Guest Contribution: Parks and Coping Mechanisms

Earlier this year I stumbled into a podcast called ‘The Hilarious World of Depression,’ and found solitude in hearing other people’s stories and how they coped with their strained mental health. Usually the guests were from the field of comedy, and aside from the ever hilarious Maria Bamford, the episode that captivated me most had NPR favorite Peter Sagal from the game show podcast ‘Wait Wait! Don’t Tell Me!’. It’s been almost 7 or 8 months since I’ve listened to this interview so I’m working off of my dysfunctional long-term memory, but at the time he planted the seeds for what has now become an established and heavily rooted coping mechanism for my own depression – NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation.’ There’s a lot of shows I tend to feel as if I’ve missed the boat on, and usually the feeling is a crossover of my own procrastination with my hesitancy to start a new show that already has a lengthy run of episodes in its library. Some shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Shameless’ still end up on my must-watch lists, even though I’ve already accepted the unsaid reality that I’ll (probably) never get around to watching them. Parks had been on this list for a while, with the numerous glowing recommendations from friends somehow weighing it down further in my mind as a chore I needed to tackle in the future. I’ll take this opportunity to apologize for two things:

  • I’m sorry, for when I say I’ll get around to watching something new it most likely means I’ll be watching something else I’ve already seen that I can depend on.
  • I am deeply ashamed it has taken me this long to watch and now appreciate P&R for everything it stands for and will always represent to me

I believe it took me less that two weeks to steamroll through the entire seven seasons, and then immediately double back to do it all over again. At this point in time, several months after my first run, I will shamelessly admit I’ve seen the show at least five times completely through not including random spurts of episodes when I need a fix. #PraiseBeForNetflix

There’s too many reasons to count for the show’s success, though largely it’s the cast of characters who are so well written and fleshed out that it’s difficult for me not to love every single one of them (except perhaps Tom until later seasons when he drops his whiny demeanor). I do believe the show deserves additional praise for maintaining its consistent positive energy while still tackling real topics like mental health. I could argue that every character on the show goes through episodes of sadness, but three characters have made open admissions of struggling with depression: Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer, Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger, and Adam Driver’s Ben Wyatt. They also do a great job of showing how multi-faceted depression can be, the ways it can come to the surface and the methods the characters choose to deal with it.


 

Andy Dwyer is the lead singer of MouseRat, an FBI agent, beloved children’s character Johnny Karate, and makes the best grilled cheese sandwich in the world.

Andy’s depression is a pretty classic scenario; his feelings of defeat after failing his police officer test result in his glowing energy to be sucked dry. His depression episode is the shortest, but he describes the feelings perfectly: “Oh I’m fine. It’s just that life is pointless and nothing matters and I’m always tired. Also I can’t sleep, I’m overeating, and none of my old hobbies interest me.” The solution Ben and his wife April come up with is to allow Andy to help select a new charity project for Ben to work on, which eventually evolves into Ben hiring Andy to work with him as his idea man and raise his spirits.


 

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Enter a Chris Traeger is a former city manager who married beautiful, tropical fish Ann Perkins. He loves post-it notes, spandex, and will live to be 150 years old.

Chris’s depression is more tied into his love life and gets the most screentime, and the juxtaposition of his depression and loneliness with his overflowing optimism create a lot of comedic moments. He struggles the most with his loneliness and isolation but almost every member of the parks department has a hand in helping him along his path to betterment.


 

Ben Wyatt-Knope is a Game of Thrones enthusiast, Calzone fanatic, and the creator of Cones of Dunshire. He possesses a slight but powerful body.

Ben’s depression is a little more nuanced; We are first introduced to it when he’s invited along to Treat Yo Self day with Donna and Tom and learns to embrace his self-care. Later he resigns from his government position, and he interviews around but feels a lack of any passion for the positions he’s being considered for. During the episode ‘The Comeback Kid’ (my ABSOLUTE favorite), Ben is shown at home exploring different hobbies but his physical appearance doesn’t reflect the enthusiasm in his voice. His longtime friend Chris comes to visit him, immediately recognizing Ben as “massively depressed,” and brings Ben face to face with his assessment. Ben denounces it outright, but as Chris calms him and talks him through the signs he picked up on it pushes Ben to acknowledge and accept his depression so that he can get better.


Being an american sitcom, the show does its best to offer solutions to these true to life situations and it’s generally successfully. Of course it’s hard to insert mundane things like doctor’s visits, medication or therapy into a comedy but what the show instead promotes is the power of friends who care. I laugh and cry and smile so many times throughout the series of Leslie’s adventures, but what brings me around time and time again is the compassion that all of the characters have for one another. Most sitcoms follow the one or two episode resolution to conflicts, and while that still rings true for P&R it can’t be denied that the way that this cast comes together to show their love and loyalty for each other features more prominently than any other. It really drives home the lesson that if all else fails, just being there for the person you care for can be the greatest thing you can ever do for them.

I wanted to write this piece now as a testament to my own experience watching the show. The past couple weeks have been some of the crummiest I’ve ever dealt with as I struggle with my own depression, and this show is one of the few things I can consistently rely on to keep me going when i’m at my lowest. I’m not trying to delegitimize other treatments, as I do medicate and go to therapy myself, but sometimes they’re not enough and I happily endorse this show as one of the ways I keep myself sane. If you know someone with depression, just checking in on them as often as you can will do wonders; and if you yourself struggle with depression, or just need a damn good show to watch, do yourself a favor and treat yo self!

 

Editor’s note:

Eric Smith is a delightfully nerdy guy from Michigan with an incredible taste and an amazing beard. Funny, thoughtful, and incredibly political, he has a voice that is necessary and valued by this humble blogger.

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