Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass Part 2 – Ann Perkins

Welcome to part two of our Parks and Recreation character analysis. This week we discuss the development of Ann Perkins.

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Ann Perkins is a character who undergoes some immense changes throughout Parks and Recreation’s run. When we first meet her in season one, Ann is a disgruntled townsperson who wants the pit in the lot at the back of her house filled in. She’s working overtime as a nurse to support herself and her boyfriend Andy, who broke both of his legs when he fell in the pit.

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Leslie goes into overdrive when presented with a new project. Reluctant at first, Ann is swept into Leslie’s wake. In her rare free time, Ann helps Leslie canvas the neighbourhood and raise funds to turn the pit into a park. The disruption to her routine and the addition of a positive influence in Leslie causes Ann to finally realise what the viewer already knows; that Andy is selfish and lazy and needs to go. She finally kicks him out when she learns that he lied to her about his legs still being broken so he wouldn’t have to get a job. Ann’s strength and self-esteem grow exponentially after she befriends Leslie, because Leslie’s main pleasures come from helping and encouraging the people she loves.

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The keen observer will notice an odd trend throughout the first four seasons; Anne mimics whoever she’s dating. You don’t see it when she starts seeing Mark, but when she dates fitness freak Chris she spends a lot of time exercising and talking about vitamin supplements. She even takes on some of his personal mannerisms, such as when they go out to dinner:

Chris: “I would like a local beer. I’d like it in a bottle. I’d like the bottle to be cold.”

Ann: “I would like a glass of white wine. I would like it to be chardonnay, and I would like that with one ice cube, thanks.”

They decide to really play this up in later seasons, even going as far as putting Ann in cowgirl outfits for an entire episode when she’s dating a rodeo rider.

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This tendency to ‘morph’ into one’s partner is more common than you might think, and can stem from three major relationship issues – one partner could be domineering and passively demanding that the other conform to their style and world-view, causing a loss of independence (plenty of people have gone through something like this, usually in youthful relationships). It could be because one partner has low self-esteem and are eager to please, becoming immersed in the other’s hobbies in order to keep them interested. Or it might be because they have nothing in common and one partner is trying to compensate. In Ann’s case it’s the latter, and Leslie has the good grace to call her on it.

When Ann finally does settle down it’s in a relatively unconventional way – she decides she wants to have a child and starts looking for a donor. She decides on Chris because they are still relatively good friends and he is a very healthy physical specimen, and he agrees to be an involved parent with her. They start with IVF, but wind up developing feelings for each other and Ann falls pregnant the old fashioned way. By this point, Ann is self-possessed and confident enough that she doesn’t feel she needs to change who she is to keep Chris around. When they have problems she can actually talk to him about them, something she always shied away from in the past.

In true Parks and Recreation fashion, Anne’s character transformation is not limited to romantic relationships. She grows as a friend and professionally, and this is mostly because of her increasing confidence. Of course, it’s hard not to have improved confidence when you have a friend who calls you a “beautiful tropical fish” and “the best nurse in the world.”

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Ann goes to great lengths to get closer to April, possibly because April starts off despising her so much. April has always been a misanthrope, but her dislike of Ann stems from her jealousy of Ann’s dating Andy. Then, just as it looks like April and Andy are getting together, Ann kissed him.

 

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“This slutty nurse is trying to kill me! Stay back, slut!”

 

So we begin season three, and a few episodes in the flu sweeps the town of Pawnee, and April is hospitalised. Ann is her nurse. It’s not pretty. Still, April warms up to Ann over season four, and their friendship is really expanded upon in season five. When April reveals that she wants to study veterinary medicine, Ann goes with her to a college open day in Bloomington. April decides then and there that it’s not for her, and Ann expresses her disappointment that April would pike out so easily. The viewer expects April to be convinced to give it a try, but instead we’re treated to something better: April teaching Ann how to trust her gut.

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Ann: Can we please talk about what happened back there?

April: What, Ann? I just stole your phone and texted every guy in it that the baby was theirs. It’s not that big of a deal.

Ann: Listen, I know you don’t believe this, but I care about your future, and I’m just a little disappointed that you’re just not following through with this.

April: Yeah, it’s not about following through, okay? I was on the fence about whether I wanted to do it, and as soon as I got there, I just had a gut feeling that it wasn’t right for me, that’s all.

Ann: So, just like that, boom–huge life decision made?

April: That’s how I make all my life decisions. My gut is always right, okay? It was right about marrying Andy, and it was right when it told me that you would be the worst person I would ever meet in my life. And I’ve met Guy Fieri, Ann.

Ann: [Chuckles] So gross! How do you get your gut to talk to you? You don’t get your gut to talk to you.

April: You just listen when it says something.

Ann: Well, right now my gut is saying that we are going to listen to Mariah Carey the whole way home.

 

Later in this episode Ann goes with her gut and talks with Chris about moving somewhere else to raise their baby.

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More than anything else, Parks and Recreation is about friendships, particularly between women. Ann learns and grows with the help of the entire cast, and she helps them in turn. Donna gives her plenty of practical dating advice, Ron teaches her practical skills (during a Halloween house party, no less), and of course Leslie teaches her what it means to have a true, trusting friend.

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Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass Part 1 – Leslie Knope

Parks and Recreation is the show I watch when I’m having a lousy day…or week. It never fails to cheer me up, especially from season three onward. I think this is due to a number of reasons – a cast of well-rounded characters, witty scripts, a cheery theme song and brilliant character actors.

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The show follows Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the deputy head of Parks and Recreation, a mid-level government department in the city council of her home town, Pawnee Indiana. Her relatively low-level job belies her ambition; it’s clear from the outset that she wants to rise high in politics. Unlike a lot of ambitious people, however, Leslie genuinely wants make the world a better place. She cares deeply about her town and is hugely enthusiastic about her job. She is a fantastic example of a strong female character – she’s not necessarily physically strong, and she has some definite character flaws, but her strength comes from her determination and from how much she cares about the people around her.

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Leslie’s character transformation is subtle but immense. She remains ambitious, generous and kind, as well as obsessive, but she learns to focus that obsessive positivity into more productive areas.

The first series involves Leslie fighting tooth and nail to achieve something that should be relatively simple – to turn a dangerous pit into a park. The pit is brought to her attention by Ann Perkins (Radisha Jones), a local nurse whose house is right in front of the pit. Ann’s boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), fell into the pit and broke both of his legs. Leslie and Ann work together to make the park a reality, and while they don’t succeed for several seasons they do become firm friends. Leslie also has a huge crush on Mark, the city planner.

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Season one is relatively short, and is really like one long pilot episode. Season two moves things along by having Leslie move on from Mark and start dating other people, but her love life takes more of a back seat. Instead, the show focuses on her new friendship with Ann, who acts as a support and also helps to keep Leslie grounded and focused. Leslie becomes closer to her co-workers as the show progresses, but Ann is her one real confidant. This close friendship between two women is relatively rare to see on TV – even rarer that they spend plenty of time talking about issues other than men (although they do discuss the men in their lives). Parks and Rec manages to tread the very fine line between “too much” and “not enough” romantic intrigue, and focusing on other interpersonal relationships is a huge part of this dynamic, as is the focus on Leslie’s career.

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In the very first episode of season two she holds a wedding for two penguins at the zoo, who turn out to be male penguins, and has to fight against a right-wing Christian group who demand her head on a platter. She says in this episode that as a government worker she doesn’t want to take sides on any issues, but by the end Leslie learns that people will make their minds up about you anyway. In the episode Beauty Pageant, Leslie is a judge for Miss Pawnee, and is determined that the award go to the contestant who is smart and dedicated as well as pretty, firmly taking a pro-feminist stand. Unfortunately, the prize goes to the contestant that the other judges dub “the hot one.”

Having characters who don’t always get what they want is crucial to their growth; later in season two Leslie tries to prevent a historical monument from being torn down and ultimately fails. Leslie doesn’t let these moments of defeat define who she is; she picks herself up with the help of her friends, eats some waffles, then goes back to tilting at windmills. She teaches us that you can only win if you get back in the game, something that so many of us forget – myself included.

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At the end of season two, we learn that the city budget has been massively mismanaged and we are introduced to two government auditors, Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) who are there to slash and burn. Leslie tries desperately to save the jobs of everyone in her department and comes up with a viable plan…until Ben and Chris inform her that the entire government needs to be shut down while the mess is sorted out. Leslie is deemed “non-essential staff,” but that doesn’t stop her from trying to do her job. She manages to gather several volunteers to put on a kids concert that had previously been cancelled due to the shut-down. It’s no coincidence that when Leslie succeeds it’s because she asks her friends for help – this trait reminds us that when you take the time to care for your friends they will take the time to care for you (and they can usually tell when you’re being disingenuous, so don’t try to fake being nice to people so they’ll do what you want. A person I used to work with did that… it went down like lumpy milk).

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In season three she succeeds in staging the Harvest Festival, in season four she runs a campaign for city council. In season five she manages to pass a series of city council bills, despite huge political backlash and sniping. She achieves all of these things because of her own determination and because her friends want to help her. And they want to help her because she makes time for them. For Ron’s birthday she creates the perfect dinner for him to eat by himself because he hates people and loves meat and whisky. She later brings him with her to England and sends him on a scavenger hunt that leads him to a remote scotch distillery – his idea of heaven.

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She backs Tom in all of his insane business ventures, including promoting Snake Juice, his high-end liqueur that gets the entire club absolutely wasted. She uses his company, Entertainment 720 to run her campaign for councillor – he completely blows it and the company goes bankrupt, but that was his own fault.

She constantly tries to encourage April to be enthusiastic and get involved with the community, something which doesn’t properly sink in for a few seasons because April is a determined misanthrope.

Leslie Knope is a sensational friend.

In the initial seasons, we see that Leslie will go to any lengths to achieve her goals. In season five she concedes that she needs to cut back on work hours in order to devote more time to the campaign – this is a huge step for someone who loves her job and cares as much as she does.

In season six she makes a huge decision – to put other people’s rights ahead of her own interest. By the end of season five Leslie has made many sensible, and therefore unpopular, changes to Pawnee legislature. So now she’s facing a recall election. While this is happening, their rival neighbouring town of Eagleton has gone bankrupt and needs to be incorporated into Pawnee. As much as Leslie despises Eagleton, she campaigns to incorporate the two towns so that a whole bunch of people can keep their jobs. As unpopular as this makes her with her home constituents, she does it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. The only upside for her is that she now has hundreds of new citizens who see her as a saviour and will vote for her in the recall election.

Except, there’s this guy.

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Jamm. He’s one of Leslie’s fellow councilmen, and he’s worse than a cockroach. Anyway, he tries to pass a bill that says only people with official Pawnee addresses will get to vote in the election, and Leslie has no choice but to filibuster while wearing roller skates (for my Australian readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of a filibuster and have never seen “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”, link here. The last Australian filibuster was in 1918, after which they passed a law limiting speech times to twenty minutes).

Toward the end of her filibuster, Ben informs Leslie that the Eagletonians won’t be voting for her in the recall election as they wish to elect someone who will represent their own interests.

Leslie: I’m not going to yield. I need some time to think, and because I must keep talking I’m going to think out loud. Okay… if Eagletonians vote for someone else, then it would be in my best interests to stop, right? So they can’t vote.

Jamm: A-doy! Yield!

Leslie: Or I keep going, because the right to vote is fundamental in any democracy and this is bigger than me, or anyone. I don’t care if I lose. No-one prevents people in my town from voting. Not on my watch. The filibuster is on!

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This move means that Leslie ultimately loses the recall election, but she couldn’t live with herself otherwise. This is a big difference to the tunnel-visioned Leslie of season one.

Toward the end of this season, one of the other council members is exposed in his umpteenth sex scandal and finally steps down. Leslie wants to run for council again, and her now husband Ben does exactly the right thing to convince her otherwise – he calls in the political consultant who helped to nearly beat Leslie in the original election.

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Ben: You know, I’ve been thinking for weeks of what to get you as a “last day in city council” present, and I finally figured it out. You remember Jen Barclay, political consultant and powerbroker?

(…)

Leslie: So they recall me, after all I’ve done for them.

Jen: That’s ridiculous.

Leslie: But Dexheart now has another sex scandal –

Jen: Of course he does.

Leslie: -and the plan is I’m going to run for his seat, because how do I lose to a guy like that? It’s a great idea, right?

Jen: It’s a terrible idea.

Leslie: I knew it! Wait, what?

Jen: First of all, you could lose to a guy like that. Terrible people defeat great people all the time. I should know; those terrible people have paid me so much money that I have a condo on every virgin island. Now, you might win. You’re smart, Ben is smart, you might win. But why would you want to?

Leslie: Because it’s my dream job.

Jen: Then dream bigger. Look, you love this town, it’s being run by monsters and morons? Get a better job! Rise above their heads! Affect change at a higher level! Don’t be the kid that graduates high school and hangs out in the school parking lot! Be the woman who moves away, climbs the ladder and then confidently comes back and has sex with her hot old English teacher just for kicks!

Leslie:… is that what you did?

Jen: Yeah. Mr Baker. Sex was pretty good, thanks to me. Look, Pawnee has done you a favour. You’ve outgrown them. You’ve got talent, you’ve got name recognition, which means you have a bright, wide-open future with a thousand options! State senate, federal jobs, even congress. All of these are do-able for you. And trust me, because I don’t care enough about you to lie.

 

Leslie takes Jen’s advice. She realises that as much as she loves her town, and loves getting her hands dirty by affecting change on a micro level, there is no way that she can make the kind of difference she wants to make by staying in her home town. As much as she loves Pawnee, she needs to move on.

Which brings me to my final point – Ben and Leslie. So many TV show writes bring in romantic interests as comic foils, as incomplete people who are finally complete when they find “the one” in the protagonist. That is not Ben and Leslie – they work so well because they are both complete characters already. They also have enough in common that it’s not weird that they’re together (ie: the Odd Couple trope), and they have enough differences and personal problems that the other can get to know them. Another trope that irks is when one fails to change the other – Ben first starts to fall for Leslie when he sees her give a perfect speech while she’s delirious from flu, he doesn’t try and change who she is.

Ben and Leslie are also immensely supportive of each other, and they are constantly trying to help each other achieve their dreams. Ben resigns his job so that Leslie can run for council and still be in a relationship with him. He then runs her election campaign. After the campaign he is headhunted by Jen Barclay to work on a congressional campaign and spend six months in Washington, and as much as Leslie will miss him she tells him to go for it. He then gets a job working for Sweetums, a company which is trying to get Leslie recalled, and they still make it work… until she accidentally gets him fired. But then he takes a job as city manager, so it all works out. Ben does make the odd sacrifice to be with Leslie, such as only working on the one congressional campaign rather than taking up another one, but it’s a welcome change from what we’re used to seeing, which is usually the woman giving up her own dreams or begging her man not to pursue his.

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There is so much more that I could say about Leslie, but I don’t have the space in this blog. Her character shies away from the usual female clichés and instead creates someone that people can admire, despite her flaws. She makes me want to be a better friend, a better writer and a better me.

There will be more Parks and Rec talk next week. Until then, go catch your dreams.

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Goodbye, Ziggy.

I was going to write a post about Parks and Recreation today. But I can’t. Because someone I truly admire died yesterday.

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I know it’s hugely self-indulgent to write about how one who affected so many influenced me personally, although we had never met. But this is my blog, and I can do what I like. If I can’t be self-indulgent here, where can I?

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When the news of David Bowie’s passing popped up on my news feed I was convinced it was a hoax. I went back to playing a video game, annoyed that someone would actually find this kind of trickery funny. It stuck in the back of my mind, though, and I went back to the internet with some trepidation. As more and more confirmation rolled in over the next forty-five minutes I tried desperately to remain in denial. He’d just released an album, for goodness sakes! Web sites can be hacked, Facebook pages exploited. I finally messaged my partner to see if he’d heard the news. He was convinced that I’d  made a typo. And, because nothing is really real to me until I tell him about it, I finally buried my face in the lounge room rug and wept.

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Like many, I became properly appreciative of David Bowie in my teens. I’m a sucker for incredible guitar playing – I was and always will be a devotee of music played with instruments, call me a snob if you will. Bowie had been one of those musicians of my parent’s generation, and it wasn’t until I raided their CD collection so I could digitally transfer the cream of the crop onto my MP3 player that I properly started to appreciate Bowie. It began with Changes, his best-of, but I soon started listening to his entire discography.

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A rare first edition of the Diamond Dogs album, before his junk was airbrushed out for subsequent releases.

 

During VCE English, our assigned reading was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our School Assessed Coursework for the unit was to sit an essay test about the book where we could pick the topic, as long as it related closely to the text. I decided to research how the novel had affected modern culture, and lo and behold, I discovered that Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs was a concept piece based on Orwell’s work.  It’s pretty obvious when you look at the song titles and lyrics – Diamond Dogs is the same story distilled to its essence, with additional Bowie flair. He had originally planned to write a musical based on the book, but Orwell’s estate denied him the rights. So instead we have an album that begins with an introductory track, Future Legend, that describes a post-apocalyptic world. Then follows the titular track Diamond Dogs, which introduces the main character Halloween Jack (long before Nightmare Before Christmas) who lives on top of Manhattan Chase, placing the work in New York City. It also introduces the Diamond Dogs, gangs of mutated punks who hunt in packs, Todd Browning’s Freaks you was,” referring to the film Freaks.

Sweet Thing and Candidate are the story of love in a city ruled by the Diamond Dogs, beautiful and perilous.  Rebel Rebel is a rocking interlude, a classic rock song that Bowie wrote because he knew the style would piss off Mick Jagger (indeed, the opening notes could be easily mistaken for a Stones number). We then get into Rock and Roll With Me, We Are the Dead, 1984, and Big Brother,  when we realised just how doomed Jack and his lover really are. Finally, the Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family ends the album with a jaunty tune that suddenly becomes eerie and creepy as the first syllable of “brother” is repeated over and over. Underneath all of Bowie’s jaunty radio-friendly hits was work that was intrigued with the idea of isolation, doom and destruction.

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From there I went back and listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, arguably one of Bowie’s most well-known works, and listened to the story of a rock star from space who came to bring a message to the people of earth, who have only five years left to live before the earth died. He was a bi-sexual, drug-taking, promiscuous messenger who delivered hope, peace and love who was destroyed by his own creativity.

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From there I delved into Aladdin Sane, back to Hunky Dory and forward to Let’s Dance. I marvelled at the way Bowie adapted his look and sound – rather than remain stagnant in the glam era he kept trying new sounds, new techniques, and new costumes. He was constantly reaching new generations of fans, particularly teens who were unsure of who they were. He was a safe shelter for misfits everywhere, and he collaborated with other artists that misfits related to – The Rolling Stones, Queen, Tina Turner, Trent Reznor, Placebo and Lou Reed. Here was a man who cross-dressed on and off stage, who flouted conventional ideas around sexuality and gender, who’s music told you that it was okay to be weird. As an adult who works in a creative space, originality and weirdness is generally praised, but being creative and weird as a teenager gets you ostracised. Bowie taught me not to just accept my weirdness, but to embrace it, and to wear it as a badge of honour. He taught me that story-telling could be anything you want it to be, and how to write symbolism. Even now, I listen to his lyrics and find new meaning. I suspect I always will. His music never fails to provide me with inspiration.

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He released his last album, Blackstar, just a few days ago. Just as the world was starting to listen and attempt to decipher meaning, he died. And the album took on a whole new meaning just two days after its release.

According to Bowie’s producer, Lazarus was intended as an epitaph, and Blackstar as a swan song – Bowie’s last gift to his fans. The imagery of a black star, of a brightly burning light that has finally gone out.  The video’s released for the title track and Lazarus now, in context, are like watching him plan his own funeral. The video for Blackstar shows an alien woman discovering the dead body of an astronaut, and taking his jewel-encrusted skull back to a nearby, ancient-looking town to perform a funeral rite. To me, this is the final end of Ziggy, or even Major Tom. Hell, Bowie was both and more, wasn’t he?

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I could go into talking more about his work and symbolism, about Major Tom and the Thin White Duke, and all of his other characters. But the discovery of Bowie’s work is a journey that one needs to undertake on their own, and it’s one that will never really end. David Bowie was an incredible musician, yes. But for me he will always be the ultimate story-teller, a bard who tells tales straight from the imagination.

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 Finally, if any of you reading this are Bowie fans who haven’t seen Venture Brothers, do it. There are more references to his work than you can shake a stick at, and I giggle every time I hear, “Changes One! I love that album!” “Can you be a bigger poser? Changes was a best-of!”  He also jumps into battle yelling, “Make way for the homo superior!” You’ll love it.

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