behind Parks and Recreation – and they are very talented – would be able to build a show around her, and it’s even harder to look at Rashida Jones as Ann Perkins and not be disappointed at what could have (and should have) been.
So while we praise the Parks and Recreation producers for realizing and admitting that they had a problem – it’s probably better to focus on other more fully formed characters and let Rashida Jones find another role more suited to her undeniable charisma and ability – we wish they were able to solve the problem, instead of removing it. Eventually, Ann Perkins got her park, but she never quite got out of the pit.