This post discusses plot points from the January 24 episode of Parks and Recreation.
One of the reasons Parks and Recreation has been able to argue so convincingly for the virtues of public service over the years is that it’s largely avoided national political controversies. It’s much easier to make the case for Leslie Knope’s slow but steady improvement of the deeply strange little town that is Pawnee, Indiana, is that she isn’t caught up in Congressional gridlock, partisan posturing, or hearings that are more for show and substance. You can dislike Congress, as most Americans do, you can be disgusted with the national political climate, and still like Leslie Knope’s good intentions.
So it was a daring move for the show to take on recent national politics as it did last night, when Leslie’s commission on jobs for women turned into a very Pawneean version of Rep. Darrell Issa’s all-male panel on contraception coverage in Obamacare. But last night’s episode worked because it took the form of a national debate and applied it to a small-town issue, the lack of women in the garbage pickup corps. It was a decision that worked because it expanded our understanding of Pawnee, something that I’d hoped Parks and Recreation would do more of this season. The show’s gotten stuck on the final accomplishment of Leslie’s initial goal to turn the pit behind Ann’s house into a park, as if it’s on a valedictory run, rather than setting itself up for what I’ve become convinced is a probable renewal given NBC’s comedy ratings woes. And it’s nice to see more of the city and city government.
The episode also worked because it was an example of how Parks and Recreation handles national political conversations best: making political subtext text, and carrying it to its logical and bonkers conclusion, but in very small-stakes settings. Want to reveal the irrationality of religious conservative objections to equal marriage rights? Have Marsha Langman get incensed over a wedding between two male penguins. Interested in exploring the extent to which racist sentiment lingers in politics in the name of traditions? Bring on the Pawnee town hall murals, with their cheerful, Technicolor portraits of atrocities. Want to have some fun with special interest group manipulation of politics? Wamapoke leader Ken Hotate is a brilliant, original creation that the show has doled out perfectly over the years.
And if you want to get at the real sexist sentiments that animate panels like Issa’s, just go to Pawnee, where it’s still the nineteenth century. “Technically, I’m not allowed to reserve this conference room without my husband or father’s signature,” Leslie explained of the room where she held her meeting to kickstart her new jobs initiative. In conversation with the Pawnee’s first City Councilwoman, the older lady explained to Leslie that “I once started a commission to try to get more jobs for women in city government. They dismissed me, said it was my time of the month. Admittedly they were right. Because of the calendar.” It turns out that Leslie’s colleagues are still keeping tabs on her menstrual cycle, too. The sanitation department’s proud of their lone female employee, of whom they say “She’s the best secretary we got. Except for Dan. Dan’s awesome.”
This stuff is all very silly when it’s confined to Pawnee. But it’s not. And it’s operating on stages much larger than the sanitation department’s attempts to show up April and Leslie with a refrigerator even they couldn’t move on their own. These sentiments have been disguised and packaged up again in much more sophisticated language that’s used to shape debates with much higher stakes. In Pawnee, the continuation of rampant sexism is hilarious because of Leslie’s ability to bowl right over it, with the help of some friends from the local coup kitchen and a sturdy dolly. Outside of Pawnee, it’s downright terrifying.