I gave Parks and Recreation a miss when it premiered on April 9th, 2009, because I made the mistake of thinking that it was just trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice. The mockumentary-style comedy was becoming a thing after the success of The Office, and it just felt like NBC wanted something that worked just as well without understanding what made it so good in the first place. I didn’t know that much about Amy Poehler beyond the fact that she was partners with Tina Fey and the wife of Will Arnett, both very funny people.
Then I started watching it. Ryan and I were looking for something new and relatively quick to watch, and we’d heard enough good things about it to give it a shot. What attracted me to it at first was its good-natured silliness. Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a little ditzy (like boss Michael Scott in The Office), but she was so naively optimistic it was hard not to fall in love with her. The rest of the staff of Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation Department were doofy in their own way, but most of them didn’t have that same bite you find in The Office. It made the show a brighter, fluffier companion to the folks in Scranton, PA, and right away it showed itself as a good complement.
The first six-episode season focused around the filling of a pit behind the house of Ann Perkins, a registered nurse. The plot served as a great introduction to the process of getting anything done in local government, as well as establishing the personalities and relationships of its main characters. There are a number of roadblocks that make Leslie’s goal of filling the pit and turning it into a park difficult, but the sheer tirelessness of her optimism and her surprising resourcefulness win out — she manages to pull it off, earning a small win for herself and her band of broken people.
From there, the stakes raise throughout the season and Leslie and co. have to pull off increasingly difficult projects while navigating professional and romantic entanglements. In order to stave off a government shutdown, Leslie has to put together a Harvest Festival to prove the worth of the department. Out of that success comes the chance to run for City Council, fulfilling one of Leslie’s lifelong dreams — running for public office. The campaign and election takes up the entirety of season four, and it’s here where Parks and Recreation becomes one of my favorite comedies of all-time.
The first three seasons are all great, don’t get me wrong. The ensemble cast clicks in almost no time at all, and as Leslie’s character goes from being optimistic ditz to hard-working, unbelievably good person her transition elevates the entire show. Leslie’s beliefs and her commitment to being true to them through her actions form the backbone of the show, and the supporting characters rally around that. Through the first three seasons, you see these people become inspired by Leslie to raise their own personal standards and learn to not only tolerate, but support one another despite their differences.
Season four’s campaign storyline is the culmination of that. You see these people — the stupid but earnest Andy Dwyer, the apathetic goth-girl April Ludgate, the man’s-man Libertarian Ron Swanson, the excessively happy health-nut Chris Traeger — form a tight-knit community that completes them in some way, and forces them to see the world beyond their small bubble in it. Helping Leslie achieve her dream leads them to finding and chasing their own, and they get a better sense of themselves through it. That secureness in their own character enables them to interact with people who would normally be their antithesis. In so many ways, Parks and Recreation illustrates the best of what government can do: help us find a way to live together despite our different ideas.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch. In so many ways, it’s more a liberal, escapist fantasy than The West Wing. That show featured incredibly intelligent people circling the wagons against a hostile world that wants to take them down. Everyone’s on the same team, and it’s just a matter of watching them engineer defenses against attacks. It’s great to watch, if you’re on the same team as well. But what makes Parks and Rec greater than that is having people coming from so many bizarre directions forced to work together. Not only that, but they have to learn how to do it well. Through hard work and constant effort, they manage it. They overcome every obstacle thrown at them by building a better community that accommodates everyone.
This is the kind of story we need right now. Our political process has become fundamentally broken because the national conversation has devolved into shouting matches between two teams who cannot see the value in learning to be civil with one another. Parks and Recreation shows us just what we can do when we come together for the good of our neighbors, and how much doing so enriches our lives. Leslie Knope is a model citizen to that end, and a model politician. She believes in the power of government and bureaucracy to make the places we live better, and she’s not content to simply hope for that to happen. She goes out to make it happen, and she encourages the people she works with to make it happen, too. And it’s a genuine joy watching her.