In the shadow of a looming How-the-edit-do-I-get-this-all-done-and-well breakdown, I turn to my happy place, Parks and Recreation. I’ve written before about Ron Swanson’s feminism and the growth of his character while also hinting at a post about April Ludgate. I’ve been thinking about it since January.
There are many loveable characters on Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope is my personal hero (I’m serious) and Ron Swanson is Ron f–king Swanson. I’ve always taken particular notice of April, however, because of her age, intelligence, and the contrast she provides to other characters. Against Leslie’s hyperbolic optimism and work ethic, April’s dry humor and resistance to effort are a thing of comedic genius. Throw in her near father-daughter relationship with Ron and her antagonism for Ann and Chris and I can’t look away.
Yes, April is hilarious and I love her. Last season, however, I began to track her development a bit more closely as April started to get pushed by various characters to move out of her late-adolescent angst and do something with her potential. As Leslie handed over some of her duties after getting elected to the City Council, April took on new responsibilities. Reluctantly. In “Live Ammo” (4.19), April struggles to fill Leslie’s shoes while she campaigns and Tom, of all people, suggests that she finds a project she’s passionate about. By episode’s end she finds fulfillment and satisfaction in organizing an animal adoption event. It also challenges her both personally and in her job.
I was sure Parks was setting up April to be the next Leslie, which was fascinating because April is sort of the anti-Leslie. That’s what makes their relationship and Leslie’s mentoring of April so dynamic. This season, there have been great moments in which Leslie and April butt heads or gang up. In “Leslie vs April” (5.7), Leslie undermines her protege’s plans to create a dog park on Lot 48, the lot behind Ann’s house that started the drama four years ago. Leslie consults Ron, talking about some new guy causing trouble: “He used to be a slacker but now he’s realizing his full potential. But at what cost? He’s smart and he’s beautiful and I think of him in many ways as a daughter...” Ron advises Leslie to give her lots of busy work, but the problem is April is not enough of a workaholic for that to fool her. So instead, Leslie shows interest in April’s creepy friend’s art show. But April can see through that too. The episode is brilliant because it forces Leslie, and the audience, to take April seriously. She’s not there just for edge. She has things she’s passionate about too. As Leslie says, “All I’ve ever wanted is for you to show the enthusiasm you showed for your dog park and when you did I blew it.” Of course, April’s apology isn’t free of snark, “I’m sorry that I outsmarted you at every turn…and I know that I have a lot to learn from you and I’m sorry that I disrespected your stupid dream.”
Later, in “Women in Garbage” (5.11), which I think is easily one of the show’s best episodes, Leslie and April team up to prove that women are as capable as men. It sounds obvious, but watching them negotiate a trick played on them by the Sanitation Department showed how April, who once dragged her feet with the simplest task, was starting to come into her own, while also maintaining her unique personality—she LOVES garbage and creates a present for Leslie made of it.
But then, when I thought the show would zig, it zagged. Parks and Rec wasn’t setting April up for a career in city government. Two weeks ago, we learned that she wants to go to veterinary school. The adoption event, her three-legged dog Champion, her assertion that she hates people but loves animals. It’s all there.
Last year, a blogger for IndieWire argued, “the worst has come to pass, and April Ludgate, the beyond-deadpan carrier of careless anarchic energies, the one-woman friction element who’s kept Parks and Recreation from being an Office clone* from the unsteady git-go, has been muffled into a millennial-generation version of a wacky neighbor from a sitcom.” Though they also argue that April serves as a foil for Leslie, they interpret her character’s arc: “She now prefers conservative work force clothing to better integrate into the office. She also shares hugs with anyone when needed, and when her cutely thick musician husband Andy (Chris Pratt) does something really dumb, she will throw her arms up and cry ‘Andy!’ like a million other flustered wives before her. All that’s missing is a laugh track.”
Though April is perhaps, sometimes, maybe, a shade less snarky than she once was, I think that rather than the domestification of a strange character, we’re seeing a natural evolution from adolescence to adulthood. The show didn’t abruptly tone April down. Repeatedly, we’ve seen April warm up to people, on her own terms. For example, she pushes back against Chris for years, both as his employee and as his “friend.” She finds his happiness and insistence on perfection annoying—who doesn’t?–but when Chris starts to break down, she cracks. Like all the characters on the show, April doesn’t function just to serve a punchline. She’s a well-rounded character. Similarly, April hates Ann from the start and in “Bailout” (5.16), Ann gets to blackmail April into being her friend so April can get a letter of recommendation to veterinary school from her. April lets Ann get close to her after Ann shows her vulnerability—but then, naturally, April runs away. And there’s the episode about Jerry. But who cares?
Sure, April could have remained the surly, ironic twenty year-old she was when the show started, but would she be happy? Would we like her as much? I think what’s far more interesting is watching a character who is so odd and antisocial develop along with the other characters on a show full of odd, very social people. She still keeps people at arm’s length, but it’s compelling to see how and when she lets people in, how and when she shows affection. April is becoming a strong, mature woman—one part Leslie, one part Ron, many parts her own making. What I love about the development of this character, more than anything, is that it happened on April’s terms. Rather than use dramatic episodes, pregnancy scares, near-death experiences, etc. to draw out April’s softer side, the writers allowed it to develop slowly and naturally, starting with her friendship with Ron, her relationship with Andy, her telling Leslie that she loved her at her wedding, and so on. There were no big a-ha! moments, just many small interactions in which April allowed herself to become more invested in the community and in which her bosses and friends encouraged her to use her intelligence more. I think capturing a young woman coming into her own without using cliches is a thing of beauty.
I have one burning question though. What is the deal with April’s education? She starts on the show as a college intern, but we never hear about her education again. When Andy goes to register for classes, according to my closed captioning (which could be wrong), she says her parents pay for her classes. Presumably, she has, or is working on, a college degree, as she’d need one for either government work or veterinary school…?