Leslie and Ben (played by Amy Poehler and Adam Scott) are also characters on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Currently in its fifth season, Parks and Rec joins Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arrested Development, and Friday Night Lights as another of those TV series over the years that cause me to pull out what’s left of my hair and wonder aloud why it’s not the massive ratings hit it deserves to be. Why aren’t people watching this great, funny, warm show? I’m looking specifically at you, people who live in flyover country. You’re always complaining about how you’re underrepresented in popular culture. Yet, in the past ten years, you’ve had two phenomenal series (Parks and Rec and Friday Night Lights) that not only represent you extremely well but are also among the all-time greats in American broadcasting. You turned your collective nose up to these great shows in favor of horrifying train wrecks like Duck Dynasty or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. If you’re not watching this gem of a show, one that’s always on the cancellation bubble, you should be, regardless of where you live. It’s the best comedy on TV at the moment.
Now that the scolding is out of the way, let’s talk about Ron Swanson.
Ron is Leslie’s boss at the Parks Department, and he’s the greatest character on current television. After watching the wedding episode last night, I am convinced that it’s Ron Swanson who’s truly the cornerstone of Parks and Recreation’s greatness.
Ron is the director of Pawnee’s Parks Department. He’s also a staunch libertarian who believes so completely in limited government he thinks the Parks Department should be privatized and run by Chuck E. Cheese’s. Ron intentionally hires people who will be bad at their jobs in order to slow the government down. He despises interacting with the public, even though this should be a vital part of his job. Ron at a public forum = comedy gold.
Ron is an extremely masculine guy, totally buying into the traditional idea of the stoic, emotionless male. By his own admission, Ron has only cried twice in his life, once when he was hit by a school bus at age seven. He loves meat, breakfast foods (“Give me all the bacon and eggs you have,” is one of his early catchphrases.), woodworking, whiskey, and the WNBA. Ron refuses to eat fish, calling it “nearly a vegetable.”
Ron is a man’s man in every conceivable way. Famously mustachioed, he can grow a lush, full beard in about 48 hours, and he uses a belt sander instead of toenail clippers because his nails are too thick. Ron has never had a hangover.
Ron is frequently hilarious, but, as played by the great Nick Offerman, he’s also very human. Offerman gives Ron a deadpan, monotone voice and very few visible emotional ticks, but it’s through the greatness of the performance that we can (just barely) see Ron’s emotions that are so deeply bottled up. It’s usually just something in his eyes, and it’s really terrific acting. Ron has a profound, older-brother respect for Leslie that’s always been the heart of the show. Leslie’s ideas about the role of government may be exactly the opposite of Ron’s, but they have a very Lou Grant/Mary Richards sort of mutual admiration. He hates government, but he gladly provided an “any damn thing you need” helping hand to Leslie’s City Council campaign.
The Parks writing staff has been having a field day with Ron of late, culminating with last night’s classic wedding episode. He’s been in a budding relationship with a single mom, played by Lucy Lawless. It’s nice to see Ron in a functional relationship since he’s twice divorced from two toxic ex-wives named Tammy. A couple of weeks ago, Ron was forced to go on local Pawnee television (Pawnee Today) to promote a fundraiser. But, when local TV host Joan Callamezzo (the always great Mo Collins) is too drunk to do the show, Ron took over, brilliantly. He answered all the callers’ questions, leading to the fall-down funny “any dog less than 50 pounds is a cat, and cats are pointless.”
Wedding episodes tend to tip over into sappy sentimentality quite easily. Hell, actual weddings usually tip over into sappy sentimentality quite easily. But, it turns out they don’t when Ron Swanson is walking the bride down the aisle. He wouldn’t stand for it. He spoke to Leslie in three simple, declarative sentences. “You are a wonderful person,” he said. “Your friendship means a lot to me. And, you look very beautiful.” The emotion was buried, but it was there. And, it was an extraordinary moment from an extraordinary show. The icing on the cake was Ron forging Ben and Leslie’s wedding rings from a sconce he ripped out of Anne’s wall; hilarious and lovely simultaneously.
Parks and Recreation is a show that is often gut-bustingly funny, but it aspires to have characters we genuinely feel warmly towards. After watching how Ron grounded last night’s wedding episode in honest truth rather than blathery sap, I suddenly realized he’s the linchpin that grounds the entire show. I always thought Ron was a tremendous character, brilliantly written and acted. But, it wasn’t until last night that I noticed how his clear-eyed honesty and lack of sentimentality have bled over into the rest of the show. Ron Swanson is the anchor than keeps the show from drifting. To a small audience, these are beloved characters precisely because they aren’t sentimentalized.
Parks and Recreation is never schmaltzy or maudlin. It’s deeply felt, just like Ron Swanson’s ever-so-bottled emotions. He had me at meat tornado.