How Chris Traeger Brought a Jolt of Strangely Seminal Energy to ‘Parks and Recreation’

Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run Tuesday night on NBC. To celebrate the show’s unforgettable characters, Flavorwire is publishing a series of tributes to our favorite Pawnee residents. Click here to follow our coverage.

It seems that Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger, along with Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt, came to Parks and Recreation to fill the (diminutive) hole the show’s creative team knew would be left by Mark Brendanawicz once they finally gave him the boot. At this early stage in the show’s run — one of the last episodes of Season 2 — Chris was a vessel for the show’s epiphanic change in tone, a change that endeared it to, well, some people.

The more Office-like, deadpan-without-quite-being-Ron Swanson, attractive-without-quite-being-Andy Dwyer character Mark Brendanowicz represented what didn’t work about the show’s first season: its lack of identity in a TV world that requires a hook-worthy one. His flatness dragged episodes into impotency. Soon, producers caught on to the fact that the show’s glimmers of optimism, strangely genuine sweetness, and flattering portrayal of professional ambition were that hook. Parks and Recreation needed to become that peppy show that gave viewers an indispensable weekly dose of workspace homeyness. Chris Traeger provided an extra jolt of energy, proactivity, and optimism. Tonally, he was Parks and Recreation‘s hot, successful Kenneth Parcell. He also might be its sperm. We’ll get there.

His appearance on the show seems, in retrospect, brilliantly self-reflexive. Chris is sent to Pawnee as an encroachment: as city auditors, he and Ben arrive and immediately start imposing budget cuts. Recall that in his first episode, “The Master Plan,” he’s posited as an enemy to Leslie Knope’s cause. Leslie, however, ends up taking her frustration out on Ben, because Chris turns out to be far too polite to treat with acrimony. She makes “eye contact with him and it’s like staring into the sun.” Chris refers to “tinkering” with the budget, while Ben claims they’re going to “gut [the city government] with a machete.” Chris made Pawnee the alternate universe where becoming entrenched in the worst qualities of bureaucracy could feel like swimming in puppies.

Speaking of swimming, let’s talk about Chris Traeger’s ultimately seminal function — and the fact that, in a very self-aware fashion, he was kind of a giant, goofily grinning, character-encased sperm metaphor. For a great deal of the show, he seems a fertile means to an end. His prudish inter-office dating policy actually provides a tempting nest of illicitness for the developing relationship between Leslie and Ben. The parallels continue: He doesn’t seem to understand the importance of personal space; he’s absurdly fast, agile, and strong; he’s vigorous to the point of being both highly functional and insufferable. He thrives on weird, gargantuan supplement tablets. He ejaculatorily points at characters as he blurts their names. He fears what age will do to his personal potency. He’s a team player who’s so happy to be a team player that he gets ahead of the other team players.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more I realize the dude is, pretty straightforwardly, sperm. Clearly, Parks and Recreation eventually realized that it had created the human embodiment of ejaculate, and decided to work with his seminal potential: of all of the strapping men whose seed Ann Perkins could have chosen for in vitro fertilization, Chris Traeger was by far the most obvious choice. He’s a highly utilitarian part of city government, he’s a highly utilitarian part of this show, and his utility is proven to be even more literal when his organs are called upon to make a child.

But one of the beauties of Parks and Recreation has been its ability to strike a balance with all of its characters. More often than not, it subverts the archetypes certain characters could fall into. As Flavowire’s Shane Barnes noted yesterday, Garry is initially shown as the workspace’s most useless entity, but this is offset when we find out he has a vibrant family life. Similarly, Leslie Knope is a diagnosable workaholic. This comes not from an embittered desire to push the world away, but rather from her genuine love of all things — including people — with which she engages. April might love to hate, but ultimately finds herself incapable of not loving the person she wants to hate most: Ann. Andy might be a doltish bro, but his sensitivity, devotion and occasional strokes of weird genius subvert the less palatable qualities of blockhead bro characters.

Just as that’s the case for all of the other cast members, Chris, while being a fitness freak and a rigid bureaucrat, isn’t the condensed mess of hyper-masculinity you’d expect from such a type. One of his greatest qualities is his comfort with straddling both masculine and feminine stereotypes, coupling startling thoughtfulness and emotional openness with displays of bench-pressing and the egregious thumbs-upping men in politics so consistently resort to. And though he’s objectified (Donna grabs his ass in his final episode, as everyone is saying goodbye to him) and self-objectifies to the point of being human sperm, he is, as Ann Perkins would agree, that rare specimen of human sperm you wouldn’t mind spending the rest of your life with. I, for one, am glad he was sent — clueless, wide-eyed, and squiggly tailed — into Pawnee’s infrastructure back in Season 2.