Arts, Featured Column, Television, Column

“Parks And Rec,” The State Of The Union, And Us Somewhere Inbetween

Parks and Recreation offers something we desperately need: a vision of America where democracy still works

Three weeks ago, on Tuesday, Jan. 20, President of the United States Obama delivered his sixth State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. The same night, the seventh and final season of Parks and Recreation debuted on NBC. I know, because I was waiting for one of these programs to end so the other could begin (sorry, Mr. President).

Parks and Rec and presidential politics: what do these two TV events have to say to each other? More than you might think, actually. As unassuming as the show may appear, I contend that Parks and Recreation is the best show about American politics of our generation. It’s less cynical than the backstabbing vision of Washington shown in House of Cards, less pandering than Aaron Sorkin’s insufferable The Newsroom, and more idealistic than both of them. It may lack the raunchy laughs of Veep and the serious drama cred of Homeland, but Parks and Recreation offers something else that we desperately need: a vision of America where democracy still works.

I know, I know: that’s a pretty weighty charge to lay upon a show that began as a mediocre knock-off of The Office. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what the show was at first. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was an only slightly less crazy version of Michael Scott, and everything from the camera style to the supporting cast’s foibles seemed to mimic The Office. The show only got its groove going in the second season when it departed from the formula. Instead of being another deadpan comedy about a deadbeat workplace, Parks and Rec embraced the optimism of its protagonist. It became a truly idealistic show, about one woman’s never-ending quest to make things better for the town that she loves.

Over the course of seven years, Parks and Recreation has been an education in civics disguised as an ensemble sitcom. In examining the daily struggles of a tiny parks department in Pawnee, Indiana, Parks has found humor in town hall meetings, government shutdowns, filibusters, taxation controversies, dirty campaign tactics, and vote-buying schemes. It has plunged its audience into a world of absurd political players and opinion-makers, from the obstructionist City Councilman Jeremy Jamm to the blissfully dumb TV anchor Perd Hapley. Squint a little, and any given episode of Parks and Recreation becomes a surprisingly shrewd look at the ailments of our dysfunctional political system.

Here’s the thing, though: the show has never let that satire obscure its fundamental good-naturedness. Parks is infused with a real sense of affection for all the crazy personalities, outdated laws and ridiculous traditions that populate its storylines. It is a vision of small-town American life that embraces democracy in all its complexity and absurdity.

It also embraces it in the characters in the same way. I don’t have enough words to dwell on Aziz Ansari as the swaggy entrepreneur Tom Haverford, or Chris Pratt as the lovable doofus Andy Dwyer, or Aubrey Plaza as the stone-cold, sarcastic April Ludgate. Suffice it to say that they form a well-oiled comedic machine, and are integral to the show’s essentially communal vision.

All other supporting characters, however, must bow down to Ron Swanson. As portrayed by Nick Offerman, Swanson has always been the perfect foil to Leslie Knope, a mustachioed burly man who espouses libertarian policies that would make Ron Paul blush. The conflict between Leslie’s big-government activism and Ron’s conservative convictions has been the butt of countless jokes over the years, but in this farewell season the writers are exploring that tension in particularly fruitful ways.

The season premiere, which jumps ahead to 2017 to find Leslie working with the national parks service and Ron running a private construction company, also put the two friends at loggerheads over a long-simmering dispute. Three episodes later, Ron and Leslie were forced to confront their resentments when they were locked together overnight in City Hall. It could have been a tired sitcom cliche, but Poehler and Offerman pulled it off: a tribute to how deeply they have inhabited their characters, and to the writers’ conviction to make both characters well-intentioned, principled people whose ideological disagreements cannot trounce their friendship.

There is, I think, something beautiful in Leslie and Ron’s friendship that speaks to a fundamental hope we have as Americans: the hope that we are still more united than divided. Which brings me back full circle, to the State of the Union, where President Obama reiterated his famous refrain about America being a unified country: not red or blue, liberal or conservative, but fundamentally one. “I still believe that we are one people,” the president said, to applause, even as pundits ripped him later in the evening for his apparent naivete.

Perhaps they were right to do so. At least on the national level, America today does not look remotely united, and it’s hard to imagine, say, Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren sharing a friendship like Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope.

But there is at least one place where that vision still holds sway: a town called Pawnee, Indiana, which you can visit on Tuesdays at 8pm for the next three weeks. Spend a little time there, and you may find yourself touched by the better angels of our nature.

Featured Image Courtesy of NBC

February 5, 2015