' ' Cinema Romantico: Ron Swanson: The One Reason You Should Be Watching TV

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ron Swanson: The One Reason You Should Be Watching TV

During high school I typically spent my Sunday mornings at youth group at the Lutheran Church I attended. We were a wacky mix of good-hearted ragamuffins who believed in the trinity of the Holy Spirit, sure, and yada and yada but were far more concerned with debating whether or not the MTV Unplugged version of "Layla" was better than the Derek and the Dominoes version. (Note: It wasn't.) One Sunday during my senior year, for reasons I forget, I did not attend and it just so happened this was the Sunday a member of our posse would be elected to the Church Council as the so-called "Youth Representative". No wanted this post, of course, and because of my absence I was nominated and elected. And needless to say I was not pleased. My predecessor had doubled as the student body president. I doubled as....uh....the villain in the high school play. And a kid who knew all the words to A Tribe Called Quest's "I Left My Wallet In El Segundo." What did I know - or, better yet, care - about the building and grounds committee? I would study for tests while others debated the merits of a new communion process. I would second motions to which I had not paid even the slightest bit of attention just so we could hurry up and get the hell outta there. I hated every single second of my servitude as "Youth Representative". Seriously, if ol' Jesus Himself had turned up at one of these meetings he would've looked at me after about twelve seconds and said, "Hey, Nick, let's fly this chicken coop and go watch selected scenes of 'Last of the Mohicans.'"

I mention all this because I can see that same sort of excessive apathy present in he who heads up (fictional) Pawnee, Indiana's Parks and Recreation department which gives the title to NBC's Thursday Night (7:30 PM CST, season finale tonight) sitcom. This would be Ron Swanson, portrayed by Nick Offerman in fluidly deadpan fashion with a voice that is riotous in its monotone lethargy, who in the show's Pilot declared: "I don’t want this parks department to build any parks because I don’t believe in government." In a later episode he reveals that when he becomes city supervisor - which he expects to be inevitable - his first order of business will be, simply, "To eliminate the parks department." Naturally this puts him at odds with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), unrelentingly earnest and upbeat, the deputy director of the department and the show's main character, though not as much as one would think since exhibiting too much initiative on the job would run counter to Ron Swanson's beliefs.

"I like saying no. It lowers their enthusiasm." - Ron Swanson

Consider the Pilot episode which reveals Swanson to be a big fan of Coach Bobby Knight, the same man who once expressed disappointment that his team's basketball season was continuing upon winning a tournament game, saying "I guess I won't be fishing now." This is no different from Swanson telling his just-as-apathetic assistant April Ludgate (a wonderous Aubrey Plaza, who is so dry she makes Death Valley seem like Oceans Of Fun), whom he describes as "the moat that (keeps) the citizen barbarians away from Swanson castle," he is out of the office when he isn't out of the office simply so he won't have to deal with anyone and when someone asks April if he can see him she states, of course, that he's out of the office even though he is standing, defiantly, coffee mug in hand, in full view in his office of the person asking to see him. All things considered, Ron Swanson would rather be fishing.

So too does his posture seem indicative of his attitude. Rigid, firm, unyielding, he spends an entire episode sitting completely still at his desk because of his "neglected hernia" - brought on by a mistaken sneeze - and, naturally, he accomplishes as much as he does any other day, which is to say he accomplishes nothing.

"After I got home, I drank six more glasses of whiskey and then I finished crafting this mall harp, using a bandsaw, a spokeshave and an oscillating spindle sander." - Ron Swanson

But don't presume his passivity leaves him humorless. Quite the contrary, in fact, as Ron Swanson brings his own definitive set of quirks to the buffet - that is, breakfast buffets which, as it happens, Ron Swanson loves more than strippers. Breakfast meats, in particular. On a picnic outing spearheaded by Leslie of the current and former Parks and Recreation Department directors she confides to Ron she brought him a trail snack in the form of bacon which Ron confides he had already sniffed out and eaten before declaring "And now it's gone and I hate everything!" and then running away like a petulant child. (Note: This is the funniest thing that has happened on television thus far in 2010.)

He moonlights as a skilled woodworker, master chair caner and, most importantly, possesses an alter ego - unbeknownst to most of his co-workers - in the form of jazz saxophonist Duke Silver ("It's been a pleasure making sonic love to you"). It is here that the show is at its most inspired. He may be a libertarian, he may keep keep a sawed off shotgun in his desk, he may order the death of a puppy, but Duke Silver suggests - as Jonah Weiner of Slate has noted - that Ron Swanson is also a sensualist meaning that despite his presence on a sitcom he is a character of the utmost complexity.

Leslie Knope: "Why would anyone eat anything besides breakfast food?"
Ron Swanson: "People are idiots, Leslie."

This complexity can also be glimpsed in his relationship with Leslie. They may possess opposing political views and their work ethics may be such polar opposites that when Ron is tasked to handle Leslie's job for but a single day he finds himself confused, frightened and overwhelmed ("There's a bunch of messages waiting for you about a bunch of things I don't understand") but that does not mean he cannot show her respect and treat her fairly. Consider the episode in which Leslie receives a gift basket from a local construction company from which she "brazenly" takes a bottle of wine later that evening after crashing the "boys club" beer drinking party of a few city planners. Weighed down by the guilt, Leslie promptly apologizes the following morning to every Pawnee Government official for her actions which leads to an ethics board to call for a displicinary hearing with Leslie. Ron's reaction is twofold. First, he lambasts Leslie for her chivalrous attitude and need to do good. Second, he lambasts the ethics board for going after Leslie, shuts down the hearing and angrily declares "Leslie has never broken a rule in her life, to the point that it's annoying." Heroism, indeed - agitated heroism.

Or consider Leslie's brief courtship with a lawyer named Justin, whose too-cool-for school vibe impresses everyone in and around the office until Leslie begins to worry about the direction of their relationship at which point we realize Ron is the only one able to not simply see Justin for Justin but to see whether or not Justin compliments Leslie leading him to tell her that Justin is "selfish" and not the right fit, a sentiment with which Leslie, thankfully, agrees.

In a recent episode we hear for the first time of the so-called Swanson Code. Ostensibly "The Swanson Code" refers to Ron's own lax variation on the zoning codes necessary for him to expand his home woodshop (example: oil covered rags hanging over a fire pit) but in reality The Swanson Code is a statement on Ron's defiant nature, which is to say he is defiantly himself. Human beings are typically mystifying mixes of contradictions (i.e. Me). Ron Swanson is no different. But the contradictions are never cases of lazy writing. Consider the Cosmo Kramer of "Seinfeld" who (as much as I love him) was always at the service of the writers, which was how he could go over the show's history from being someone who only took cold showers to someone who spent days on end in a hot shower to someone who only took baths to someone who openly loathed baths. Ron Swanson's contradictions, on the other hand, are his very essence, the fabric of his being.

I don't know that he and I would get along very well in a social situation but that doesn't mean I wouldn't respect him. If there is one thing Ron Swanson isn't it's this: fake. He may be on TV, but he's completely real.


Andrew K. said...

Excellent, excellent writeup Nicholas. Damn, I love this show. Offerman and Poehler for the WIN.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you. Glad to hear of another fan. I think it's very important to note that for all the dumb decisions NBC has been making lately they showed true intelligence with "Parks and Recreation." They didn't overreact at the initial poor reviews, they gave it a chance, they were patient, and now it's only getting better with each episode. Bravo, NBC.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

You nailed it, Nick. I enjoyed the hell out of reading your piece.