**Note: This is the beginning of a week-long series on some of the best comedies on network television, and the one main problem facing each of them**
In March of 2010, Parks and Recreation series regular Paul Schneider announced he was leaving the show to focus on his film career. To fill that void, the Parks and Rec creators reached out to Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to join the cast.
At the time, Lowe was supposed to appear in a few episodes before leaving again, but received much of the attention surrounding the move. He had a well-established career in television and was well-known nationwide, while Scott was only recognized as Will Ferrell’s asshole brother in Step Brothers.
The message at the time seemed to be, “Parks and Rec is getting Rob Lowe!! Oh, and there’s Adam Scott, too.” But now, their roles have reversed.
Adam Scott the actor and Ben Wyatt the character had a seamless transition into the existing cast of characters in Pawnee. Ben popped onto the screen fully formed, with a fleshed out backstory that informed his current behavior.
Scott also showed instant chemistry with lead Amy Poehler, and acted as a much-needed straight man in a den of weirdos. Pairing Ben with just about any other character has been a comedy gold mine. Meanwhile, Chris Traeger (Lowe’s character) just seemed to drift along aimlessly.
The writers briefly paired him with Ann (Rashida Jones), but that side plot accomplished little more than putting two very attractive people on screen at the same time. After their breakup, Chris has been even more of an issue. He gets shoehorned into B plots with other characters just to give him something to do.
The issue here is that the character originally was supposed to only appear in a few episodes. He was supposed to give Ben an excuse to come into Pawnee before moving on his way. But the star power of Lowe forced the writers into keeping him around, when they clearly had no idea where to go with the character.
Ben is a failed young mayor who never lived down one huge budgetary mistake, so he became a budget auditor to compensate. Chris is a guy in good shape who says “literally” a lot. That’s his whole character.
It doesn’t help that Parks and Recreation has been firing on all cylinders for more than a season now. That just draws more attention to how weakly drawn the Chris character is by comparison. Any time spent giving him a plotline just feels like wasted time that could be better spent on any of the other characters [see: his budding relationship with Jerry’s daughter].
The more time goes on, the harder it will be for the writers to give Chris something of significance. They established Ben’s background quickly when they first introduced the character, but if they do the same thing a year later for Chris it will feel forced.
In my mind, the writers are left with two choices: Leave Chris as he is and just don’t give him a ton of screen time, or give an entire A plot to him that reveals significant pieces of his background. Even better, make those pieces of background be embarrassing, which would be why he hasn’t revealed them sooner.
I have to think the latter path is the one the Parks and Rec writers will take, but it contains some risk. Focusing an entire episode on a weak character has the potential of ruining that episode and making the character even worse. The feeling of wasted time could stretch to the length of an entire episode.
But it’s at least worth a shot, because as of now Chris just does not seem to have any reason to be on the show. That by no means ruins a show that has been evolving into one of the best comedies on television, but it does stand out as Parks and Recreation’s greatest weakness.