"Leslie and Ben and Liz and Criss: NBC Comedies On Modern Marriage"
This post discusses plot points from the February 21 episodes of Parks and Recreation.
Their shows are entirely different animals, but in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. Both are the main characters of tonally innovative and critically loved but ratings-challenged sitcoms, both have as their best friends older, Alpha-male archetypes, and both lead teams of people who are not always eager to make their lives easy. And both of them recently married their soulmates, laid-back food truck operator Criss Cross and anxious geek and good-government nerd Ben Wyatt, in impromptu ceremonies where they wore dresses that summed up significant themes of the run of their shows. As I watched Leslie and Ben tie the knot on last night’s Parks and Recreation and thought about the episode today, something came clear for me. Liz Lemon is a much pricklier, more challenging character than the relatively normal if professionally ambitious Leslie Knope. But Leslie’s relationship with Ben is more radical than Liz’s marriage to genial weirdo Criss.
Much of Liz Lemon’s dating history was about her coming to terms with what she really wants. In Floyd, she learned that she wanted her career and relationship with New York more than she wanted him in the suburbs. With Drew, she found out that handsome is only as handsome does. Carol turned out to be as rigid as Liz herself was. But in Criss, Liz found someone who was complimentary to her, whose great strength and expression of love for Liz was to help her handle her worst tendencies. He was a guy who’d never mistake an argument at Ikea for a breakup, who wasn’t intimidatingly perfect—his idea of romanticism was making Liz a table out of found objects that almost immediately collapsed—and, as we found out in the finale, really just wanted to stay home and raise their adopted children, letting Liz be the primary breadwinner. It makes sense that Liz married Criss in her Princess Leia outfit: their relationship was about Liz finally embracing herself precisely as she was, even if sometimes it’s the worst, because of society.
But while I appreciate 30 Rock‘s embrace of ladyweirdness, from female science fiction fandom, to using your treadmill as a hanger for a ham-stained wedding dress, to ambivalence about sex, Liz and Criss’s relationship came down to a fairly common argument about being loved for who you really are, even if who you are is kind of neurotic and strange. Parks and Recreation, by contrast, took two relatively conventional humans, albeit ones with intense fondness for calzones, waffles, Game of Thrones, and in Leslie’s case, a hoarding problem, and used a conventionally shot sitcom wedding where a makeshift family comes together at the last minute, to make permanent a relationship based on ideas that are deeply challenging by the standards of popular culture.
When Leslie met Ben, he was working as an Indiana State auditor, a job he’d chosen in part to redeem his disastrous tenure as the teenaged mayor of his small town, where he’d bankrupted the city government by building an elaborate ice skating complex and been impeached. The auditor’s job was a way for Ben to demonstrate that he’d definitively left the misconceptions of his first foray into government behind, so someone might give him the chance to run an agency or a city again. But over the course of Ben’s relationship with Leslie, he’s made a significant shift from planning for his own long-term ambitions to working to make Leslie’s dreams happen.
Now, it’s not that men in popular culture never help the women that they love achieve their professional goals. But that sort of encouragement usually doesn’t require sacrifice or compromise on the man’s part. Instead, he’s generally presented as someone who provides the wisdom, insight, or experience that a woman needs to self-actualize, whether it’s successful producer Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson) teaching Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) how to handle her feuding news anchors in Morning Glory, or shock jock Mike Chadwick (Gerard Butler) teaching his uptight producer Abby (Katherine Heigl) to relax. Criss isn’t teaching Liz how to do her job better, but he also essentially gets exactly what he wants by being with her, even if what he wants is to achieve in the domestic realm rather than a professional one. It’s a variation on the ideal of Having It All: having it all and having it together, without the need for conflict and compromise. This sort of ideal even shows up in breakup stories. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andie (Anne Hathaway) and Nate’s (Adrian Grenier) relationship falls apart when it doesn’t live up to their expectations that they will both be pursuing their careers and deeply present in their lives—exit, for both of them, turns out to be preferable to compromise and accommodation.
But for Ben, dating Leslie and supporting her run for office have entailed real sacrifices. He gave up his job in city government so she could keep hers and survive an ethics trial prompted by the revelation that they hadn’t disclosed their romantic relationship, a move that let Leslie preserve the prospects of a potential run for office, while putting another strike on his own record, precisely the kind of thing he came to Pawnee to avoid. Losing his job has real emotional consequences for Ben, who at one point ends up weeping in a Batman suit. He puts his energy into getting Leslie elected, and after that victory, takes a job working as a higher-profile campaign consultant in Washington. But once again, Ben chooses Leslie over his own career trajectory, coming home from Washington to propose to her instead of going to run a Florida campaign. And now that they’re married, Ben has settled into Pawnee and is running the Sweetums Foundation, a job that allows him to do good and to make smart decisions about budget and impact, but that also is a respectable local job that bolsters Leslie’s relationship with the town’s dominant industry.
Is it any wonder, then, that for her vows, Leslie told Ben “The things that you have done for me to help me, support me, surprise me, to make me happy, go above and beyond what any person deserves. You’re all I need. I love you and I like you.” There’s very little in popular culture that would have told Leslie, or that tells any woman, that she’ll find a partner who isn’t just happy to be supportive when it’s a fit, but who, when his interests and hers are in conflict, will prioritize hers, and choose and work to support them again and again. And there’s something remarkable about Ben’s declaration that “In my time working for the state government, my job sent me to 46 cities in 11 years. I lived in villages with eight people, rural communities, farming towns, I was sent to every corner of Indiana. And then I came here, and I realized this whole time I was wandering around everywhere looking for you.” Ben didn’t just find Leslie. In looking for the recovery of his own reputation, Ben found Leslie’s career instead, and made it his cause—the man’s come so far that he’s even capable of being touched by what appears to be the mysterious resurrection of Lil’ Sebastian.
For another couple, it might have been bizarre for the bride to wear a dress that’s made of headlines and documents about her career, but for Ben and Leslie, it’s perfect. Working together on projects like the Harvest Festival and her election didn’t just bring Ben and Leslie together and then closer as a couple—it was a core substance of their relationship and a reflection of their mutual values. And showing us a relationship like that is one of the reasons I don’t just love Parks and Recreation: I like it, too.