‘Parks and Recreation’ Is the America We Were Promised
Ten years after it premiered, the show offers a mental reprieve from our what-fresh-hell-awaits-us-each-morning reality.
Photo by Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Parks and Recreation has been my go-to TV show for years now. Similar to how some people binge-watch The Simpsons or Seinfeld on a nightly basis, the Michael Schur sitcom is my televised comfort food. Possibly because it’s endlessly quotable, still boasts one of the strongest ensemble casts of the past decade, or because everything Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) says pairs nicely with the collective existential despair that is characteristic of life in America in 2019.
The other and more probable reason is that Parks and Rec offers a mental reprieve from the emotionally taxing, continually baffling, what-fresh-hell-awaits-when-I-check-Twitter America in which we live today: the America of Donald Trump, border walls and family separation, Brett Kavanaugh, government shutdowns that even Ron Swanson would be hard-pressed to take delight in, harrowing relations with North Korea and deteriorating ones with our longtime allies. Upon a recent rewatch of the pilot, it became glaringly apparent that the show was written for a different iteration of America—one in which Hillary Clinton and the Leslie Knopes of the world ultimately prevail, Washington is actually bipartisan, and public servants actually enter politics for the right reasons: to help the people that elected them, not only themselves.
The contrast between pre- and post-2016 election attitudes is stark. “You know, government isn’t just a boys’ club anymore. Women are everywhere,” Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) declares in the first episode, after pushing a homeless man down a playground slide with a broom. “It’s a great time to be a woman in politics: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi.”
On one hand, she’s not wrong. Flash forward a decade to the present day: the 116th US Congress boasts more female members than ever (102 in the House, 23 in the Senate), more openly LGBTQ members than ever, and the most racially and generationally diverse class of lawmakers ever. On the other hand, it’s hard to gloss over the events that propelled these women to action—Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, the rise of the #MeToo movement and the publicized reckoning it brought to men in positions of power and lack thereof. Parks and Rec is no exception to the latter, and it ages the show considerably. Louis C.K.’s six-episode arc as Leslie’s cop boyfriend Dave is hard to watch, and many of Tom Haverford’s jokes come off cringe-worthy in light of the allegations against Aziz Ansari.
But perhaps the most jarring, triggering element of the show is the repeated invocation of Hillary Clinton. Aside from the obvious parallel between her and Leslie Knope—both dedicated public servants determined to advance in politics despite the rampant sexism they constantly encounter, and who happen to look physically alike (fueled in part by Poehler’s portrayal of Clinton on Saturday Night Live)—the series is peppered with references to HRC. Her official Secretary of State portrait is framed on the wall next to the light switch in Leslie’s office, making it visible in most cut-away shots to someone entering or exiting the room. Leslie also regularly mentions her.
“His English isn’t perfect, so I don’t think he realizes how insulting he’s being,” Leslie says of Fred Armisen’s character in S2:E5, “Sister City,” in which Pawnee hosts a delegation from its sister city, the fictional Boraqua, Venezuela. “That’s fine, it’s my job—I’m a diplomat; I’m not supposed to take it personally. I mean, that’s why people respect Hillary Clinton so much, because no one takes a punch like her. She’s the strongest, smartest punching bag in the world.” It’s a joke that used to land, back when one could believe in the promise and possibility of a Clinton presidency. Today it mostly stings.
The Clinton-Knope parallel becomes even more apparent and alarmingly foreshadowing of reality when Leslie runs for city council against Sweetums heir Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) in season four. The eerie resemblance to the real-life standoff between Clinton and Trump has been widely covered: Leslie’s opponent comes from a family-owned local business empire, is out of touch with everyday working-class Americans, entirely unqualified for the job but who feels entitled to it nonetheless (“C’mon, just gimme it. I want it.”), and whose wealth grants him access to greater resources during his campaign. It’s worth noting that season four premiered in 2011, five years before the 2016 election.
Despite the fact that she is clearly more intelligent, well-versed in the issues, passionate, and has previous experience in government, Leslie is held to the unreasonable standard to which all women—especially those who run for political office—are held: that if she comes on too stern or serious, she's written off as cold or harsh, and told that she should smile more. And much like Clinton and other female candidates for the US presidency, most noticeably Elizabeth Warren, Leslie struggles to find the tenuous balance between being likable enough to appeal to voters and authoritative enough to be taken seriously as a candidate.
It’s a recurring theme throughout the series, but one that the show tackles head-on in S4:E13, “Bowling for Votes,” in which the Knope campaign throws a bowling party in response to focus group feedback from a random white, middle-aged man who explains his unwillingness to vote for Leslie as follows: “She seems a little uptight. She doesn’t seem like the kind of person you could go bowling with, you know?” Leslie fixates on this and spends the entire evening trying to win him over to no avail.
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Even when she's not running for office, the question of her likability in the public eye is inescapable. In S7:E9, while accompanying her husband Ben (Adam Scott) on his congressional campaign schedule, Leslie comes under fire from the media for skipping the "Pie-Mary"—a tradition in which congressional candidates' wives face off in a pie-baking contest—even though she and Ben mutually agreed to skip the event to focus on bigger issues. Throughout the episode, she's harangued for "not caring about her family" or "trying to have it all," and when she tries to rectify the situation by entering the contest, a local women's advocacy group vows to protest her and Ben at the event. Basic actions like changing her hair or leaving her kids with her mom so she can support her husband's campaign are immediately thrust under scrutiny as a means of evaluating her failings as a mother, wife, politician, and person. Ben, meanwhile, receives none of the flack.
When asked what it was like to watch Clinton run for office in an interview with Vanity Fair, Michael Schur replied:
“It has played out pretty much how I, and many others, thought it would. The enmity people have for her is unprecedented. Her successes and achievements are dismissed as those of other people, or forgotten altogether. Her flaws—and she certainly has some—are magnified and dissected and blown up and discussed forever as if they are unique and unparalleled (they are not), and those discussions often involve politicians who are literally currently in the middle of their own enormous scandals. She is criticized—by professional, on-air journalists—for the sound of her voice, and her physical appearance, and for not smiling enough—a situation, again, that women in this country are all too familiar with. [...] There are legitimate reservations to have about Hillary Clinton, as there are about literally every politician who has been in high-ranking positions for 25 years, but those legitimate reservations are buried under an avalanche of hysterical misogynistic garbage. And Hillary has done what she has always done—put her head down, and gutted it out.”
In Parks and Rec, Leslie does the same: she puts her head down and guts it out. The only difference is that the voters in Pawnee ultimately value this and she wins, whereas we’re now two years into a Trump presidency.
Setting aside Clinton’s defeat in 2016, the show’s careful, comedic balance of optimism against realism felt feasible enough for it to be initially received as a contemporary political satire, instead of the political fantasy it feels like today. Parks and Rec offers an idyllic vision of Washington D.C. that is considerably more wholesome than our present reality. Watching it now is like witnessing a political fanfic written through rose-colored glasses. There are several cameos from prominent politicos in the latter half of the series, from the likes of Michelle Obama and Joe Biden—then-First Lady and Vice President, respectively—to Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Orrin Hatch, and the late John McCain, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Newt Gingrich. Their collective appearances make the series feel like a snapshot of an alternate reality that existed in the Obama era, one that cheerily ignores all the bureaucratic hostility from congressional Republicans he endured while in office.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a current Democratic presidential candidate like Cory Booker cozying up to the likes of Orrin Hatch, who told a group of women and survivors protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to “grow up.” It’s even harder to imagine them as enthusiastic members of a Polynesian folk music band called “Across The Isle,” or Booker affectionately riffing about Hatch being a fiscal conservative when the latter tells Leslie that tickets for their band's show at Georgetown University are “$8 if you buy now; $10 at the door.”
Bolstered by Leslie's fervent reverence for all that D.C. represents—the epicenter of American government, the place where all the legislative magic happens, the dropped pin on her dreams of political advancement—the D.C. of Parks and Rec is a place where Democrats and Republicans are capable of working across the aisle in the interest of serving the people who elected them, and maybe even fostering bipartisan friendships along the way. The capitol is depicted as a place where democracy actually functions like it's supposed to (or at least how we want it to), making it a grand departure from the D.C. of the Obama and Trump administrations alike. And given how contemptuous and politically dysfunctional the current American political landscape is, watching the series today is an experience both soothing and bittersweet.
That Parks and Rec is a political satire is obvious. But satire is, by definition, meant to critique contemporary issues like politics, and the question here lingers around the word “contemporary.” Certain elements of the show have and will continue to hold up over time, like the double standards society places on ambitious women who want to advance their careers in politics even while their male counterparts are often unqualified and underwhelming by comparison. Others, like the overarching sense of optimism that permeates the series—combined with final season’s time-hop forward to a 2017 that is gut-wrenchingly different from the one we experienced two years ago—make it feel painfully removed from reality. Our definition of “contemporary” changed irrevocably after the 2016 election, and Parks and Rec is a cultural artifact of the world that preceded it. Which isn't to say the Obama administration was without its flaws; this is politics, after all. But the spirit of hope and the belief in the power of change through public service, both of which drive the entire narrative of Parks and Rec, feels so divorced from the America of 2019.
"When we worked here together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better,” Leslie says, in a toast during the series finale. “That’s what public service is all about: small, incremental change, everyday.” That trademark Leslie Knope ethos may not be visible in the push alert that just illuminated your phone screen or in the deluge of headlines on Twitter, but it has staying power. It's only true if you want it to be, and if you're willing to work for it.
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