Pawnee, Indiana has become such a richly developed, bizarre place that it's hard to imagine you'd miss two measly people. But yesterday's news that Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones would both be leaving Parks & Recreation still came as a nasty shock. Ann Perkins! Chris Traeger! The two most attractive characters on the show, who were just coming back around to a relationship with each other, were key members of the ensemble at the center of Parks & Rec. How could they possibly get rid of them?
As the show's creator Mike Schur has explained, they'll be writing Ann and Chris out of the story with "a great Pawnee send-off," and given how close a friendship Ann shares with the show's central character, Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope, "she'll never be far from Pawnee." The obvious assumption seems to be that Ann and Chris will continue developing their relationship and trying to have a baby together, and at some point decide the right move is for them to leave town as a unit. Ann has never been nearly as attached to Pawnee as some of the show's other characters-- remember when she hoped Chris would ask her to move to Indianapolis?-- and Chris was originally introduced alongside Adam Scott's Ben as a pair of traveling government fixers, moving constantly from town to town. Schur said in his statement that they only expected to have Lowe for five or six episodes, but that he will have wound up sticking around for 75. It's not hard to see that Chris could be ready to move on.
And, if Parks & Recreation fans are honest with themselves, Ann and Chris are not as integral to the story as they probably ought to be. Ann was originally introduced as a catalyst for Leslie to develop the park next to her house, and a kind of eye-rolling audience surrogate who would notice how ridiculous Leslie was-- kind of like Jim's purpose opposite Michael Scott in The Office. As Leslie grew into a more likable and real human, the show made a great move by making her and Ann the tightest of friends, allowing for hilarious intimate moments-- Leslie's excited phone call/homemade video for Ann after she and Ben first kissed-- and some genuine dilemmas for the two of them as they grew older. But for Ann's stories apart from Leslie, she was so often at a loss, essentially ping-ponging between relationships until settling on the pregnancy story, which made some sense for the character but did feel like a last-ditch move for writers who had run out of new things for Ann to do. .
Rob Lowe's Chris has played a smaller role in the story all along, and is so often used for brief, hilarious jokes-- "stop pooping"-- that it's easy to forget he hasn't done much lately either. Remember him dating Jerry's daughter? Or falling into a depression when he realized he might die some day? Chris is consistently funny and plays well off the other characters on the show-- his mentorship of Tom is especially sweet-- but he's not leading his own strong stories either.
Parks & Recreation isn't really a show about plot. As the show moves into its sixth season it's become less about what will happen to the characters and more about just spending some time with them each week. I have no problem with that. But as the straight woman in a world full of weirdos, Ann Perkins is harder to enjoy on that level-- and Chris, though completely adorable, is a character specifically designed not to fit into that world. As Pawnee has gotten more nuanced, it's become less necessary to have audience-surrogate types like Ann to guide us through. We know our way around Pawnee. We know when to roll our eyes at Leslie and when to hug her. We don't need Ann to show us how anymore.
This isn't the first time Parks & Rec has seen the right moment to let a character go and refused to hang on for the sake of it. Paul Schneider was ostensibly the show's second lead, as Leslie's unrequited love Mark Brandanowicz, when the show first premiered, but as the writers found their groove with the characters, Mark's disinterest in Leslie and general straight-man role fit in less and less. He was like a less goofy, less loving version of Ann, and though Paul Schneider was great, it was beyond time for him to go around the time Ben and Chris showed up from Indianapolis. Parks & Rec is so wonderful because it recognizes the best in the characters it does have-- you don't get a breakout character like Ron Swanson by accident-- and understands when it has to let some of them go. We'll look forward to your well-deserved send-off, Ann and Chris. But we probably won't miss you as much as we thought.
And now, a toast to Ann and Chris, served in the form of a flash of light.