For a show with a woman as its protagonist, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” has a lot to say about being a modern man.
The sitcom, which began life as a spinoff of “The Office,” has survived six seasons and seems poised for a seventh. The show has battled low ratings and annual questions about renewal throughout its run.
Although Amy Poehler shines as the show’s leading lady, former city councilwoman Leslie Knope, through its kaleidoscope of male characters, it shows the many shades of the modern man and masculinity.
While many bask in the alpha male glory of Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, the show offers a hodgepodge of male archetypes, from Swanson, who tends toward classic male traits, to thirtysomething man-child Andy Dwyer, played by Chris Pratt.
Where it makes them compelling is the details. Swanson, a woodworking, libertarian carnivore with an avowed aversion to displays of affection and hard work, is not given to the audience as a bulldozing tank of manliness. He did win Indiana Woman of the Year once, after all.
For all of Swanson’s old-school testosterone, he shrinks in the company of a self-possessed woman. Of his two ex-wives named Tammy, one turns him into a sex-crazed maniac while the other regresses him to an eager-to-please boy.
He enjoys working with Knope, a take-charge politician who aspires to prominent political heights. The two are often at opposite ends of the spectrum, but also share the sweetness of siblings.
Also unlike Swanson is Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger, an effervescent health nut. The two faced situations which should end disastrously, but managed to find a happy medium, such as wager over managerial skills in which the only clear winner was Dwyer’s wife, April.
The show refuses to elevate Traeger or Swanson over the other, giving both of them opportunities to be the butt of the joke as well as the victor.
Another ongoing commentary on manliness is Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford, a chic entrepreneur who is sometimes as overeager in business as he is in pursuing women. Though often oppressive in his flirting and misguided as a businessman, Haverford has grown and shown maturity in later seasons, opening a profitable clothes rental business and dating a doctor.
Even Jim O’Heir’s Jerry Gergich, the lightning rod for his colleagues’ electric zingers, is given moments of sweet redemption, such as the touching reveal that he absorbs their charges because he values his home life much more.
While there are cartoonish moments for them all, Knope’s husband, Ben Wyatt, played by Adam Scott, tends to feel the most down to earth and realistic.
Wyatt is perhaps the show’s most well-developed man because, while he fits comfortably inside of Knope’s universe, he also has his own ambitions, directions and purpose. He doesn’t bend to his wife’s every whim and she doesn’t bend to his. He’s dealt with difficulty in his career – a disastrous, town-bankrupting turn as mayor in Minnesota at age 18 – but learned to mature, compromise and progress as a politician and a person.
Because Wyatt and Knope demonstrate each other’s strengths as well as weaknesses, it explains why they’re often the show’s healthiest relationship, although the Dwyers also make an unusual but adorable, loving pair.
Wyatt, Swanson, Traeger, Dwyer, Gergich and Haverford make the show’s take on masculinity less about filling a prescribed role than about simply being oneself. More than anything, that is the emotional truth of the array of men on “Parks and Recreation.”
Because it does such great creative service to all of its men, showing them as flawed as well as triumphant, it never holds any one above the others for long, underscoring that no one is greater than another, just different.
It may not be the most complicated of insights, but like the show’s point about being true to oneself, at least it’s genuine.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.