Monday, July 15, 2024

April Ludgate or Character Development Done Right

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Damn, is she talking about April again? Yes, yes I am. What can I say? We all have our faves. She’s my personal all time favorite character, and not just because she’s the perfect representation I need as a mentally ill young woman in search of herself. Another and maybe even more important reason why I love her so much is because her character evolves so much throughout the whole show and is an inspiration to me, as someone who was roughly her age when I watched.

What is good character development? Ideally, we want to see a character evolve and become a better version of themselves in a way that feels earned. No action should feel forced against the character’s nature, but there should come a point where you realize that the character from the first episode (chapter, film, etc.) never would have been able to act in such a way, and now is. Basically, it should feel organic, a narrative born out of the character themselves and that fits them perfectly.

In comes April Ludgate. She wasn’t necessarily meant to be on the show in the first place, rather was kind of shoe-horned in because they saw potential in the actor.

We wrote the part for Aubrey. Allison Jones, who is one of the people who cast the show, called me and said, “I just met the weirdest girl I’ve ever met in my life. You have to meet her and put her on your show.” Aubrey came over to my office and made me feel really uncomfortable for like an hour, and immediately I wanted to put her in the show. We didn’t totally know what we were going to do with her, we just thought it would be funny if Leslie had a college-aged intern who she wanted to inspire, and that that person would be Aubrey Plaza. Then after we established that relationship, we realized she had more range and is a more interesting performer than someone who just rolls her eyes.

− Michael Schur, A.V. Club Interview

Initially, her character was little more than a cardboard cut-out. Apathetic, showing no sign of specific interests or personality, sometimes mean, sometimes kind, with no real motivation. The occasional snarky comeback, and not much. This was season 1 April. Parks and Recreation, as many TV shows, was conceived and written with season arcs in mind. In season 1 however, with April being forced into the narrative “just in case” they find something cool to do with her, she has no narrative of her own and is basically an extra with quite a few lines. A pale copy of what she was about to become.

Season 2 of Parks and Rec is the least equal of the seasons within itself. The first half is very awkward, still marked by the weirdness of the first season (which was written and produced all at once like a pilot), and the characters are just starting to get their bearings. Then, the second half is the show really starting to get what it’s about and to develop plotlines and personalities over time. And boy did April’s character gain from it.

Basically, the second season of Parks and Rec is April starting to acknowledge that she has feelings, that they matter and that she can trust them to inform decisions. The way this was showcased was through romantic relationships, with April at the center of it all. In early season 2, things are as such: April is dating Derek (her “gay” best friend who is dating another boy − the show’s decision to not use the word bisexual, not mine), Ann just broke up with Andy and he wants to win her back.

Oh, the burning passion.

April’s relationship with Derek is interesting in that it is so in character for her to have. We’ve seen the reason why early April was written in a nondescript way, but whether they wanted it or not, the result is that they wrote a character who doesn’t really know herself, her own interests, who is a little bit lost and lacks any spark in her life. And she is in a relationship that is exactly that. April and Derek have basically nothing in common but their deadpan disinterested attitude. He is the exact partner a girl with zero passion or interest would have, someone she doesn’t even like all that much, someone she doesn’t have to be honest with. In a period in her life where she is emotionally closed off, with very little self-awareness of her own feelings and values, she instinctively latched onto someone who let her indulge in her apathy.

Enter Andy Dwyer. I think it’s perfectly fair to describe Andy as April’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy. He is everything she and Derek aren’t: energetic, full of ideas, his feelings are right there in your face, he is passionate about everything, he has big dreams for his future. April falls in love instantly. The more she sees how open Andy is, how positive and cheerful, the more she realizes that she likes it, and the more she notices how different Derek and Ben are. She starts to give her own feelings and preferences precedence over apathy. Before even knowing if she has a shot with Andy, she breaks up with them because she’s realized that she is happier on her own than with them.

And so in season 2, April leans to listen to her heart (which sounds and is corny, but really, that season is a goldmine of adorable OTP moments and I am not ashamed) as she gets closer to Andy, and we see new layers of emotions in her, not just with him but also with the rest of the cast. We see her opening up to Leslie, half-wordedly admitting her feelings for Andy to her. We see her bonding with Ron and sharing secrets with him. We see her disliking Ann, not just because she hates the world but because she has a reason to specifically dislike Ann (not saying it’s a valid reason, mind you, but since April is just starting to feel things so deeply, an understandable one). We see her finding herself a job she actually wants, doing things she likes, having interests (the beginning of creepy April and her gross ideas and her love for Halloween). She’s now gone from a semi-character with not much of a personality to a nuanced character with actual feelings and interests of her own. She’s become a person.


(Also she had adorable cheeks back then #tbt)

Season 3 continues this trend of allowing April to occupy her emotional space. The early part of season 3 is concerned with Andy trying to win her back after a misunderstanding/mistake on his part. It’s one of these things that Parks and Rec does so well: show the viewer an everyday situation where you completely sympathize with both characters and understand their point of view. Of course April is mad that Andy kissed Ann, especially after confessing his feelings for her. In turn, Andy is sad that April won’t believe that he is not into Ann at all anymore. With a little nudge from Ron, they do get together after all and after that, the dice are rolled and April is being herself in a way she wasn’t ever allowed to be before.

Of all the couples in Parks and Rec, April and Andy are by far the most “fusion-like“, both bringing out the best of each other, showing how much they have in common despite their diametrically different personalities. And even more so than in season 2, April and Andy decide that they can do whatever the hell they want. Adulting? Pffft, who needs that? It’s not like she’s ever been an independent adult anyways, and god knows Andy hasn’t either, so both of them turning their house into a piggery as soon as they move in together is probably the most in character thing you could have imagined. And yet, organically, through the episodes, they both start to give more space to seriousness in their life.

If I had to describe April in season 3 with just one sentence it’d be: “listen to the old folks’ advice… but not too much.” She’ll take Chris’s job offer and trust him when he sees potential in her… until she finds a reason not to. She’ll listen to Ron’s advice and accept to forgive Andy… but she’ll still make it plainly obvious to Andy that he has to earn her trust for good. She’ll get married to Andy after one month despite Leslie’s warnings… but she’ll thank her for being so caring. April is in a phase in her life where she is figuring out her own rules and her own definition of what it means to be an adult, taking input from others but not letting them define her own life for her. This is a central theme to her character that will remain through the seasons.

“Adults are boring and I hate them and I don’t want to buy all this stupid adult stuff and become boring adults.”
− April Ludgate

Take this April who is only now starting to own life as an adult, give her a bisexual haircut and you’re ready for season 4. This season of Parks and Rec may be the one with the tighter and more focused narrative, with Leslie campaigning for City Council and the whole season focusing on it. It’s no coincidence that just the season when Leslie starts to really turn her deep held values into political action and to get involved to make her ideals a reality, April is also starting to do just the same in her own small ways. Because Parks and Recreation may be about women in politics and all that stuff but before all, it’s a show about human relationships and the everyday life of people on their job. Leslie may reach for the stars, but other characters have much simpler lives on their own scale and that’s also interesting.

“What do you know, you don’t care about things!”
“Yes, I do! I care about Andy and Champion and I want Leslie to win, also I like sleeping, so… Everybody has things they care about.”
− Tom and April

In season 4, April starts to not only show that she has various interests and passions, but also puts them into action. We don’t just see her being in love and happy with Andy, we see her going out of her way to find him a new job, to get to the bottom of his bucket list, to make him feel worthy and loved. We see her completely supporting Leslie in her campaign and actually doing the work that’s required of her. We see her constantly hosting the work meetings for the campaign. She even starts up a project of her own, a pet adoption, another passion of hers that remains throughout the show, and actually she gets a pet of her own, a three-legged wonder who she loves more than life itself. She gives Chris some very heartfelt pep talk when she sees him being depressed. In her own ways, April shows that not only she can handle responsibilities, but that she seeks them out.

That pattern is even stronger in season 5. With the narrative being much more relaxed and mostly touching on Leslie’s life as a politician and her romantic endeavors with Ben (culminating in their wedding mid-season), season 5 gives April the space to explore even more projects of her own and what was seeded in season 4 is furthered. Just like in season 4, April’s storyline in season 5 mirrors Leslie’s. As Leslie is trying to overcome the challenges of a new position and to navigate her romantic relationship, April gets not one but two new jobs within one season and also has a season-long arc focused on her relationship with Andy.

First of all, the season starts with April being specifically chosen to work as Ben’s intern in DC. That’s some progress in her professional life right there, and it allows for great moments of bonding between two people who have little in common and who don’t necessarily like each other all that much from the get go. But that’s just a small part of the season. As I underlined earlier, April’s self-described top priorities in life: Andy, dogs, Leslie. Not necessarily in that order. Between a project of a new dog park that gets combined with Leslie’s project of a park on lot 48 and actually becoming the head of the Animal Control Department in Pawnee, April advances in her work with animals. As for Andy, she is a constant support to him while he’s training to become a cop and subsequently fails to do so. And season 5 contains some of the most heartfelt moments between Leslie and April, with April acknowledging that sometimes, Leslie does know best, and sometimes, outsmarting her.

Another development in season 5 that was less marked in earlier seasons is April learning to get on with people she’s not too fond of. On her mini-arc with Ben in early season, she spends some actually genuine moments of friendship with him, develops this oddly brother-sisterly bond with him, starts to actually put in the effort to make things work. She scares off an intern who wasn’t respecting Ben, she takes Ben on a road trip (that ends up being a complete failure but also a success on a friendship level), she spends a lot of time with him and manages to stay perfectly civilized even though she hasn’t historically been a huge fan of Ben so far.

“I still think he’s not right for you.”
− April to Leslie

Not just Ben, but also Ann gets her share of bonding with April. Through a half-season long arc that was later aborted (for purely Doylist reasons, because they didn’t want to send April far from the action in Pawnee when Andy was already missing due to Chris Pratt shooting GotG, though they gave an explanation within the show), April needs Ann’s help to get into a veterinary school in Bloomington. They spend some time together, bonding…


And actually do get out of it having bonded, despite all appearances. April has started to develop values outside of her own personal feelings towards people. She can recognize that even though she has her qualms with Ann, Ann is a good person and has decent goals that April wants her to achieve (finding the perfect dad to her baby). It’s especially marked with Ben and Ann during this season, but several other characters get that treatment from her.

To continue with April learning to be a good person… April is such a sweetheart in season 6. Hear me out. I know she’s still creepy, I know she can still be a jerk sometimes (let’s own up to our problematic faves, right? April is not an angel), but damn is she kind and generous in this season. In the continuity of the previous seasons where she learned to find her place in her romantic relationship, in her adult life, in the workplace, April’s narrative in season 6 is focused on her learning to be a good friend.

It’s not like she didn’t have friends before. She’s always had Orin, the creepy boy who Leslie hates, but he’s never a big part of the show and more of a side character who is very one-note. As such, their relationship isn’t explored all that deeply. The first friendships that April developed had a very strong taste of parental figures. Ron and Leslie have always been very father- and mother-like to April, filling her needs of loving guidance (Leslie) and freedom to be herself (Ron). Their friendship is true and strong but it’s on a different level, a more intimate and personal level.

By season 6, April has learned to interact with Chris, Ben and Ann, three people who she does not long to hang out with, who are at best uncle or aunt figures, someone she’s not all that close to, older people who sometimes give her good advice but overall just seem like too much work to actually be friends with. This keeps going in season 6, during which she shares several beautiful sincere moments with them where she wishes them the absolute best, even though she can’t really get close to them on a personal level.

That leaves Tom and Donna. By far season 6 contains the most interactions between that trio of all the show. For the first time, we keep seeing April engaging in her friendship with these people who are her equals and it brings out the absolute best in her. Episode after episode, April navigates these two relationships and finds her place in this trio that used to be a strong duo. She bonds with Tom and Donna not just together but individually, for example helping Tom all throughout his project of opening a restaurant, or finding the right way to communicate with Donna when both can be a bit closed-off. She gives them presents, special attentions, she shares private jokes with them to the point that Leslie feels excluded (but that issue is addressed specifically). They give each other advice, learn from each other. April has evolved into a young woman who can have casual friendships at work and all the while keeping all her weirdness and anxiety and everything that makes up who she is.

Even within her stronger relationships, April is a darling. She has always been extremely supportive of Andy, their relationship has always been grounded in complete mutual understanding, but they share some of the most sensitive heartfelt discussions where you sense that both of them have matured and can talk about grown-up things when needed.

“I’m going to tell you a secret about everyone else’s job. No one knows what they’re doing. […] Deep down, everyone is just faking it until they figure it out.”
− April to Andy

And she also fully supports Leslie through her ups and downs, sometimes cheering her up when no one else can. They share many conversations where April shows that she’s very thankful for Leslie’s influence and understands how much Leslie has done for her and for everyone.

And April’s journey in this show is almost at its end. Season 7 April has matured, grown, evolved, and she realizes that what she is dedicating her life to no longer fits the person she has become. Her job in the National Parks Service is Leslie’s dream, not hers, and she’s feeling that her life is heading a direction she doesn’t want. Her season arc covers her search for a new job.

“I’ve been on this weird path my entire adult life and I need to figure out what I really want.”
− April Ludgate

I’ve seen fans decry the ultimate job the show gave April and I can’t say I agree. Throughout season 7, we see a few ideas that April tries to follow in her search for the ideal job. She could have had a very creepy job, she could have worked with animals, but ultimately, April decides to become a job counselor, to become the exact thing that she needed herself. I think that this is very in line with the character April has grown to be. Sure, early seasons April wouldn’t understand that choice at all, but she’s not that person anymore, is she?

“When I started for you I was aimless and just thought everything was stupid and lame and you turned me into someone with goals and ambition, which is really the only reason why I’m even thinking about what I really want. And I just wanna say thank you and I love you very much.”

April has grown into a very smart young woman with strong values and a desire to help people in her own personal way. She’s learned all the tricks to be a perfect job counselor: she knows how to interact with people she’s not particularly attached to, she’s learned work ethics and knows how to dedicate herself to personal projects, she’s kindhearted and genuinely likes helping people (though she’ll deny it through gritted teeth), if not always out of pure selflessness, then out of personal pleasure of knowing she managed to figure them out. Many times throughout the show, she demonstrates that she likes reading people, decrypting them, whether she likes them (Donna) or not (Ann, though her feelings on Ann are debatable). This job is a perfect fit.

And then there is the rest of the season, where April shines with her love for her almost-parents, for Andy, for her friends, for everyone, and then the finale, which I have discussed before.

Overall, April’s character development flows perfectly from seasons to seasons. Just like you can’t picture season 7 April be as apathetic as she used to be (she would be so embarrassed by her young self), you really can’t imagine early April magically turn into what she’s become by the end of the show. Every step of the way was natural, every development earned, every lesson learned. Top notch character development.


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