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.