The Idealistic Legacy of ‘Parks and Recreation’

parksandrec-leslieNext Tuesday, when the lights go out at Pawnee City Hall, when JJ’s Diner cooks up its last waffles, when Councilman Dexhart has his final affair, when “treat yo’ self” and Galentine’s Day and Li’l Sebastian and Sweetums and “lit’rally” and the Lo-Cal Calzone Zone become but legends drifting in the Indiana wind, Parks and Recreation will vanish from the airwaves, leaving a television landscape that’s far more glum without it.

Initially something of an Office knockoff, creator Mike Schur, together with his cast and crew, quickly discovered the comedy of niceness, of people that are genuinely kind to each other and stand firmly by their beliefs. It’s a world where the sarcastic, disaffected character isn’t the audience surrogate but the weird one whose character arc teaches her to engage and sympathize more with her community.

If that doesn’t seem revolutionary, consider how many of the best, most influential sitcoms of the last twenty or so years — Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Office — were filled with bitter, selfish, ignorant people, bickering and tearing each other down. Even the friends of Friends, one of the ultimate hangout, good-vibes sitcoms, were at each other’s throats about one thing or another almost every episode. (Plus, let me know if you find another sitcom with so many jokes about a main character’s mother killing herself.) These shows could be very humane and hopeful when they wanted to be, but Parks and Recreation took that optimism and ran with it the way few, if any, modern comedies have.

Right now, I’m watching as a crane shot lifts from Leslie Knope and sails over the Pawnee Harvest Festival on a sunny, autumn day to the strains of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.” It’s a moment of transcendence in a series full of them, the shot fluidly connecting this one woman to her hometown, a public servant looking on at the community she improved because of her dedication. “American Girl,” a song about a young woman “raised on promises” who dreams of the day she can meet the big, exciting world stretched out in front of her, is the perfect soundtrack. See, Leslie is that dream realized; she’s that girl, now grown up, making damn sure those promises are kept, bending a frustrating, broken system to her will through sheer determination.

Most ensemble sitcoms position their casts as makeshift families, support systems the characters can fall back on when the world disappoints and defeats them. Parks and Recreation goes five steps further. Here’s a show centered on a woman with an indefatigable spirit and work ethic, a hurricane of binders and bureaucratic paperwork, who loves her friends so much that it’s a running joke she showers them with affirmations and gifts every chance she gets. Yeah, the world’s still against these people — short-sighted townsfolk, corrupt leaders and supervillain ex-wives throw up unnecessary obstacles at every turn — but this is a show that dared to believe the system was a beast that could be beat back and overcome, and not just weathered together.

And indeed, there were very few limitations on what the characters ended up achieving, even comically so. These seven seasons have transformed a man-child who once lived in a dirt pit into a husband and local children’s TV star; an obnoxious, chauvinistic dreamer into a budding restauranteur and romantic; a neurotic, bitter teenage mayor into a Congressional candidate and board game magnate; a sweet, if incompetent, office punching bag into the town’s interim mayor, and on and on. (Well, I guess Donna’s always had it figured out, but she ditched seeking out drama to settle down with Keegan-Michael Key!) No wonder the series dumped Mark Brendanawicz early on. As a disillusioned urban planner, he was possibly the show’s most down-to-earth character, but he was also the one least open to the series’ unflagging hopefulness, so he was cast out. (And I mean out. No one’s mentioned him a single time since he left the show in Season 2, even when it wouldn’t make sense not to mention him. There’s something really funny and deeply strange about this to me.)

Think for a second. How many scenes during the series — hell, per episode — simply feature one character encouraging another? Or how about when Leslie votes for herself for councilwoman in the fourth season finale? The show simply lets the moment play out, as we watch her softly cry in the voting booth. We know how hard she’s worked, the decisions she’s made. It’s a rare, beautiful moment to watch someone get even a fleeting glimpse at a moment she’s been imagining her whole life, and we share in her triumph, awaiting the day that that will happen to us too. If, like those studies say, we need at least eight hugs per day, then any given episode of Parks and Recreation fills at least half that requirement.

That idealistic worldview stretches, of course, to its politics. Here we have pro-government Leslie and staunch libertarian Ron Swanson, two characters whose philosophies run perpendicular to each other, working together as something like best friends, because their fundamental respect for each other outweighs their differences. It may not be the most realistic reflection of our country right now, and most other shows might make these characters enemies, a way to satirize our own deadlocked, do-nothing Congress. But Parks is aspirational, a vision for a better America that may seem like a pipe dream, but, man, it can be comforting to watch. Granted, outside of the main characters, Pawnee’s government and history is a cynical joke, full of corruption, indifference, bigotry and atrocity. But whether facing down a sexist sanitation department or a childlike candidate played by Paul Rudd, Leslie and her co-workers never give up the war, even if they lost a few battles.

Nowadays, television comedy is wary of such outright idealism. Part of this is because joy and optimism are often difficult to express well in art. Happiness can easily curdle into smugness, and it’s a finer line than it seems. There’s a reason songs about alienation and heartbreak often trump ones of loving relationships and domestic bliss on the charts. If you’re depressed, you really don’t want to hear your friend go on and on about how great their life is going right now, especially if the difference between your situations is based mainly on luck. You’d rather share your struggles with someone who empathizes with just how difficult it’s been for you lately, and when you watch them overcome, you feel like you too can achieve what you set out to do. Given that plenty of things just plain don’t work out, it can be murder to write this sort of intelligent, considered optimism over and over again into a TV series and retain a measure of realism.

At its best, Parks sort of found a way around this problem. In a general sense, “the American Dream” is an impossible ambition, a vague concept of your ideal life, but it’s often sold as an achievable end goal, something to spend your life working toward. The brilliance of Parks and Recreation is that it both stuck to that ideal and made it infinitely more grounded. It re-characterizes the American Dream as something simple but true: being surrounded by those who love and support you, while you do what you love to help your community. Many characters, especially Tom Haverford, have specific dreams in mind for their futures, but the tone of the series suggests time and again that these people were already living out the dream, that life was worth living as it was because they were surrounded by people who sincerely cared.

Some critics allege that Parks and Recreation’s unflappable sunniness caused the series to go off the rails a tad in the later seasons, and in truth, it’s a criticism I agree with. Like a lot of shows in the late stages of their lives, Parks became increasingly untethered from reality. (Watching the telethon from Season 2 can be pretty jarring after watching Ginuwine and a hologram of Li’l Sebastian perform at the Unity Concert. And that episode, “Moving Up,” is up there with my favorites.) It became a hangout show so charitable and protective of its characters that it rewarded them for facing even the slightest bit of opposition. Yet if it became a less relatable show and one that tended to spin its wheels more often, it was also a show no less unique or warm because of that.

When all is said and done, Parks and Recreation will leave behind seven seasons, 125 episodes, a book, a board game, and countless Ron Swanson memes. Not too many shows immediately jump to mind that can fill its shoes. Comedies like New Girl and Bob’s Burgers certainly aren’t bitter slogs, and the latter can be especially heartwarming, but the closest that show has to a Leslie is Louise Belcher, and she’s manipulative and conniving as all hell, while put-upon Bob rarely ever gets a win. Schur’s own Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems a likely candidate, but as fun as it can be at its core, it’s a much colder show than Parks ever was. (Some of that, I’m sure, is by design. A relentlessly chipper series about NYPD detectives might be even harder to execute than one about local government. If anything, it would just come across as hopelessly naïve.)

Maybe Parks and Recreation’s legacy will be felt more in spirit than direct copycatting, as a catalyst for more shows with feminist protagonists or a positive outlook. The networks’ reticence to make a show that parallels Parks’ idealism, maybe having to do with the fact the show was never a ratings hit, suggests that the series was doing something far more difficult than it may seem on the outset.

In Leslie’s closing statement during her electoral debate, she sums up her platform and, more or less, the show’s own philosophy:

I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it, you don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first… If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.

I have to believe that’s true, that the series will live on in some capacity, that it affected real change the way Leslie did. Certainly, not every show, or even most shows, should take after it, but TV writers would do well to internalize the generous lessons of Parks and Recreation. Till then, my friend, we always have Pawnee.

Chris Kopcow is a comedy guy and pop culture writer, who links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.

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