Let's Applaud, Along With Parks and Recreation, the Good Hearts of Those in Government
I honestly don’t understand why Parks and Recreation isn’t the biggest sitcom on earth. The beleaguered, perpetually jerked-around, utterly brilliant NBC sitcom will finish its seventh and final “season” by having its last 13 episodes burned off twice a week over the next six weeks (starting Tuesday), a depressingly low-key sendoff for what I consider one of the best television comedies of all time. Parks and Rec was never as big a hit in the ratings as it was with critics, but that’s not unusual; critically acclaimed shows often struggle in the ratings. It’s part of their charm.
But Parks and Recreation wasn’t just great: It was inclusive. It was a huge-hearted, brightly lit, everybody-come-on-in-and-be-friends hug to the whole world, a show about extremely nice people doing extremely normal things in an extremely relatable way. Parks and Rec was not like Arrested Development, or Community, or 30 Rock, or other low-rated beloved sitcoms that were so insular and self-referential that, by the end, they had twisted into a morass of meta-commentary and jokes about their own impending cancellation. Parks and Rec was a sitcom for everybody, always aiming to be as accessible as possible while never sacrificing its smarts and its laughs. In this way, it was perhaps more daring than any of those edgier shows. To do a hyper-intelligent sitcom that doesn’t solely attempt to appeal to hyper-intelligent, meta-aware people is the way they used to make sitcoms, like Cheers, or Barney Miller, or even Seinfeld and Friends: It is reactionary, and revolutionary.
And it’s probably why the show, despite its essential perfection, never quite caught a fire. It’s too good to ever grow that huge anymore—it’s like Two-and-a-half Men fans could smell the smarts on it—and it’s too friendly and cheerful to inspire obsessives like the Community snarkers. After two seasons, it was obvious that Parks and Recreation was never going to be a ratings smash, but bless its heart, it kept trying anyway. Your mom and your punk absurdist anarchist comedy roommate would both love the show … which might be precisely why so few people ever gave it a chance in the first place.
In this way, the show is much like its lead character, the endlessly optimistic, Joe-Biden-obsessed, government-can-do ball of relentless sunshine that is Leslie Knope, as played by Amy Poehler. When the first few episodes aired, Knope was a little too much like Michael Scott on The Office (where co-creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels had just come from), clumsy and doltish and a bit oppressive. But Daniels and Schur made the show-saving tweak: It made her not only good at her job, but in love with it. This was a woman who truly believed she could change the world, or at least her beloved hometown of Pawnee, Indiana (a city with an obesity problem so overwhelming that the buns on a hamburger are made of pizza), through her enthusiasm and the power of her office in the parks department. This was a show that signed up, in its quiet, modest way, to the notion that the government could legitimately make a difference in people’s lives. That is could be a force for good.
The immortal comic creation that was Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson—without question the most sympathetic conservative libertarian invented by Hollywood since John Wayne himself—made sure this was never laid on too thick, but showing the power government could have in helping people’s lives was a central tenet of the show from the beginning. “When we were talking about this, we were in the middle of the election,” Schur told me for a New York magazine piece I wrote as the show as launching. “The economy hadn’t collapsed yet, but we got the general sense that the government was going to be playing a more significant role in years to come. We had no idea how right we were.”
The show wasn’t liberal so much as it was hopeful: It saw government the way government wanted to see itself, as a collection of tired but still buoyant public servants toiling away long hours at low-paying jobs entirely in the name of making the world a slightly better place. This all happened in the background, of course: If you weren’t looking for it, you could just enjoy the antics of Ron and Leslie and a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer, not to mention the shockingly deep cast of recurring actors, including Rob Lowe, Louis CK, Adam Scott, Paul Rudd, Sam Elliot, J.K. Simmons, Jonathan Banks, Jenny Slate, Henry Winkler and Jon Hamm. (Or just the genius of Jean-Ralphio and the rest of the Springfield-esque cast of locals that made up the town.) But the thesis was baked into the show’s premise: Government can change your life.
Which is why my personal favorite recurring segments of the show are such a perfect coda. Every few episodes, Leslie and the gang host a town hall meeting where citizens are invited to come ask questions of their government officials, a way to encourage transparency and community involvement. But the consistently great joke was not only that the community didn’t care about any of that and just wanted to yell … but also that the voters politicians work so hard to court are hardly intelligent enough to even understand the basic components of government in the first place. In short: They were screaming idiots. As Leslie put it in the best-case-scenario way that only she can, “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”
There was also “always trying to start a chant” man.
And red-faced screaming man.
This was the grand joke at the heart of Parks and Recreation, both on-screen and off: No matter how hard you work at producing something nice for people, they’re just going to ignore whatever you’re trying to do and yell about whatever happens to be on their mind that exact moment. This also happens to be exactly how politics work. It doesn’t matter what you do, people are going to dislike you simply because you are there. Politics is thankless, by nature and by design. Those who love it forge forward regardless, dodging spittle all the way.
These scenes ended up being the ultimate metaphor for the show itself. A lovely, timeless piece of warm, hilarious pop art … rejected by the world for reasons no one will ever quite be able to understand. Parks and Recreation is my favorite sitcom since Cheers. Your rejection of it makes me want care very loudly at you.