The Magazine

A Civic Sitcom

Laughing out loud about ‘democratic governance.’

Jun 18, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
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Parks and Recreation (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 ET) offers every ingredient of a good television sitcom: It’s smart, laugh-out-loud funny, well acted, and nicely photographed. Despite good reviews, and a bevy of award nominations, the show, unlike its NBC Thursday night mates The Office and 30 Rock, still hasn’t gained a wide-enough following (it rarely cracks the top 50) or produced enough episodes (only 68) to make it into syndication or become a topic of water-cooler chatter. 

Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler

NBC

Which is a shame, because Parks and Rec also may be the most politically perceptive comedy in history. Look past the delightfully broad comic strokes of intentionally silly characters, and the viewer is left with a probing, questioning, and ultimately affirming exploration of democratic governance. 

Parks and Recreation is a mockumentary in the style of The Office, and takes place in and around the Parks and Recreation Department of the fictional, midsized Pawnee, Indiana. The show’s heroine, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), is earnest, ambitious, hardworking, public-spirited, and willing to stand up for her subordinates. She appeared almost dangerously naïve (shades of The Office’s Michael Scott) at the show’s beginning, but has become savvy—even a bit scheming—over time. Her main foils are her über-libertarian, meat-loving boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who wants the department abolished but nonetheless gets along well with Leslie, and the failed “boy mayor”-turned-urban-management-consultant-turned-boyfriend Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott). 

The rest of the supporting cast includes Leslie’s friend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), ambitious metrosexual Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), manic, zero-percent-body-fat city manager Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), as well as the Gen-Y slackers/married couple April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt).

To date, the show has had several major through-plots. The whole of the first six-episode “season,” and part of the second, involved the shaggy dog story of Leslie working with Ann and others to fill in a giant pit and build a park. Later seasons have explored various romantic entanglements, Tom’s effort to start an entertainment events company in sleepy Pawnee (it fails spectacularly), and, in the season that ended last month, Leslie’s successful run for Pawnee City Council. 

While some critics and even some of the show’s creative talents have compared Parks and Rec to HBO’s slow-moving, overrated The Wire (both are set around local government), the series is actually an antidote to The Wire’s cynical, nihilistic vision of corrupt, pointless politics. The emotional and political heart of the show involves the relationship between Ron, who seeks to make the Parks Department inefficient (he wants it privatized and thinks Chuck E. Cheese would be a good model), and Leslie, who commits herself to making government work. 

Given the standard liberal politics of Hollywood, and the fact that executive producer Michael Schur makes political donations to Democrats, it would be easy to assume that the show always takes Leslie’s side. It does not. While Leslie does sometimes pull things off—the pit gets filled, a successful Harvest Festival takes place—much of what the Parks Department does ends up being petty and self-serving. The generally ethical Leslie intentionally plots to extend a “world’s smallest park” planning process to keep a relationship with Ben going; the entire cast mourns (as seriously as comic characters can) the death of a mini-horse named Li’l Sebastian with far more fervor than Li’l Sebastian deserves. 

Ultimately, the show presents the tension at the heart of public policy: the widespread desire to have the government “do something” about a wide variety of problems (even those as insignificant as recreational opportunities in a midsized town), and an equal desire to get government out of the way and let people pursue their affairs as they see fit. 

The result is that the show speaks to just about everyone concerned with public policy. Because Parks and Rec depicts Knope herself as hardworking and public-spirited, the office staff of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has held “rallies” in support of the show and produced YouTube videos about it. And because Ron gets equal time to express his hardcore libertarian philosophy—to the point that he convinces an elementary school student to change her ways—clips get circulated around libertarian think tanks. Most viewers, even those with strong convictions, will find sympathy for both sides. And the producers keep it that way on purpose: Partisan politics stay out of the show. Even after Leslie wins her election, nobody mentions her party affiliation. And the “issues” of Parks and Rec—wheelchair ramps, for example—aren’t exactly polarizing. 

The end result doesn’t affirm any particular set of political beliefs, but underscores the value of allowing a wide range of views to have equal shots at convincing people of their respective merits. And through its comic skepticism, Parks and Recreation affirms the value, validity, and tensions at the heart of democratic governance.

Eli Lehrer is president of R Street, a free market think tank.

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