"How ‘Parks And Recreation’ Got Its Campaign Story Right, And ‘Parenthood’ Is Getting Its Wrong"
Parks and Recreation has always been optimistic about what dedicated people can accomplish by working within the bureaucracy, but more skeptical about the elected officials, and what they do with the offices they’ve been given. In the second season, the Pawnee government literally shut down because the town’s budget had been managed so poorly, and this season, Eagleton turned out to have been so badly financially mismanaged that the town had to be reabsorbed into Pawnee.
The elected officials we’ve actually seen in Pawnee are, almost without exception, hilariously disastrous. Mayor Gunderson seems to largely govern in absentia, having never made an actual appearance on the show, be his presence required at a City Council meeting, a budget review committee, or even Lil’ Sebastian’s funeral. Councilman Bill Dexhart spends so much time having sex with people not his spouse that it’s impossible to imagine that he spends any time actually legislating. His colleague Fielding Milton first won election to office on a platform of de-integrating Major League Baseball, and though his views haven’t changed in the sixty-five years since, his constituents haven’t seen fit to replace him with a candidate more in keeping with contemporary attitudes and priorities. And Jeremy Jamm, Leslie’s nemesis, primarily uses his office to enrich or amuse himself, whether he’s trying to cut a deal to build a Paunchburger on the lot that Leslie worked so hard to save, or soaking Leslie for her office with a private bathroom and for unlimited mini-golf and Sno Cones. The only remotely sensible Pawnee elected official we’ve seen other than Leslie is Councilman Howser, who mostly seems to keep a low-profile (except when he’s provoked by Jamm’s Yin Yang symbol gong), perhaps rightly sensing that if he followed his instincts out onto the kinds of legislative limbs where Leslie makes herself at home, he’d be quickly divested of his office.
In this context, it’s surprising that Leslie won her campaign for City Council in the first place, and it makes absolute sense that she was recalled. Pawnee is largely in thrall to its largest employer, Sweetums. If Leslie hadn’t been such a determined candidate, and Bobby Newport hadn’t been such an epic dummy, a Sweetums-backed candidate almost certainly would have captured the open seat in question. Leslie has always wanted better (or different) for Pawnee than Pawneeans actually want for themselves, but when she was safely cloistered in the Parks and Recreation Department, it was a charming attribute to us, and largely unnoticed by Leslie’s constituents. Now that she’s on City Council, the gap between what Leslie wants and what Pawneeans want is obvious, and I can understand why some of them might find it grating.
I’d vote for Leslie Knope in a heartbeat. But in the world that Parks and Recreation has built for us over five and a half seasons, it makes sense that she’d lose a recall race. Leslie thrived in a bureaucracy, for the same reasons that she’s struggled in elected office. That’s a more complicated argument than the simpler good-government worldview that prevailed in the show’s early seasons, but for that reason it’s an important one. The Parks and Recreation we have today doesn’t just make the argument that civil service (a narrower thing than public service) is under-appreciated. It suggests that there’s a competence and priorities gap between our elected officials and our bureaucratic employees that makes it harder to serve the public, and systematically weeds good people out of the pool of potential candidates.
Parenthood, by contrast, has dived into a political storyline this season with a decidedly more naive set of priors. The show was always going to be limited by one of its most important core assumptions, that what’s good for the Bravermans is good for everyone else. This meant that no matter how unqualified Kristina Braverman is to be mayor of Berkeley, the show was going to be on her side, even if that meant its opposition to Bob Little would seem increasingly irrational.
That problem got more pronounced tonight when Bob Little, frustrated by Kristina’s rise in the polls, went negative on his opponent, leaking the story that Adam Braverman had punched a man who insulted his son in the supermarket. Parenthood takes the entirely predictable position that this is a no-good, very-bad thing for Bob to have done, overshadowing the extent to which Adam’s failure to disclose the incident to Kristina’s campaign represented a lack of commitment to the project. The show reinforces that point, emphasizing Kristina’s goodness over Bob’s theoretically fallenness, when she decides not to leak the story that Bob had a relationship with Amber.
It would have been fascinating to see Parenthood go through with the leak, because it would have been a terrific opportunity to explore the contrast between the way the Bravermans see the world, and the way the rest of the world sees them. How would Kristina’s sense that Bob–a relatively young, single man’s–had an inappropriate relationship with Amber, who was 19 at the time and similarly single–play with larger Berkeley voters? Would she come across as a moralistic scold, which was my reaction to her indignation at the time? Would the whole thing seem like an intra-Braverman setup, which is how it plays while Kristina is considering it?
The most realistic moment in Parenthood was the one where Kristina realized that taking the high road hadn’t actually improved her standing in the polls (in fact, it’s probably made her look self-righteous). It was a nice, Knope-ian bit of realism about the way that politics works. But instead of grappling with the gap between the way we’d like politics to work and the constantly reinforced realizations that our wishes and reality don’t go hand in hand, Parenthood still seems indignant about Kristina’s circumstances. The show seems to think she should win because she has good intentions, because it would be a self-actualizing experience, and to a certain extent, because it would mean that all of her work caring for Max was preparing her for something larger. And Parenthood seems to believe that she will lose because that Bob Little is a bad, mean man, not because she’s under-qualified, or because her primary pitch is a personal story that increasingly relies on her son’s Asperger syndrome.
It would be smart for Parenthood to eventually arrive at a place where Kristina loses the mayoral race but finds a way to re-enagage with her career, and to grapple honestly with the sacrifices she’s made on Max’s behalf (and in having a late third child). The show can arrive at a more intelligent political worldview than the one that’s governed much of this election storyline, and still be true to its Braverman-centric self. But it would be good to see Parenthood take a note from Parks and Recreation, and to recognize both that politics can be infuriating, but also that goodness can be condescending and irritating. Leslie Knope and Kristina Braverman have more in common than Kristina might want to acknowledge. Acknowledging would make for good commentary, and good television.