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Parks and Recreation and the politics of hope

- May 18th, 2012

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[Warning: This post contains spoilers up to the most recent episode.]

Parks and Recreation, the NBC sitcom about an adorable group of city workers in the fictional town of Pawnee, Ind., has a refreshingly optimistic outlook on government, especially in a TV landscape where shows about politics tend to revolve around corruption, power and greed.

Take Veep, HBO’s new comedy about a fish-out-water vice-president and her staff, which tells us that nothing in politics is genuine or heartfelt. Everything from major legislation to the vice-president’s choice of frozen yogurt is a carefully crafted political maneuver devised by a team of clever and ambitious staffers. Or The Wire, which shows how individuals, no matter how well-intentioned, are powerless against the deeply entrenched corruption of institutions. (Ironically, Parks and Rec show-runner Michael Schur is a big fan).

These kind of shows are often hailed for their realism, and for good reason. Poll after poll has found that people do not trust politicians. Governments are mired in scandals. Elections are mired in mud-slinging. North American politicians increasingly want to either control our every move or cut the public service until the government, as Parks and Rec’s beloved libertarian boss Ron Swanson puts it, “is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.”

Our collective cynicism about politics is such that even a bright and shining moment in history, like U.S. President Barack Obama announcing his support for same-sex marriage, is dismissed as insincere politicking.

That’s why we need shows like Parks and Rec, where politics is people — good people with good intentions — and political institutions can make a difference.

A.J. Aronstein touches on this at Splitsider:

While it’s not exactly a comedy about politics, P&R’s portrayal of City Hall makes us feel good about public service. In a moment of profound skepticism about government’s ability to sense the needs of its constituents — bound up in arcane deficits and Senate rules, birth certificates and #OBL — Parks tells us to keep the faith. The show is not just about good people running Pawnee, but moreover attempts to restore the idea that political institutions should be considered capable of carrying out effective action that can improve ordinary life.

A lot of writers like to note that the first season is much darker than subsequent ones, but in fact, it sets up its positive premise in the very first episode.

The pilot begins with an ironic, detached tone reminiscent of The Office, introducing its cast of buffoons, each ill-suited to public service in their own unique ways (Intern April is apathetic, boss Ron is a libertarian, office drone Jerry is incompetent.)

But our Jack Layton-esque heroine, Leslie Knope, gets it into her head that her department can solve a problem: Filling in a gaping pit that people (mostly unemployed musician Andy Dwyer) keep falling in to and turning it into a park. Jaded city planner Mark Brendanawicz says it can’t be done and promptly lists the reasons why Leslie will never achieve her goal. Leslie brightly replies: “It sounds like you’re telling me to go for it.”

At this moment the show is no longer about the bureaucratic mess that is local politics, but about optimism in the face of it. While Leslie and the gang never get the park up and running, they do fill the pit, and from then on, are unstoppable at achieving their goals.  Whether it’s turning a filthy park into a baseball field, organizing a successful Harvest Festival to counter the effects of massive budget cuts or finding a way for the department to keep its funding without having to close the local animal shelter, Leslie’s team get things done, and it’s downright refreshing.

To some, like the Awl’s Mark Barthel, this string of successes paints an unrealistic picture of public service.

And many of the writers above have talked about how “Parks & Rec” represents a heartening vision of politics. But if that vision isn’t based in any sort of reality, do we want to let it ride anyway? Or can the fantasy do more harm than good? Are we really well served by unrealistic visions of how pleasant politics could be?

But Parks and Rec isn’t a reflection of, or a commentary on, the actual state of politics right now. Rather, it’s a vision how politics can be, if done right. Sure, Leslie tends to achieve her goals, but not without hurtling over obstacles, striking deals with friends and frenemies alike, and falling on flat on her her ass, sometimes literally.

The show’s message of hope — similar to the late NDP leader Jack Layton’s endlessly optimistic, roll-up-your sleeves and get things done mentality, or Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign during the 2008 election — is something people need. It’s a glimmer of optimism in a deeply pessimistic world.

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When Leslie climbs the podium to deliver her speech upon winning her seat on Pawnee City Council in this season’s finale, you can’t help but swell with pride. It’s a well-earned moment, and one that instills hope.

Her victory speech, I think, speaks to the show’s overall message:

The idea behind this campaign as a simple one: That with hard work and positivity, a group of people can make a difference. During my term as your city councillor, I want to focus on your hopes and not your fears. I want to solve problems instead of creative friction. And I will work hard every hour of every day to make Pawnee a better place to live. Because  I love this city.

And I know first hand how very special the people of this city are. I owe this victory, all of it, to my friends and my supporters. No one achieves anything alone. So let’s embark on a new journey together. Let’s break out a map. Not the old, out-of-date one that shows where we’ve been, but a crisp, new one that shows where we might go. Let’s embark on a new journey together, and see where it takes us.

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