My fellow television critics and i were on the set of Queen Latifah’s new daytime talk show (coming to a station near you on September 16) when a ripple of conversation ran around the room: the news had broken, via Kate Aurthur of Buzzfeed, that Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe, who play Leslie Knope’s best friend Ann Perkins, and her boss at the Parks Department, Chris Traeger, would be leaving Parks and Recreation halfway through the show’s sixth season. Showrunner Mike Schur told TVLine that “with the two of them contemplating parenthood, it felt like a natural time to move them into the next phase.” But what he didn’t address is the holes they’ll leave on Parks and Recreation, and how the show might improve by filling them.
I love both Chris and Ann as imaginary people, but as I wrote last season, it was hard to deny that they seemed to have run their personal courses in Pawnee. Ann’s ill-fated relationship with Tom felt like something of a placeholder to fill space before she and Chris reuinted. And Chris’s therapy was never deeper than a running gag, and didn’t do much to particularly further his character. They’d functionally run out of conflicts on the show that needed to be resolved. And sending them off to Indianapolis, but leaving them in reserve for trips to the state capital or for the finale seems like a perfectly appropriate thing to happen to the characters.
But I do think that the relative decline of their arcs illustrates two ways that Parks could become a stronger show in its sixth season, and I say this as someone who enjoyed a lot of the episodes last year. First, it could provide an opportunity to open up the world of the show a bit more. Pawnee is one of the best-developed fictional settings on television, and maybe on television ever. But many of the places we’ve visited are mostly settings for running gags, like the dour doctor at the hospital where Ann works, or the disastrous sanitation bros. If new characters developed close relationships with Leslie and Ben, taking Ann and Chris’s places, that’s an opportunity to build out more of town in a deeper way.
I’d be curious to spend more time with Ben at Sweetums, for example, and to almost have a show-within-a-show about Ben’s efforts to manage his conscience as he whitewashes Sweetums’ reputation, and to see more of the parts of Pawnee that are in real need of charitable assistance. And as much as I thought Councilman Jamm was the perfect foil for Leslie in her first year on City Council, that part of the show has a problem that Parks had in developing Leslie’s character in its short first season: it’s full of incompetents, racists, and jerks in a way that makes it difficult to understand why we should care about the institution other than because Leslie’s a part of it, and that renders the character beats in that space relatively predictable. Maybe it’s time for Leslie’s affectionate pursuit of Councilman Howser to turn into a real friendship, or a mentor-mentee relationship, and for us to get a better sense of the people who lead Pawnee.
And second, Ann and Chris’s departure (or departures, I suppose I don’t know if they’ll end up together) could open up space for some of the more underused members of the Parks and Recreation cast to shine. I’d absolutely love to see the incomparable Retta, get much more to do on Parks and Recreation, and I wonder if Ann’s departure could provide an opportunity for Donna and Leslie to grow closer, and for Leslie to have a relationship with someone who isn’t quite as much of a doormat to her as Ann could sometimes be. More out of the box, I’d love to see Ken Hotate, one of Parks truly genius creations, as a regular character on the show, one who could help educate Leslie in the means of brokering power in Pawnee.
Chris and Ann have had a great run in Pawnee, but one of the realities of adult life, among the others that Parks has captured so beautifully, is that along the way, some of your friends move, and you need to find other people to replace them in your schedule and your day-to-day emotional routine, if not in your heart. They’ll be fine once they leave Pawnee. I just hope Parks and Recreation is smart about how Leslie and Ben build new relationships in their absence.