Where Did Parks and Recreation Go Wrong?

I wrote a piece almost a year and a half ago about the politics of Parks and Recreation, but we never ran the post because we were not quite sure it properly captured the essence of the show’s unabashedly liberal, pro-public message.  In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t—because subsequent seasons have cast the sitcom in a rather different light.  The idealism of civil servant Leslie Knope is as sincere and refreshing as ever in an era when “government” is still used as a bad word without need of explanation, but her ambitions to do good for the community have been subordinated to a series of personal and managerial plots that have little to do with her vision of using the public sector to make life better for ordinary people.  Her quixotic quest to take an abandoned construction site—the “pit”—and turn it into a park was a perfect symbol of liberal ideals in their most quotidian form.  Leslie dreamed of taking the wreckage of failed private enterprise and turning it into a public amenity all could enjoy.  And her effort to improve the community through public means, with all the frustrations of democracy and setbacks of bureaucracy, captured both the potential of government and its obvious limitations.

The “pit,” as a metaphor, more or less got lost after the first or second season, though Leslie’s zeal for a better Pawnee never flagged.  It just got channeled into less tangible forms.  Whereas the early episodes captured an infectious 2008 sense that government could do good, countering the pervasive images of government as inept obstacle (think of the post office scene in the The Blind Side) or malevolent conspiracy (The X-Files), the show subsequently took viewers on a tour of American politics in the Obama era.  There was the Tea Party moment of austerity, in which budgeters from Indianapolis arrived in 2010 to cut spending, lay off workers, and threaten the existence of the Parks Department entirely.  (The gang responded by staging a successful festival without any government resources, in an exemplary case of voluntary American grassroots sticktoitiveness.)  The show even recently had its Occupy moment, as Leslie bravely stared down a rich scion of privilege in the city council race.  Paul Rudd disarmingly played a Bush-lite frat boy from the local candy dynasty, who threatened to move his father’s Sweetums factory out of the town if voters chose Leslie over him.  A real sense of 99% outrage coursed through Leslie as she stood up to the corporate blackmail that, in the real world as in TV, has become par for the course in state, local, and even federal politics.

Yet despite this impressive journey, the show has simply not been as funny as it once was.  The all-important equilbrium that is crucial to any sitcom’s set-up became increasingly disrupted.  In the beginning, Leslie was the manic and naïve fulcrum of the cast, equal parts Lucille Ball-silliness and Madeline Albright-seriousness.  Her purity of vision and outsized ambitions, social awkwardness and insatiable appetites always seemed peculiar next to her more blasé peers and coworkers: cynical April, libertarian Ron, loser Jerry, “normal” Ann, and even Tom, whose slavish devotion to consumerist trifles was passionate but small-bore next to Leslie’s grand ideas.  Like any number of strong female characters whose desires and creativity bump up against the “straight men” in their lives—scholars James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle have described this TV formula as “male frames and female energies”—Leslie was always creating comic tension.

Pawnee, we have a problem

This formula became increasingly unstable in the third and fourth season, as the show pursued an uninteresting storyline about Leslie’s romantic life, which was only loosely (and often implausibly) related to her work life—the original premise of the show.  Perhaps NBC felt the show needed to focus on love instead of work or politics to bring in more viewers.  More than a few series have tried to hold audiences by ordering their narratives around couples and questions like “Will they? Won’t they?”, weddings, and births (e.g., Friends, the American Office).

In the case of Parks, this romantic focus was an especially poor fit.  Season three revolved around the pseudo-scandal of Leslie’s relationship with assistant city manager Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), due to a rule against coworker romance, even though other relationships between Tom, Ann, Chris, Ann, April and Andy were never a source of controversy.  In another gratuitous development, Ann took a part-time job in the local government but remained a nurse at the hospital; somehow this made sense within the logic of the show, even though Ann’s fundamental role was that of the sensible outsider with a foot in a non-Parks world.

Gender conflict has been central to sitcoms from the beginning

Worst of all, Leslie and Ben’s relationship rapidly became a complete snooze, even though the writers presented it as the central driving force of the narrative—far more so than her election campaign, which promised to be a fascinating storyline.  The problem reflects in part the difficulty of persuasively presenting healthy or respectful relationships in a sitcom format that has always thrived on imbalance within the “battle of the sexes,” from the very earliest Goldbergs and Honeymooners. Depicting a mutually supportive relationship in TV is a laudable goal, but not at the cost of making the characters boring.

Initially, Ben was a hard-ass numbers guy with a chip on his shoulder and baggage from his failed political career.  He entered the show during its third season encounter with austerity, accompanied by the hilarious Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe)—a fitness freak, vegan, and classic American believer in the power of positive thinking.  In time, though, Ben became a cross between a doormat and squishy sponge, with all the color and consistency of dishwater.  He was there for Leslie and set her feelings above his own, in an admirable manner, but not a particularly interesting one.  At times he seemed like a walking, talking version of Jack Donaghy’s idea of a porn-for-women channel that tells female viewers they are beautiful and interesting twenty-four hours a day.  Like the channel that shows only logs burning in the fireplace around Christmastime, he lacked content.  Leslie remained an interesting character, but without a compelling foil she sometimes seemed like a person whose principal role was to coo and “aw” after her supportive boyfriend.  If I had my choice, I would rather see her interact with the awkward, dysfunctional, and possibly Republican cop played by Louis C.K. in season two.

The producers could have introduced an ongoing love interest for Leslie Knope if that’s what they felt was necessary to “humanize” a powerful female character—the relationship just needed to be interesting and dynamic.  Or they could have stuck with with the original formula of kooky happenings around local government and a minor civil servant’s grand ambitions, following Leslie’s single-minded pursuit of greatness amid the incongruent circumstances of an underachieving small town.  Lately Parks has done neither, to its detriment.

Now what?  The show has been renewed for another season, after a climactic fourth season finale that wrapped up the question of Leslie’s long-standing political ambitions.  Whatever the missteps of the last two seasons, Parks remains a long way from the impression many initially had of the show—i.e. a rote Office clone in the faux-documentary format.  It has clearly caught its own eccentric, Midwestern rhythm, and it still retains a powerful political subtext about what public goods and public service mean.  Whether the writers and producers can lead the show to a series finale that validates the long journey of Leslie Knope, a truly unique figure among women on TV, remains to be seen.

Insane, but still better than the GOP 2012 platform

The next season will unfold against the backdrop of America’s quadrennial death-struggle, in which the us/we/public-oriented campaign of Barack Obama and the I/me/private-centered campaign of Mitt Romney will fight over the direction of the nation.  Every Democrat-Republican battle may be an argument over the proper purpose and use of government, but the 2012 election is happening in the context of the Great Recession—after the global financial crisis tested the strength of both public and private institutions, and raised profound questions about whether government can solve problems.  With job-saving stimulus and the rescue of the American auto industry behind him, Obama will argue that it can, and urgently must step in.  Romney will argue quite the opposite—that government makes problems worse whenever it mucks about in education, healthcare, or just about anything else.  His prescription will sound much like Ron Swanson’s: cutting programs and taxes and basically doing nothing (what progressives once derided as “standpattism” in a different age).

In the last three years, Parks and Recreation has been a small part of this ongoing dialogue about government and public institutions in America. As Obama fights for his job, Leslie will be adjusting to her new one as a politician, finding out whether her hope of doing good and working through the system can really work.  Let’s hope the show can engage with these vital themes in the Fall instead of dwelling on humdrum romance.