I’m a sucker for love. While others may sit with bated breath as a character suits up for battle, the most exciting moment for me is a profession of love. The most daring thing a person can do is put their heart on the line. I am the audience member every television executive refers to when they force unnecessary attraction upon two characters. The showrunner may prefer to keep them platonic, but they can’t because there’s me, on my couch, desperately wondering if these two attractive people will, or if they won’t.
Among a swath of shows that highlight the gruesome nature of the world, Parks and Recreation has always been the exception. It has always been a comedy with heart, unafraid to sacrifice a joke for something sweeter and, despite its premise revolving around the divisive subject of politics, Michael Schur’s show, time and again, delivered episode after episode that instilled hope in those who spent their Thursday (and then Tuesday) evenings in southern Indiana. At the center has been its very own political power couple, Ben and Leslie, who will remain the gold standard for television relationships.
Sitcoms often struggle with relationships. Whole shows are being piloted and produced based solely on the concept of romance, and few are making ripples, let alone waves. Many are able to build interesting relationships and captivating stories around the concept of two characters perfect for each other kept apart, but the ultimate destination is often never as good as the journey. For all the excitement that comes from longing looks, subtle hints and the eventual first kiss, there is often a multitude of boredom on the other side. Even this generation’s idyllic lovebirds, Jim and Pam, failed to reach the heights of Jim’s tearful profession in “Casino Night,” and Pam’s tearful asking “What was the question?” in “The Job” once they were finally together. On New Girl the pairing of Nick and Jess, who are so often volatile with one another, proved to be volatile to the show itself, completely derailing its third season. This is not uncommon. In fact, this happens so often that it’s become a de facto rule among many TV critics and fans to avoid coupling up.
It certainly helped that Adam Scott joined the cast just as the show was finding its groove in Season Two, but, from the beginning, Ben and Leslie’s romance has been handled (and presented) almost flawlessly. It was never rushed, instead withheld to a point that brushed infuriation, without fully enraging those of us rooting for them. This gave the characters time to become friends, and allowed Scott and Amy Poehler to develop superb chemistry, which helped immensely in the long run. In her book, Yes Please (a must-read for any Parks fan), Poehler notes Scott’s importance, saying, “The fact that people cared about our TV love story is because Adam is a tremendous actor; he listens intently and always makes me better. Ben-and-Leslie scenes were exciting and nerve-racking to shoot because we all cared so much about making them work.” That care is evident in every scene that Poehler and Scott shared together, the two are so clearly in sync. While there was no shortage of exasperation in the time before Ben and Leslie were officially together, it was in the aftermath that Parks truly shined.
Romantic bliss doesn’t easily translate into compelling television. That’s where writing staffs have to get creative, but many shows have failed to keep the magic alive once the honeymoon phase ended, for numerous reasons. Chief among them is what I refer to as the magnet syndrome. This is the oversight by writers to recognize that their characters, who have a magnetic attraction to one another, can exist outside the relationship. Thus, the two characters end up constantly together, with storylines that revolve around different aspects of their life as a couple. This is what afflicted New Girl’s third season, in which multiple episodes pertained to Nick and Jess and the various hurdles they faced in their fledgling relationship, effectively ruining the ensemble chemistry the show was built on.
Parks and Rec never fell victim to the magnet syndrome, thanks in part to the fact that its lovebirds were both level-headed, career focused and highly determined individuals, but also thanks to the writers’ trust that they could keep the love burning while allowing the characters to explore other stories. Save for the series’ fourth season, which dealt largely with the relationship as Leslie ran for City Council, Parks and Recreation has done a brilliant job creating stories for Ben and Leslie that don’t necessarily involve their better half. Take a recent episode, “William Henry Harrison.” The fact that the two are married is never lost, it’s even brought up multiple times as Ben tries to get both his wife and Ron to sign a document, but it’s never allowed to dominate the episode. In lesser hands, the storyline could have easily devolved into Leslie becoming angered over the fact that Ben wasn’t supporting her, because he chose to remain impartial due to his standing as City Manager. Instead, it focused on the real issue at hand: Ron and Leslie, two friends who had fallen out and needed to put their friendship back together.
This isn’t to say that Ben and Leslie’s relationship didn’t get the proper attention it deserved. The reason the writers were able to send both characters out on their own adventures was because they peppered in numerous moments that furthered television’s most heartwarming love story along the way. And when the time came to focus on Pawnee’s number one couple, the writers simply knocked it out of the park. There’s a reason why Season Four was the apex of this great comedy’s run. A lot of it had to do with Leslie’s journey toward public office, culminating in several unforgettable moments and one spectacular season finale (“Win, Lose or Draw”), but it also had a lot to do with the fact that she was taking that journey with her soulmate. Leslie never needed a partner. She could have gone on with just the help of her friends, could have won the City Council seat without being in love with her campaign manager, because she’s a strong, independent, bull-headed woman who never quits. She didn’t need a partner, but she deserved one. Lucky for her, the man behind the show had a penchant for love.
Mike Schur was a veteran of SNL and The Office by the time he got to helm his own show in 2009. He is a wickedly funny writer who penned some of the best episodes The Office ever aired, including “Office Olympics,” “Christmas Party” and “Traveling Salesman.” But, he’s also like me: a sucker for love. In Yes Please we learn that Schur was inspired by the British incarnation of The Office, and its two lovers, Dawn and Tim. “The moment Dawn returned to the office and kissed Tim I jumped out of my chair and involuntarily thrust my hands in the air, like my team had won the Super Bowl,” he writes. “I remember thinking that I wanted to write something someday that would make people feel that good. Many of the romantic and emotional storylines on Parks and Rec have been my attempt—my and the other writers’ attempt, I should say—to reach that bar.” Grantland’s Andy Greenwald once smartly said that “sometimes the best comedies don’t have to be funny at all,” and no one understands this more than Schur. He wrote the moment Greenwald was referring to (Jim asking Pam if she was free for dinner at the end of The Office’s Season Three finale, “The Job”), and he wrote many more for Ben and Leslie. Greenwald lists that scene on The Office as one of the perfect television moments in his lifetime. I can’t, and won’t, argue with that, but I will say that Schur was only getting started. Six years later, he would pen “Leslie and Ben,” which would give us another entirely perfect television moment:
Those vows, topped with the image of Leslie and Ben sitting in front of the wildflower mural in City Hall laughing together, so wholly in love and absorbed with one another, is as perfect a moment as there will ever be on a television program.
Last month, the venerable Linda Holmes wrote that Parks and Rec’s greatest love story was the friendship between Leslie and Ron. While I try not to make it a habit of disagreeing with Holmes, who is so often enlightening, here I have no choice. Though the pieces were coming together by the middle of Parks and Rec’s second season, there was still something missing. The addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott at the end of that season not only legitimized the comedy, but, particularly in the case of Scott, gave Mike Schur the tools he needed to give his show its heart. In the five seasons that followed, Parks and Rec would become, not only one of the funniest shows on television, but also one of the most heartwarming. This was thanks in no small part to the couple at its center, which quickly became, and will remain, the standard-bearer for television couples.
?It’s hard to say goodbye to this show, which aired its beautiful, heartbreaking and, ultimately, uplifting final episode earlier this week. But instead of focusing on the end, let’s remember the reasons we loved it at all. For me, there’s no reason higher than Leslie and Ben. And so, for all of us who have marveled for years at their story, I’d like to say: Ben and Leslie, I love you and I like you.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.