Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The Personal Politics of Parks and Rec

This year, NBC didn’t wait to renew Parks and Recreation. The shortened third season of the popular sitcom concludes tonight with a double-feature finale — the second week in a row that NBC will air two successive episodes on the same evening. A full fourth season will begin this fall.

Leading the way with the blessing of her libertarian ur-man boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the increasingly competent and confident Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has spent this season saving and subsequently revitalizing Pawnee’s Parks and Rec Department. The show’s success seems due to its ability to weave the personal motivations of Leslie and her supporting cast into themes about government’s ability to get things done.

Yet the relationship between the personal and political — between Leslie and her department — has been simplified in commentaries on the show. For example, in a brief Time.com piece entitled "Homeland Sincerity" James Poniewozik suggests, "Ultimately, Parks is a comedy [...] about how politics is people."  Poniewozik correctly points out that the show marks a departure from the increasingly exhausting irony of sister NBC comedies The Office and 30 Rock. In irony's place we get comedic sincerity: characters that have a genuine investment in their work, as well as in their relationships with one another.

But the show isn't just about sincere, lovie-dovie friendships. It's also about how individuals weave that sincerity into political machinery. That is: politics is people, sure — but it's also still institutions that get things done. To write off Parks as a saccharine love song dedicated to folksy bureaucrats misses an important point about the show’s particular view of local politics.

While it’s not exactly a comedy about politics, P&R's portrayal of City Hall makes us feel good about public service. In a moment of profound skepticism about government’s ability to sense the needs of its constituents — bound up in arcane deficits and Senate rules, birth certificates and #OBL — Parks tells us to keep the faith. The show is not just about good people running Pawnee, but moreover attempts to restore the idea that political institutions should be considered capable of carrying out effective action that can improve ordinary life.

With a government shutdown looming at the end of season two, Pawnee calls in Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) — arguably the two most attractive auditors in Indiana history — to cut budgetary schmaltz. Or, in Ben’s words, “We’re going to gut [the budget] with a machete.” This sets up the question that drives the action of season three: how (and, really, why) run a Parks Department when the entire city’s finances are ready to collapse?

Ben suggests cuts and layoffs. The subsequent exchange between him and Leslie, which initially sounds like a series of throwaway lines, reveals an important insight about the show’s view on politics. Leslie insists, “These are real people in a real town, working in a real building with real feelings.” When Ben snarkily asks, “This building has feelings?” Leslie responds “Maybe. There's a lot of history in this one. Maybe it does.” City Hall takes on the feelings of individuals whose personal welfare depends upon the continuity of government. The building stands in for the institution, which cares about not only the individuals it serves, but also the individuals that comprise it.  Can an institution care about us?  The question seems ridiculous until we think of an institution as a body that stores the collective goodwill of employees. That is: politics is institutions acting like people.

At the same time, government makes possible the things that individuals cannot accomplish on their own.  When City Hall closes, Leslie’s personal investment of energy and affection for Pawnee makes it possible to provide services, but she still ultimately needs institutional support. In the season two finale, Leslie decides to go rogue, gathers her team, and puts on a concert for the town’s kids that would otherwise have been canceled. In the process of doing so, Leslie insists to Ron, “I don’t care if you hate what we do. I love it enough for the both of us.” Leslie often argues that political efficacy depends merely upon a great enough show of sincere positive emotions, but her expression here is particularly important.  Government becomes a space of collectivized emotions that can lead to the production of meaningful results.

But in this case, more than positive vibes is needed to execute the concert, and it’s Ben (ostensibly bearing the government’s checkbook) that comes through to pay for the show. When he subsequently attempts to remind Leslie of the impending budget crisis, Leslie stops him and says, “Just for one moment enjoy the fact that you provided a service for people. Not a cut. A service. And they love it.” This is tricky, because it’s not just Ben.  It’s Ben’s decision to use government money. Government resources, when wedded to collective sincerity, produce positive results.

This is why the Harvest Festival is such a resounding success for Leslie at the beginning of season three. It represents her growing recognition that a love of one’s work will not get the job done in government. What’s needed is complex negotiation around multiple institutions: corporate interests, media, local native tribal grievances, and the evil Pawnee Library. By the end of season three, we have a firmer sense that Leslie understands that effective political institutions don’t just have good people working at them: they get things done.

This is what sets Pawnee apart from neighboring Eagleton in one of the most hilarious episodes of the season. High-class Eagleton builds a fence to cordon off a section of a park, keeping out the Pawnee “trash.” When Leslie, Ben, and Tom attend an Eagleton town meeting, we immediately sense the difference between the two towns. In Eagleton, citizens are applauded merely for making a point at a town meeting — not for the content of their contribution to the discussion. Leslie’s former best friend and Eagleton Parks Department director Lindsay Carlisle Shay (Parker Posey) drums up sincere (and patronizing) applause for Leslie. “Isn’t she trying her hardest?” she asks the crowds, “So cute. And so good.”  But by the end of season three, Leslie is no longer trying hard for the sake of displaying her sincerity.  She has learned from the Freddie Spaghetti concert and the Harvest Festival that institutions have the ability to provide real services.

At the end of this episode, Leslie uses the Eagleton wall to build a baseball field in a day. “You did all this in a day?” Lindsay asks her, and Leslie responds, “Yeah I work with some really great people.” This seems to point again to the folksy “politics is people” lesson of Parks. But notice that it’s “Sweetums Stadium at Lafayette Park,” suggesting that the department has had to negotiate sponsorship rights with Pawnee’s local corporate leader. The greatness of the people that Leslie works with is no longer a testament necessarily to their personalities, but to their ability to accomplish tasks as a single body.

The most recent two episodes, leading into tonight’s finale, demonstrate how compelling Leslie’s case for effective government has become over the course of season three. In The Fight, Leslie convinces Ann (Rashida Jones) to spend part of her time working as the PR Director for Pawnee’s Health Department. “With this new job you could make a difference. Make real change happen,” she argues to Ann.  Though Ann initially protests, by the end of the episode, Leslie’s voiceover explains, that Ann “works at city hall part time. And two days a week she still gets to be the greatest nurse in the world. Win, win.”

Ben and Leslie finally kiss in Road Trip, ending a season of building sexual tension. The basic condition of their relationship is a shared love of government work and the town that they serve. In a moment of great writing, Ben mixes Leslie and Pawnee together when talking about why he loves his job:

Pawnee is a really special town. And I love living there. I look forward to the moments in my day where I get to hang out with the town. And talk to the town about stuff. The town has really nice blonde hair and has read a shocking number of political biographies…for a town.

In last week’s episodes, the separation between the personal and the political finally totally collapsed.  Leslie’s best friend and her new love interest work in City Hall. I wonder whether this means that the Parks and Recreation department will be less productive in the coming episodes and in season four. This would be kind of disappointing, because over the last fourteen episodes Parks and Recreation has given us a view of something rare: a government institution that works.

AJ Aronstein teaches writing at the University of Chicago and lives on the West Side of Mayor Rahm’s City. He blogs about all things cultural at The Tasty Spoonful and has forthcoming articles on 9/11 literature this fall.

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  • David Wanczyk

    An excellent article, AJ. I can't wait for a season that revolves around a mayoral election. Knope v. Swanson might teach us all how to be civil in 2012.

  • http://asianniceguy.com El Sabor Asiático

    One thing that's problematic about P&R as a political comedy, though, is that Ron Swanson, as an anti-government libertarian in charge of the department, is portrayed as, at worst, ineffectual and indifferent. Real life politics suggests that people like Swanson aren't content with simply standing out of the way of people like Leslie Knope — they actively undermine and deflect any attempt to use governmental power for the public good, since government is the enemy, and can't be seen to be effective or beneficial in any way.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the show and Ron Swanson is my favorite character on it, but given his beliefs, I don't think he could be portrayed realistically and still be a sympathetic, likable character on the show.

    • A-J Aronstein@facebook

      @El Sabor Asiático I agree with you for the most part–especially on the fact that Ron is the best character, without breaking a sweat.

      But once in awhile, Ron does get the need for government. I come back to the last episode of Season Two. Ron not only convinces Chris/Ben not to cut Leslie's job ("It's simply not an option," he says) but also proceeds to warn his colleagues about the auditors' impending shutdown of the concert, Paul Revere style, at the park (Ron admits, "It's been a weird day for me").

      I guess what I'm saying is that there are at least a few instances in which Ron does sacrifice his libertarian views to help Leslie and the gang. Maybe these softening cases actually help make him likable?

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    Excellent article. Actually, when Parks and Rec came out, it drew the inevitable comparisons to the office. I think one of the smartest things they've done to separate themselves was to show that Leslie was actually good at her job, while Michael Scott (who does show flashes of competence) generally is ineffective. They still share that "mockumentary" layout of the show, but they don't share the "awkward office humor" trope.

  • Shannon Garcia

    El Sabor Asiático- Swanson is apathetic, overall. Sure, his beliefs are anti-government and libertarian, but his apathy and lack of compassion is his way of reacting to government intervention. Not doing anything, in a way, is a slight protest based on his beliefs. He is very convincing because there are plenty of people like him in the world.

  • Thomas M. Shea@facebook

    Slate or maybe it was Salon but I think Slate did a think piece a few weeks back that posited the idea that Leslie and Ron, in addition to being awesome comic characters, might also be the stereotypical essence of Liberal and Conservaitive:Liberal Leslie loves the town of Pawnee so much it's like a sickness, but can be brusque and unpleasant to those friends in her line of sight with whom she works, while Ron has no desire to really do his job to help anyone in Pawnee yet is often warm and/or fatherly with the others in the Department. Liberalism: hate your neighbor, love the village; Conservativism: love your neighbor, hate the village.It's simply a testament to how ridiculously good the show is in every way that we talk about it in these terms, I guess.