The highs in the last season of Parks and Recreation were as high as they’ve ever been. But I’ll confess that the fifth year of my favorite show felt like a fifth year, a step slower than it had been in the past, and seemingly concerned with wrapping up its characters arcs in case it didn’t return for a sixth season. Parks and Recreation‘s kicked up the jams in a truly impressive way so far this season, but it’s left me thinking about the previous year. As has the shutdown of the federal government.
Last year, one of the things that had me turned off Parks and Recreation was, to be perfectly honest, the character of Councilman Jeremy Jamm. Jamm was a lot of things that have a tendency to turn me off: I don’t particularly love scatological humor, and I dislike characters who are grating or behave in immature ways to no discernible point.
And to a certain extent, Jamm felt out of keeping with the character of Pawnee. The residents of this fictional town, which is almost as richly detailed and as eccentrically populated as the Springfield of The Simpsons, might be fat, lazy, and profoundly strange, but they’re not necessarily motivated by bad things. They want to put Twilight into town time capsules to connect with their daughters after divorces, and they play flutes while waiting for the apocalypse, and they do porn with incredible verve and cheer. They might be wrong about giant sodas, and they might prefer PaunchBurger to parks, and they might hate Leslie Knope for believing that they can be better than they are. But they aren’t necessarily malicious.
Councilman Jamm’s different. He’s entirely and solely selfish. He’s childish, disrupting Leslie’s wedding with stink bombs because he can’t accept that she might be happy. And there always, always, always has to be something in it for him, whether it’s a private bathroom or an endless supply of Sno-Cones and the sight of people who are normally friends fighting it out for his entertainment. Jamm was so sour that I flinched when he showed up on screen.
But thanks to the shutdown, and the work of Kyle Wrather and Charlotte Howell, the creators of the America, You Just Got Jammed Tumblr, I get it. Before the shutdown, Jamm felt repulsive to me in a way that felt divorced from any real behavior by lawmakers. But as the shutdown has persisted, some of the lawmakers keeping it going, in their sense that they need to get something out of the shutdown.
Jamm is a more mendacious human being than, say, Sen. Ted Cruz is, even if his ability to do damage is limited to a smaller scale. He has no relationship with his constituents whatsoever, and while I believe that many of the legislators who are facilitating the shutdown are representing people who will benefit from Obamacare, I’m sure there are people who voted for them who feel differently. His plan to build a PaunchBurger on Leslie’s lot would directly financially enrich him, while Cruz and others mainly have political standing to gain from the shutdown they forced (though, if the federal government hits the debt ceiling, I imagine their portfolios could take a hit, so they’ve got something to lose). And where federal lawmakers are grand, Jamm is unrelentingly petty.
But both in Washington right now and in Parks and Recreation last season, we’re seeing people participate in a mindset that appears to prioritize their pride over policy, and that treats politics as a system meant to be ramified, where an interaction is a failure if it doesn’t end in a transaction. Or as Kyle and Charlotte put it:
There’s genuinely something scary about the idea that members of Congress would negotiate for the real the way April tends to negotiate with Leslie in jest. But it’s even more frightening to think about the prospect of someone like Leslie Knope going into elected office and turning, inevitably, into Jeremy Jamm. This season’s merger with Eagleton is an important test of the lesson Leslie learned last season, that fighting every battle with horsetrading was a quick way to become a person she hates. The question for the show, and for the rest of us, is whether or not there’s away around the Councilman Jamms of the world, and whether we can avoid being held hostage or transformed by them.