It’s official: Parks and Recreation’s love affair with big government has ruined the show. Over its six seasons (which I admit I binge-watched like a strung-out coke fiend), Parks and Rec has devolved from incisive comedy into aggressively unfunny propaganda.
When we first met her, the show’s central character, Leslie Knope, was a masterpiece of observational humor, a lonely career bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur and a fetish for protocol. She was over-the-top, but at the same time anyone who had ever navigated the infuriating upper echelons of the DMV or city hall had met someone exactly like her — chipper, litigious, and maddeningly disconnected from reality.
The fun they made of her was genius. The pilot’s opening scenes showed her shoving a sleeping drunk out of a playground slide while declaring, “It’s a great time to be a woman in politics.” Her bright-eyed interviews were expertly undermined by intercut depictions of the meaningless drudge work that defines a job in small-town government. Poehler’s humorless smile, her expressions of officious solemnity, were masterfully executed — mockumentary at its finest.
Then slowly, slowly, the creative team let their inchoate political theories eclipse their comedic sense of truth. The creators had started out with fly-on-the wall research at real-life city council meetings, insightfully mocking the morass of self-importance and illogic that results when people get together to plan other people’s lives for them. But as that experience faded from memory, the writers replaced it with a dogmatic fantasy world based on the unexamined conviction that everyone needs a hyper-attentive government mommy. That’s when Leslie Knope became a hero, and Parks and Rec became about as entertaining as a health code referendum.
It started near the end of season 2, when Leslie’s hometown of Pawnee was menaced by that greatest of all super-villains, a corporation. In episode 2.15, Sweetums candy company despicably offers to boost the city’s woefully mismanaged cash flow by selling its candy bars around town. The voters are all for it (since, you know, the city is broke), but Leslie takes a valiant stand. No no, she proclaims! People in Pawnee are fat! They can’t be allowed to choose to eat candy! Never mind solving a dire governmental problem — Leslie has a higher calling: planning her citizens’ diets for them.
To be fair: that was an early episode with some remaining grip on reality, so Sweetums’s sponsorship passed by a landslide, and Leslie graciously accepted the voters’ decision.
But by season 5 Leslie had run a plucky underdog campaign for city council that we were all supposed to find very uplifting, and all hell broke loose. Councilwoman Knope spent season 5 taxing oversized sodas (episode 2) and bailing out Pawnee’s mini-golf course and video store (both utter economic failures) with money the city didn’t have (episodes 16 and 21). The Knope administration was a disaster.
The show heralded all of this as shrewd, principled leadership, while Leslie’s nemeses — the sneering frat-bro councilman Jeremy Jamm and the vapid fast-food tycoon Kathryn Pinewood — defended the maniacal dictum that “it’s not my place to speak for the consumer.” What a preposterous idea! The more Leslie failed, the more stridently the show celebrated her “triumphs,” demonizing her opponents while leaving their arguments totally unaddressed. “Even for you, Jamm, this is pretty sleazy,” tutted Leslie as she valorously turned down a back room deal (and spent 9,000 taxpayer dollars on a golf course). The show turned into a preachy snore, dully and predictably re-writing contemporary political debates to erase the small-government point of view.
Most painful of all was watching Ron Swanson — the show’s libertarian voice of reason, played majestically by the inspired Nick Offerman — get scolded into repentance by Leslie like a naughty schoolboy. Early episodes made good fun of both of them, but eventually that couldn’t be allowed. Ron was forced to shuffle time after time into Leslie’s office and mumble an apology for being “a horse’s ass” by insisting that he be allowed to stick to his principles, assess his own alcohol intake, and — horror of horrors — make his own decisions about eating red meat.
The lionization of Leslie Knope was intentional — co-creator Mike Schur has described the process in a number of interviews — and it was ratings suicide. Leslie can harangue people into eating healthy but not, apparently, into watching her show, whose viewership has dwindled sharply and unrelentingly since day one. Like big government itself, Parks and Rec has been hailed by critics and intellectuals but rejected by the people: four Golden Globe nominations haven’t saved it from cancellation. This next season will be its last, and it’s really a shame. Before it started selling nonsense, it was pretty hilarious.