When Parks and Recreation premiered in 2009, one of the main characters of the ensemble cast was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), the City Planner in the fictional Pawnee, IN, and sometimes-love interest to our hero, Leslie Knope (the inexplicably-Emmy-less Amy Poeller). After teasing a romance with Leslie here and there in the abbreviated first season, Mark Brendanawicz fully committed to a relationship with Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) for the better part of season two, only to announce his departure from Pawnee city government for the private sector in the season two finale.
And he was never seen, nor heard from, nor even mentioned again.
Characters leave TV shows all the time for various reasons (see below), but this last part is what makes Brendanaquits remarkable (and it has been remarked on). In the following five seasons of Parks and Rec, totalling 95 episodes, there is nary a whisper of Mark Brendanawicz’s name, and despite nearly every character who ever had a bit part on the show returning for more bit parts in the final season, one-time main character Mark Brendanawicz never got such a curtain call.
While that’s curious within the context of Parks and Rec (which, again, really liked bringing back old characters), it’s not that uncommon. When characters leave long-running shows, it’s usually to some amount of fanfare, but not always. Chuck Cunningham, Richie’s older brother on Happy Days, famously ascended the stairs of the Cunningham house in one of the early seasons, but never came back down. Never to be scene nor heard from nor mentioned again. This apparently even sparked a new term for similar occurrences: Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
To be fair, though, Chuck was always a fairly minor character. And yet, main characters leave shows all the time as well. But why [he asked, rhetorically]? In the case of Game of Thrones, characters get killed off with alarming frequency, including and especially main characters. This is to establish impossibly high stakes (because no one is ever safe), to subvert the fantasy genre, and to cater to author George R.R. Martin’s sadism (probably).
But it’s not always artistic intention; it’s often behind-the-scenes problems. In my beloved Community, main cast member Chevy Chase famously butted heads with the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, over the direction of his character. The powers that be originally chose Chase over Harmon, firing the show runner and going Harmon-less for a much-derided fourth season, before bringing Harmon back for season five and killing off Chase’s character. They even cleverly used Chase’s departure to believably incentivize another main character, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), to also leave the show midway through season five. Glover preferred to focus more on his successful rap career — as Childish Gambino — than continue acting on Community, so the writers gave him the hero send-off his character deserved. The plague continued for Community, as yet *another* main character, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), departed after the fifth season. There wasn’t much fuss made over Shirley’s exit, as (1) Shirley was never as beloved as some of the other characters anyway, and (2) Brown needed to (nobly) spend more time with her ill father, making it impossible for even the most devoted Shirley fans to cry foul.
And let’s not forget Steve Carell’s departure from The Office, which (probably inadvisedly) continued in the absence of its indisputable main character. Carell’s exit — like Glover’s — was to pursue other career opportunities outside of the show: in this case, being one of the most sought-after movie stars on the planet.
In the case of Mark Brendanawicz, the show’s creators always intended for him to leave city government for the private sector, jaded by the thankless uphill climb that is government work, but they originally wanted him to oscillate between those two worlds. He was supposed to find the private sector to be just as soul-sucking and then come back. As to why they never executed their original plan, that’s harder to say. While it’s true that Paul Schneider had a blossoming indie movie career in the years before Parks — including a small part in Andrew Dominick’s masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and a bigger part opposite Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl (2007) — if anything, his movie career *slowed* in the years after he left Parks. So he didn’t go the Steve Carell route. He had no sick father to take care of or rap career to focus on (as far as I know), so he didn’t go the Yvette Nicole Brown or Childish Gambino route. And there’s no record of a strained relationship between him and the show runners, i.e. the Chevy Chase route. The only semblance of such a strain was some apparent difficulty Schneider had in figuring out the point of his character.
And to me, *that* is the key to why Mark Brendanawicz left and never came back. The show didn’t need him anymore. His character no longer had a purpose.
People who have watched a few seasons of the show and have fallen in love with the colorful characters can easily describe each one. Leslie Knope is the most enthusiastic, hardest-working, most delusional government employee in existence, like a Girl Scout who rejects the concept of “Girl Scout cookie season” and instead bakes cookies herself to sell them year-round. Ron Swanson is pretty much your dad, provided your dad voted for George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton in 1992. Tom Haverford is the result of Instagram having a baby with a Brooks Brothers catalog, and that baby is tirelessly entrepreneurial. April Ludgate is cynical and morose — like if a stereotypical Hot Topic patron instead shopped at the Gap — but really has a heart of gold. Andy Dwyer is the human version of a puppy: energetic, playful, loyal, lovable, sincere, and endearingly stupid. Chris Traegar is like if a motivational speaker moonlighted as a spin-class instructor, without a trace of the condescension or cynicism of either.
You get the idea. But to those who have seen a lot of the show, I invite you to re-watch the pilot. Or most of the first season, for that matter. The show took a little while to find its stride, particularly in regard to the characters. In the first episode, Ron Swanson, Tom Haverford, and even Andy Dwyer are all uncharacteristically…subdued. Considering how fun, fleshed-out, and specific those characters eventually become, there’s no trace of that in the first episodes; it’s almost shocking to see, knowing where they end up.
There’s a concept in comedy — usually in short-form, like sketch comedy, but applicable to TV and movies — called “the straight man.” In a sketch or a show, there are usually funny/weird characters, often inhabiting a funny/weird world, doing funny/weird things. And then there’s a straight man, who is not funny/weird. He/she is instead normal and reacts to things the way a normal person would, thereby grounding the sketch/show and acting as the audience surrogate (reacting to the funny/weird things in the same way *we* would, calling out the funny/weird behavior because we are unable to).
With this in mind, it’s clear what Mark Brendanawicz’s main function to the early seasons was: straight man. While the first few episodes saw almost every non-Leslie character playing a much more toned-down version of what they’d eventually become, Mark Brendanawicz is the only character that *stayed* pretty much normal (or bland, depending on your perspective). The first episode in particular featured Leslie as the sole funny/weird character and everyone around her straight-manning, but as the other characters’ personalities developed, Mark Brendanawicz was the lone straight man hold out.
To be fair, he served a few other functions. First and foremost, he was the love interest and/or #relationshipgoals to Leslie, because a will-they won’t-they question is central to so many countless shows. Think about how much less interesting The Office became after Pam and Jim got married (though, it admittedly brought us the lovely — and unbreakable — Ellie Kemper, to have a similar will-they won’t-they with Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard). The beginning and ending of Friends was built upon this question in regards to Ross and Rachel, forming the essential backbone of the whole show. Remember how the whole set-up of Community was Jeff trying to get in Britta’s pants (a premise that was thankfully abandoned early in the second season)? Also, the Annie-Jeff relationship elsewhere in Community sometimes winked at this trope and sometimes *was* this trope.
Another Mark Brendanawicz function: a counterbalance to Leslie. Wherever she’s hard-working, he’s lazy. Wherever she’s enthusiastic, he’s cynical. Wherever she believes she can make a real difference in the community that she loves, he (probably realistically) thinks his job is mostly pointless and ineffective to the community that he’s mostly indifferent to. Note that this doesn’t make him an antagonist, just a counterbalance.
It may seem like I’m contradicting myself: saying that the show didn’t need him any more and that he served no purpose, then listing three pretty reasonable purposes for him.
And yet…think about how the show changed during the first two seasons. The most notable change I’ve already mentioned: the other non-Leslie/Brendanawicz characters evolving from mostly-straight men to more colorful characters. As they changed — and as Mark Brendawicz stayed the same — it became clear that his purposes were being fulfilled elsewhere.
Though most characters got more wacky, the show still had reliable straight men in Ann Perkins, Ron Swanson (usually), and the newly-introduced Ben Wyatt. While Ann Perkins was always pretty subdued, Ron and Ben were not without their funny/weird spells. But, for those spells, other characters would step in to straight man. Rotating straight man duties isn’t exactly revolutionary. Think again about Friends. Each character had their idiosyncrasies: Ross was nerdy, Joey was equal parts dumb, gluttonous, and horny, Chandler was sarcastic and often socially inept, Monica was neurotic about cleanliness and hosting, Rachel was comically materialistic, and Phoebe was… Phoebe. However, the important thing to recognize is that they took turns being the funny/weird one (or, “The One with the Funny/Weird”), with little exception. Monica wasn’t a neurotic mess every second of every day. Ross wasn’t constantly being a nerdy, insufferable bore. Phoebe wasn’t always a total space case. If ever one or two characters were having an episode where their quirkiness came out, the other characters in the scene almost always toned down their own quirks and played it straight to balance them out (and comment on their friends’ quirks to get a laugh).
So while Ann, Ron, and Ben were usually game to straight man, if Ben ever went off on a Cones of Dunshire tangent of funny/weirdness, Leslie was there to straight man. If Ron ever fell into a sex-crazed Tammy spell, other characters (often Leslie) would act relatively normal in order to ground the zaniness. No need for Mark Brendanawicz there.
As for the will-they won’t-they between Mark Brendawicz and Leslie, the writers seemed to abandon that relatively quickly, instead pairing Mark Brendanawicz up with Ann Perkins and shifting the will-they won’t-they focus to April and Andy around this same time. Eventually, the introduction of both Ben and Chris Traegar (who developed relationships with Leslie and Ann Perkins, respectively) was the final nail in the who-cares-who-Brendanaquits-dates coffin.
Honestly, his cynicism and lack of faith in government work was a nice, grounded counterpoint to Leslie’s unshakable enthusiasm and faith in government work. However, the show decided that the over-the-top anti-government Ron Swanson served this purpose better than the grounded Brendanwicz (and I can’t really disagree). For good measure, the show added Councilman Jamm in later years, to offer a fully-committed antagonist to Leslie.
Where does that leave Mark Brendanawicz? It leaves him with nowhere to go on the show, which was already starting to leave him behind (as he was the only character that didn’t change much between the first episode and the end of season two, not to mention the introduction of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traegar).
Why the show runners allegedly never even contacted Paul Schneider about reprising his role, even for a cameo, I really don’t know (nor does Paul Schneider, it seems). But in investigating why he left the show in the first place, I’m completely satisfied that it was the right move for all parties involved. The show was better for it.
I still find it odd that he was never mentioned again. It’s almost as if the show wanted to pretend that it began with the arrivals of Ben and Chris, and nothing existed before that (and honestly, when most people think about the show, I’d be willing to bet most of them think about Ben and Chris long before they think about Brendanawicz).
But. Legend has it that on cold winter nights in Pawnee, IN, if you walk past the Pawnee Commons, former site of The Pit on Lot 48, when the wind blows just right, it sounds like a whisper. A chorus of whispers in fact.