The First-Annual Parks and Recreation Power Rankings!

30 Dec

Let me tell you something everybody already knows but seems afraid to say: Parks and Recreation is the best sitcom on television.

Anchored by the best ensemble cast since Arrested Development and led by a showrunner who wrote for The Office back when it was actually funny, the town of Pawnee, Indiana is coming up on Springfield for title of “best use of an entire community in a television series.” Its motto is “First in friendship, fourth in obesity,” its most beloved public figure was a 25-year-old mini horse with diabetes, whose funeral rivaled Prince William’s wedding ceremony in terms of pomp.

Save for the final season of Friday Night Lights and the penultimate season of Breaking Bad, you’d be hard-pressed to find a show that had a better 2011 than Parks and Rec. Season 3 rescued itself from the chopping block, suffering both a shortened order and a stint in mid-season purgatory to become pretty close to a mainstream critical darling. With the relatively new acquisition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott, the Parks team bolstered their cast and hit their stride in their third season. Season 4 jumped that hurdle in its first ten episodes, currently enjoying a run as not only the best season of an already great show, but one of the best seasons of television any sitcom has had in years.

To celebrate Parks and Recreation’s banner year, Man-Size has decided to tally the contributions of the show’s characters, highlighting the ten of them who performed the best in 2011. And don’t forget to grab an Entertainment 720 gift bag (complete with fedora!) on the way out.

10. Joan Callamezzo

The great thing about Parks and Recreation is that most any character not occupying the following nine slots could have easily made this list. Marsha Langman. Garry “Jerry” Gergich. Detlef Schrempf. But Joan Callamezzo is the closest thing Parks and Recreation has to an actual villain, taking every turn to gleefully antagonize Leslie Knope and doing it with a level of charisma and panache that’s tough to ignore.

Pawnee’s most renowned media personality ultimately cracked the top ten due to her “journalistic intuition,“ not only breaking the news of the supposed Harvest Festival curse, but also that Leslie Knope– who loves Pawnee so much, she literally wrote the book on it– was not actually born in the city she’s spent her whole life representing (“When we come back, we’ll pull out the world map and speculate wildly!”). After a drunken afternoon of “powerful metaphors,” obnoxious renditions of 80’s pop hits, and being carried to bedside, Callamezzo softened her stance and finally allowed Knope to make her influential book club, with a special caveat on the back cover (Gotcha Dancers not included).

9. Donna Meagle

The big sister of the Pawnee Parks Department, Donna spent most of 2011 offering priceless relationship advice to coworkers and acquaintances (“Use him, abuse him, lose him”), reading a poem in Latin at Li’l Sebastian’s memorial service, stealing the show at Ron’s Tammy Intervention, and starting a Twilight book club. The sparseness in which the writers are using her nowadays is profoundly unacceptable, but she was instrumental in turning “Treat Yo’ Self” into Season 4’s “All the bacon and eggs you have.” (After all, it is the best day of the year.)

8. Chris Traeger

In spite of him simply enforcing a rule that really exists in government, Pawnee’s City Manager drew the heavy ire of the Ben and Leslie shippers a few weeks ago when the latter got suspended and the former terminated for admitting they were an item. It was a fascinating moment in Parks and Rec history, as the direct conflict on the show mainly comes from outside sources, such as the Pawnee Public Library or neighboring (and rival) town Eagleton. It was the first time since Ben and Chris first entered City Hall to slash the budget that any real tension between the show’s primary characters had existed. And there was a conflict inside of Chris himself– who openly told Leslie that she is the first woman he’s ever met worthy of dating Ben– torn between the responsibility of authority and the careers of two people he genuinely respects.

Before the pivotal trial of Leslie Knope, Traeger made his name as the delightfully cartoonish fitness freak with an endless grin, who’s outlived the three weeks he was expected to live by miles (by his jogging habits, I mean “miles” in the literal sense) and lit’rally enjoys every single second of his day. The pushover he was cast as at the end of Season 2 quickly fell away and left him very much in control of his surroundings, very decisive and particular about the way he wanted things (in drink orders, it’s not uncommon for Chris to specify the type of ice, if he wants a straw, and probably even the cut of the glass). He dated Leslie’s best friend Ann Perkins (Note: Before she got the part-time job in the Health Department), and dumped her so kindly that Ann didn’t even know they broke up until weeks later. His backbone exhibited again on “The Trial of Leslie Knope,” and then he wept in Ben’s arms after Ben’s dishonorable discharge. That episode was a turning point for Chris, and for the show, because it showed someone in City Hall making a hard decision and it not turning out how anybody wanted. It showed that sometimes conflict arises, and everybody loses. Because Chris didn’t want to do what he had to do, but ultimately he was doing his job.

7. April Ludgate

For every smart young person who works with people they like but probably aren’t the sharpest tools in the box (especially if your office has a Jerry), April Ludgate is your inner voice. The things that come out of her mouth while she at work are things that more than likely are going through your own head that you’re afraid to say. She’s apathetic, misanthropic, and kind of lazy. So, what would YOU do with April if you were on Parks and Rec’s writing team? OF COURSE you’d put her with Andy! And THEN what would you do? I mean, shotgun weddings usually don’t elicit the best consequences, but when April walked down the aisle (in Andy’s friend’s living room, Andy’s friend not even knowing Andy’s getting married), there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Everybody could tell that they were doing the right thing. Well, that they were doing the completely wrong thing, but wrong by normal standards. They’re in love. They got married. They’ll probably divorce jokingly before the end of Season 4. Andy and April will be alright.

It helps that both characters add things to the dynamic of the relationship. Andy is through and through a free spirit, a big Golden Labrador or even a St. Bernard who just wants to love and be loved and lick everybody’s face. Ever since her and Andy got together, April’s been softening up on the cynicism, but she’s still pragmatic, helping Andy decide that he wants to take a college course and going through his bucket list with him, taking them all the way to the grand canyon. But April is barely an adult herself, so her and Andy still do mischievous things like throw beakers (“scientist bottles,” as Andy calls them) off a school roof. Not to mention her fun (and kind of hot) roleplaying as Janet Snakehole.

April’s the kind of person most every job needs, a straight shooter that will tell you when something is dumb, even when everything’s dumb. She’s also the kind of wife and friend that will have a good time with you, but also help you get farther along in life. In 2011, she’s starting to figure out that there’s a little more to life than going to The Bulge and calling out the parts of our culture that aren’t cool.

6. Jean-Ralphio Saperstein

Where do you even start with Jean-Ralphio? On a plot-based level, he was the instrument of change in Tom’s life, helping him build Entertainment 720 from the ground up– regardless of the fact that it crumbled right back into the ground in several months’ time. He was essentially aware of Tom being the brains of the operation, but Jean-Ralphio was the heart. He kept the good vibes flowing, gave Tom helpful advice (“Swingers or Crashers?” “Fred Claus.”), and kept his head held aloft even as the company tanked. He was just so surprised that it actually happened. Jean-Ralphio’s zest for life comes out in every scene he’s in, using his hilarious quick-talk to (unsuccessfully) pick up girls (upon first meeting April and trying to charm her, she asked incredulously, “Don’t you work at Lady Foot Locker?”) and dunking with an NBA star practically carrying him to the hoop. Jean-Ralphio was such a delight to have that when GQ came calling for an interview, they wanted to speak to the character and not the man who plays the character (“I would wear Lady Gaga. I mean, I don’t know her personally yet but I think she’d be cool with it.”). This clip of “The Complete Jean Ralphio” should be able to explain things far greater than I can with words. Now why don’t you turn that frizown… upside diggity?

5. Ben Wyatt

If you’re familiar with his career-making turn as Henry Pollard on cult favorite sitcom Party Down, I shouldn’t have to tell you that Adam Scott is a fine comedic actor. But his work as Ben Wyatt has been pure comedic gold all throughout Seasons 3 and 4. He’s had some of the show’s best one-liners. (Ben on Entertainment 720: “My guess is that they’ll be bankrupt by the end of… this sentence.” Ben on April and Andy’s marriage: “My Britta filter is older than their relationship. Oh my god. Should I change my Britta filter?”) Ben’s silent comedy is so priceless that there is a Tumblr specifically devoted to his facial expressions. Not only that, but he’s put into situations that comedic actors live for: He had three emotional meltdowns in the same episode, had a public spat with Leslie during a Model UN conference, and cried wearing a Batman suit.

The aftermath of his decision to stay with Leslie is still in the beginning stages as we close 2011, so there might be plenty more chances for Ben to move up a couple of spots when it comes time to do our 2012 Power Rankings. Maybe Game of Thrones will actually get canceled or something.

4. Ron Swanson

In terms of Parks and Recreation characters, Ron Swanson is by far the most overrated. He’s been the muse for beautiful fan art, fake Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors, and probably some pretty kinky fan fiction involving him and Tammy 2 (you’re on your own if you’re curious about that, no links here). There are a few fans who feel like Swanson is by far the most worthwhile character on the entire show. These people are entirely far off the mark.

That doesn’t mean that Swanson is not a brilliant presence in Pawnee City Hall. His political views skew toward 18th Century Libertarianism, which is basically founded on the principle that people should be left the fuck alone. He’s hyper-masculine, but not particularly macho; he’s been known to have a thing for strong women. He’s a red-blooded American man that eats red meat and breakfast food, often having meals upwards of six times a day. He makes piccolos in his wood shop. But then, there are the women he keeps himself company with.

After nearly laughing his girlfriend Wendy (Note: Wendy is also Tom’s ex-wife) out of the restaurant when she asked him to move to Canada with him early in Season 3, he got cozy with ex-wife/hellcat Tammy 2. (If you’re not incredibly familiar with the show– and you should be if you’re reading this– Ron has two ex-wives, both named Tammy. His mother name? Also Tammy). This ended with a stint in jail and Ron wearing a dirty kimono and cornrows. After Tammy 2 throws Tom (who she calls “Glen”) through a bookshelf in the library, Ron snaps out of it and carries Tom out of the library in his arms. Par for the course when dealing with Tammy 2.

Season 4 opens with Ron– 75% of his facial hair (and 100% of his eyebrows) burned off at the Li’l Sebastian memorial service– scattering through City Hall and telling Leslie he has accrued 278 vacation days, all because he saw his first ex-wife, Tammy 1, standing in his office. He eventually comes back from his cabin and shaves his beard, and then Tammy 1 gets a hold of him, turning him into a ten-year-old mama’s boy with a fascist drill sergeant for a mom. He shaves off his trademark mustache (one of the funnier parts of “Ron and Tammys” is when Leslie exclaims that Ron’s mustache “fell off”), and the women (at this point including Tammy Zero, Ron’s mom) engage in a “prairie drink-off” with a homemade corn liquor whose only legal purpose is the strip the varnish off of speedboats. Leslie has one sip and goes completely bonkers (it’s ALWAYS a delight to watch Leslie drunk, but the part with her holding the little Christian figurine is the best Leslie Knope drunk moment), and Ron finishes most of the jug himself to reaffirm his allegiance to the Parks Department. It was a significant moment in the relationship between Ron and Leslie, who are often misjudged as friendly adversaries. The truth is Ron cares for Leslie (and most of his coworkers) a great deal more than he lets on, and this was a moment where he proudly asserted his role as the dad of the Parks Department, calmly setting down his jug and saying, “This is my home.”

3. Andy Dwyer

Whenever you listen to Andy Dwyer– even just by looking at his face– it’s hard to cast anything his way but pure love, because that’s definitely what he gives to the people in his life. Andy is happy, he’s endlessly fun, and he’s completely guileless (except if you were Mark Brandanowicz in Season 2 or April’s Venezuelan fling Rodrigo early on in Season 3). He brings out your most positive qualities because he’s simply just a joy to be around. Sometimes his aim far outstrips his reach, and that’s why April frequently has to talk him from the ledge. But everything about Andy is gung-ho, so he’ll do things for you like jump behind the desk at the Eagleton Records Office and dash to get your birth certificate, even though he’s not entirely sure how to spell your last name.

Plus, Chris Pratt is like the Hope Diamond of improv comedians, using a ridiculous array of intuitive tricks to make every scene funnier (i.e. rushing to grab a Rolodex when Leslie asked for a calculator, making up an absurd name on the spot– “Uh, Tim. Tim Buckinowski.”– when Tammy 1 asked for his name, every appearance of his FBI agent alter-ego, Burt Macklin; honestly the list goes on for days). One of the great things about Parks and Rec is that it’s sometimes impossible to tell what is scripted and what is improvised, and among a cast full of world-class improv comics, Chris Pratt uses his instincts to make Andy one of the show’s funniest characters. Instincts. As in “completely on the spot.”

We’ve talked about how April’s influence has made Andy less of a man-child and how Andy has made April less cynical and more open to fun, but he’s also helped her believe in the concept of love. Whatever Andy and April do together, they do as a unit, with full adoration beaming from them, whether acting out a cell-phone-filmed action sequence or him simply holding her after sipping (and spitting out) the Swanson Family Moonshine. They’re in love, and Andy’s the one who showed April the possibilities of love. To repay him, she steals her father’s car and drives him to the Grand Canyon. True love is never a zero-sum game.

2. Tom Haverford

2011 was a very big year for Pawnee’s selfish, girl-crazy, unreasonably overconfident mini-mogul (emphasis on “mini”). Due to his friend Jean-Ralphio’s windfall, he was able to get that much closer to his wildest capitalistic dreams. Of course he failed miserably, but the short run of Entertainment 720 taught Tom a few life lessons in the way of using your ambition to get results. Sure, Tom is ridiculously unreliable, but he’s also driven and ambitious in a way very few young people are. And sure, he can use a meet-and-greet for Leslie Knope as a last-ditch beg for E720 clients, but he can also make a tribute video for her so touching that she, weeping, said she wanted playing on her tombstone.

In spite of losing his business, Tom had a phenomenal 2011, spending most of it hanging out in a converted airplane hangar, walking around in leopard-print loafers and shirts unbuttoned all the way down to there, and berating professional basketball players. Not to mention passing out free iPads and lounging in a chair with a roof. If that’s not the textbook definition of “living the dream,” then perhaps I’m grossly undereducated on the subject. I mean, what red-blooded human being would pass up the chance to talk down to NBA stars being paid to pass out shrimp cocktails? No friend of mine, that’s who.

Aziz Ansari has improved dramatically as a comedic actor, showing a depth in Season 4 that was almost entirely missing beforehand. A sign of the cocky kid growing up; it’ll be a delight to see what’s in store for him, and how he handles it.

1. Leslie Knope

I’m not sure if there’s a saying in television that goes, “Your show is only as good as your lead character.” But there should be. This is the person who you are staking your show’s success on; the things that make them entertaining as a character and human as a person are the currency for which your entire show will be judged. That character for Parks and Rec? It’s no surprise that Ben compared her to Michael Jordan in “Flu Season.” When the game’s on the line and you pass that goddamn ball to Leslie Knope, she’ll take it straight to the hole.

From a feminist perspective, Leslie Knope is one of the most inspiring characters in all of television. Between the “damsel in distress” female stereotypes peddled throughout the years– and especially in 2011 with shows like The New Girl and Whitney– it’s downright refreshing to see a character so ambitious, so gung-ho and take charge, and yet so friendly and compassionate. With Zooey Deschanel and Whitney Cummings fostering the negative side of female stereotypes– not to mention Tina Fey’s once-mighty Liz Lemon slipping into self-parody– it’s important to have a lead character like Leslie Knope. It’s important to see a woman in power be so focused, yet so human (read: flawed) at the same time.

Leslie spent her 2011 up, down, around, through, and across a relationship with Ben Wyatt. That story is a long and winding road. The important part is that after sneaking around for months and then deciding it wasn’t going to work out, they then re-decided that they wanted to be together, in spite of the rules against it what it could mean for Leslie’s campaign. If you are familiar with Leslie Knope, this is a big fucking deal.

It’s been said repeatedly that Leslie’s dream is to be a bigger part of the Pawnee government. Her efforts to improve her city and do the job she’s been given are tireless; in fact, I would venture to say “tireless” is a drastic understatement. So, to be approached to possibly run for city council– well, it’s what she’s been waiting her entire life for. But why would it come on the heels of her finding love? It came that way to test her values, to see which entity was more important to her: love or her career.

It has to be said that Ben was extremely supportive of her choice to run for city council; he made her a Knope 2012 button before she even broke the news to him. He knew it was a big step to her achieving her dreams, and so he stepped back and let her go for them. That’s love. And then, they tried to be friends but were both still very much in love with each other, and we all know how that sort of thing works out. So Leslie– and this is important, it wasn’t Ben, it was LESLIE– decided to throw caution to the wind, to forgo her dream job for the sake of her burgeoning romance. And she sat there and took her punishment honorably. This is not even grazing the possible effects from her campaign; this risk could end up being a career-killer for her. But ultimately, she chose what made her happiest. She chose the man she loves over Pawnee! This was a woman so hurt over the fact that she was born in Eagleton, she suggested that Voldermort was probably born there too! This is a big deal!

When you fill your life with true kindness, there is a certain type of both bravery and discipline you have to have. Leslie Knope has this in spades. She cares for her coworkers, friends, and her town very, very deeply, and it shows in everything she does, from the thoughtful Christmas presents she gives them (my personal favorite can be summed up with one quote: “These are the Black Eyed Peas, and I finally killed them.”), to the assignments that play to their strengths. Showrunner Michael Schur once said that he feels Leslie is like a single mom and Pawnee is her kid. Being a guy with a lot of sisters who have a lot of kids, it’s amazing when you can find someone who you love as much as your kid, someone who you are willing to take a big risk for– to possibly ruin the job you’ve been waiting your whole life for. Leslie found that person, and as entertaining and inspiring as she is as a character, I couldn’t be happier.

6 Responses to “The First-Annual Parks and Recreation Power Rankings!”

  1. Jeff December 30, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Good list. Good writing. Except you and I and Detlef and everybody else knows that Jean-Ralphio should have been number one.

  2. Martin Douglas December 30, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Roy Hibbert probably wouldn’t have liked that very much.

  3. Erin W December 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Someone loves this show as much as me! Yay! While I might quibble with your rankings (Donna should be higher–and does Ann really not crack the top ten?) I love the concept and by and large I love the pictures you chose. Super straw, Human Disaster, Chris reading the Jan Cooper Health Initiative posters! An enjoyable trip down memory lane. And now, off to rewatch the entire series on Hulu!

  4. aphroditemine December 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    Surely a list that ranks Chris Traeger (who I wanted to kill off on multiple occasions) and omits the solid, horribly underused, Ann Perkins illustrates something incredibly wrong with the world. I mean. Surely?!

  5. Martin Douglas December 30, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Erin: I assure you a lot of thought went into the photos I posted for each character. For Leslie, I wanted to do the Pawnee Today shot right before Joan’s “Gotcha” moment where it says, “Leslie Knope: Author, Immigrant,” but I figured two Pawnee Today shots would’ve been redundant and I couldn’t not do “Ben Wyatt: Human Disaster.”

    Aphrodite: Regarding Chris, he may have just squeaked in at Number 10 if not for “The Trial of Leslie Knope.” That was a really big episode for him, and, as I said in the post, a pivotal moment for the show.

    I kinda figured not including Ann would be a controversial decision, but this is strictly for performance in 2011. In Season 3, the most significant thing Ann did was get dumped. In Season 4, the most significant thing she did was help Ron fix things while dressed as an eggplant. Her contributions to the entire series are far greater, but the writers just hadn’t used her well this year. Plus, I’m afraid that she’s just not very interesting in general. But who knows? Maybe she’ll be Number 1 next year. Heh.


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