Happy news! Park and Recreation, the last pillar of NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, appears to have earned a sixth season from the network, at least according to Alan Sepinwall’s reporting. In honor of this victory of quality over mediocrity—or at least in honor of the fact that the collapse of the network television model is keeping alive shows that otherwise might never have drawn breath, I want to consider what it is that makes Parks and Recreation so unique.
The show has always been notable for its optimistic argument that government, portrayed as a wretched hive of ineffectiveness and villainy almost everywhere else in popular culture, employs competent, enthusiastic people, and can be a significant force for good. But as I’ve been thinking over the last year we spent in Pawnee, Indiana, I realized that Parks and Recreation has actually been doing something more striking and sophisticated, which culminated in the season finale, “Are You Better Off?” The show hasn’t just trusted viewers to enjoy the ping-pong match between Leslie Knope’s optimistic liberalism and Ron Swanson’s pessimistic, self-reliant libertarianism and to side with Leslie, but, having accepted that government can be effective, to walk through an extended debate about what government’s capacities should be used for.
As Leslie kicked off her first year on the City Council, she pursued an agenda that was rooted in the idea that the role of government is to remedy failures in the market, even when the failures are a matter of public pleasure and intellectual life, rather than of health, safety, and public welfare. Her initiatives tended to fall into one of two categories: projects that were good for Pawneeans, whether they liked it or not, and projects that enriched their lives, even if they weren’t ponying up enough to support them.
Leslie’s work in the first category prompted the campaign to recall her that ended the first season. She took on the all-male Sanitation Department, who told her at the time that their sole female employee was “the best secretary we got. Except for Dan. Dan’s awesome,” and proved that women were more than capable of picking up Pawnee’s refuse. Later, the men she’d quibbled with would complain about what their lives had been like “Ever since you stripped us of our freedoms by making us hire women.” Inspired by the testimony of citizens like the one who told Leslie “My husband started drinking those giant sodas and he gained 100 pounds in three months. Consequently, we haven’t had sex in ten years,” Leslie pulled a Mayor Bloomberg and cracked down on drink serving sizes in Pawnee, an action that lead the Sweetums corporation to put a target on her back. “You convinced the school board that napkins were a vegetable!” Leslie protested when the company lead the drive to recall her. “They’re made from plants!” a Sweetums executive insisted cheerfully.
And when Pawneeans weren’t treating Leslie’s regulations to enforce equity in hiring and public health as infringements on core freedoms (“There was supposed to be a Paunchburger in the lot near my house. You stripped us of our freedoms…” complained one citizen who was irked by Leslie’s victory in turning the former site of the pit into a park rather than commercial zoning), her family-values conservative enemies the Langmans were complaining that Leslie had gone too far, particularly by teaching sex education to seniors. “Now this town is a horrifying sex den where people can put their body parts wherever they want with impunity,” Marcia Langman declared at the meeting at which the recall was hatched. “Deviant behavior in Pawnee is up a billion percent!” her obviously-gay husband Marshall chimed in. Collectively, Leslie’s opponents represent the opposite ends of the spectrum, people who think government should control everything as long a its decisions are in line with their agenda, and people who think the government shouldn’t do anything at all. In other words, they’re the contemporary Republican party, and I imagine the recall campaign in season six will show them to be just as hilariously fractured—and just as capable of damage to decent public policy—as their real-world analogue.
Leslie’s other efforts went largely unrecognized by the larger Pawnee community this season, except for the people who benefitted from them, or by Councilman Jamm, who attempted to thwart her at every turn, whether she was trying to keep the public pools open for the Porpoises, the local swim team, to save a mini-golf course for pure public pleasure, or to preserve a failing video store.
“There has to be a way for the government to help places that have community value but don’t necessarily rake in the money,” Leslie said, frustrated, earlier in the season, when her attempts to keep the Pawnee Videodome, “the only place in town where people gather to do something intellectual,” open foundered. First, her attempt to bail out the business ran into opposition, and then, the successful bailout didn’t inspire the owner (a very funny Jason Schwartzmann) to find new ways to promote his stock of art films, but instead prompted him to start renting out pornography instead. “This man is a failure,” Ron Swanson, Leslie’s libertarian former boss told her, irritated at her attempt to bail out the store at all. “He is not up to snuff. He is failing, and you are bailing him out. This is a bailout and I don’t like it. And there are some pretty intellectual conversations happening down at Barrett’s Hardware store.” Ultimately, Leslie reached a compromise that combined both of their positions, starting up a town-sponsored film screening series that aired movies that were less obscure than the Pawnee Videodome’s original offering, but also much less commercial than studio releases. She’s identified an interim space: there might not be a big enough market in Pawnee to support an independent film business, but there was a genuine demand that the government could meet that a business could not.
The mini-golf course plot, which came closer to the end of the season, had a more cynical conclusion. “I think this is proof that this is a wonderful place that brings people joy and brings the community together,” Leslie protested, when the course came under threat. “It’s also a place that cost the taxpayers $9000 last year,” Ron told her, asking her to consider whether the course was a reasonable expenditure of public monies. In the end, neither of their positions won the day. When Ron won a match between them with a brilliant golf stroke, Jamm randomly gave his vote to the side advocating the closure of the park—and pointed out that Leslie can be just as capricious and corner-cutting as he is. “This is simply how people like us operate,” Jamm told her. It was a valuable lesson for Leslie, and one that I hope will prompt the show to spend more time with other City Councilmen in its sixth season as Leslie tries to become a better lobbyist for her own causes. “There are a lot of Jeremy Jamms along the path you’re walking,” Ron warned her. “You have to decide if it’s a path you really want to walk.” Ron
But in between these two big picture debates about the role of government, full of allusions to national politics, Parks and Recreation also served up a valuable reminder about a function of government about which their ought to be consensus. When Ron set up a 311 line, only to find that the Public Works department wasn’t responding to calls, particularly ones from a woman with pothole problem, he summoned Andy, telling him, “Andrew, get your lunch, some water, and a 40 pound bag of asphalt,” and fixed the hole in the road himself. It was an important reminder that it’s not just the “stupid, selfish jerkbutt[s]” like Jamm who cause voters to lose faith in government. It’s the tendency of people in government to get distracted by flashy, career-enhancing fights, rather than getting the roads fixed. It’s something Leslie, and so many other politicians at the local, state, and national level could stand to remember.