clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Parks and Recreation is a love letter to America as we wish it could be

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The word most often used to describe Parks and Recreation among its fans was "nice." (The series ends its run at 10 pm Eastern on Tuesday, February 24, 2015.) It was a show about nice people, who tried their hardest to be nice to each other. It was a show about a small town — Pawnee, Indiana — that seemed to be filled with demonstrably insane people that was, nevertheless, an incredibly nice place to live. And it was about the virtues of niceness.

That proved deeply soothing in a time when it can often seem like the world is being devoured from the inside by anger and bitterness. The country we live in right now is as partisan as it's ever been, but the world of Pawnee is a place where people of all political stripes and philosophies can sit down and talk out their differences over waffles. You can believe very different things, but still respect each other on a fundamental level.

Parks, then, was a show about America as we hope it to be, rather than America as it actually exists. Almost all small-town shows are suffused with a nostalgia for an America that increasingly doesn't exist. What made Parks so different was how it was filled with a nostalgia for an America that felt like a Magic Eye version of the real one. Stare at it long enough, and a better, fuller picture starts to emerge from the chaos and noise.

Small-town life in Obama's America

I have long held (and have expounded upon at great length here) the belief that certain TV shows become associated with certain presidential administrations. Family Ties, for instance, dug into the political schism of the Reagan era in a way that turned out to work only in the context of the era. The X-Files exists in the most paranoid fantasies of what the Clinton White House might be up to. (As it turned out, Bill Clinton might have appreciated a shadowy conspiracy cleaning up his dirty laundry.) 24, meanwhile, was every dark nightmare of the George W. Bush years manifested — including both fears of terrorist bloodshed and widespread government overreach in response to said bloodshed.

To that end, Parks exists in President Barack Obama's America as well as any show that has hit the air since Obama took office. It began shortly after his inauguration. It ends a little under two years before he exits for good. Its major theme is the good intentions of civil servants, bumping up against the raw, sometimes unfocused anger of those they ostensibly serve. (Series creator Michael Schur talks a little bit about this in my interview with him and in Alan Sepinwall's interview with him here.)

When the series began, Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope was widely read as a Hillary Clinton analogue (because we TV critics are not especially imaginative — though to be fair to us, she invited the comparison). But the longer it has run, the more she has seemed like a funhouse mirror version of everything the Obama 2008 campaign promised and ultimately didn't deliver on — namely, an attempt to change Washington for good, from the inside out. Leslie got things accomplished, but usually at tremendous cost to her own political standing. She ends the series not as president, but as someone being promoted to a federal functionary. It's better than where she started; it's as far from her biggest dreams as it possibly could be.

Fittingly, Parks shared the same ambivalence about this view of the country as Obama's critics. One of Leslie's best friends is Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who proved the show's breakout character and is basically a sort of Platonic ideal of well-meaning libertarianism. Ron believes the government need not interfere in the lives of individuals because they're best able to care for themselves. What makes him such a good character is how well he lives up to this, not just caring for himself but for the others in his life.

Parks is written by people whose ideals trend toward progressive, but they've created in Ron a sort of vision of why conservatism remains so appealing to so many. Help coming from above will always feel, in some ways, a touch insulting. Help coming from a friend will hopefully feel like a lifeline.


Eden everywhere

Parks' niceness could hurt it. It spent a surprising portion of its run being unsure of just how much it could throw up against its characters, often burying the show in a world where the only conflict was between our sensible main characters and a bunch of lunatics.

It wasn't a question of if Leslie would defeat dunderhead Bobby Newport when she ran for city council as season four wrapped up, because if she had somehow lost, it would have diminished her character too much. The show that had been so incisive and cutting in its second and third seasons (and much of its fourth) lost a little something there and struggled to regain it in seasons five and six.

But at the same time, critiques of the show for that niceness (including, frequently, from me) missed that part of the appeal of the show was how much it felt like a weekly, half-hour long blanket that blocked out the relentless un-niceness of the world. If Leslie and Ron could get along, if he could even support her in her run for office when they shared such politically divergent viewpoints, why couldn't everybody else?

What has finally made Parks and Rec so brilliant in its final season — in a way that marks it as one of the best comedies of its era — is the way that it bumps up against the limitations of niceness. Yes, being a good person and a good friend will ultimately save the day, but it's no solution for feeling unfulfilled in one's life and job. It's no balm for someone who's spent his life being the butt of the joke. And it's not the answer for anyone who wants, as we all do at one point or another, something more.

Parks has always sold Pawnee as a kind of Eden, a miraculous place where the townsfolk might lash out in vituperation at the slightest provocation but where everybody is fundamentally good-hearted. Maybe the show's struggles to keep its story rolling, then, stemmed from the fact that all Edens eventually have to be left. Staying in paradise forever isn't just impossible — it stunts growth.

The final genius of Parks, then, has been in the idea that we don't find Eden. We create it, all around us, every day. Others, gracious enough to give us pieces of it, invite us to carry it forward. And if we're up to the task, we might find ourselves willing and able. We might react to that cutting remark or that attack on something we hold dear not with a response in kind but with the understanding that to be nice, to be loving, doesn't mean you also have to be weak.

And then, sure, we'll all have waffles.