As the government shutdown plods along with no end in sight, it has cemented Americans’ toxic feelings about their elected officials. (Depending on the poll, politicians are barely more likable than Chris Brown.) So it should be no surprise that today’s TV shows about politics—House of Cards, The Newsroom, Veep or The Daily Show and The Colbert Report—happily play into our belief that Washington is populated with nothing but corrupt, soulless bastards.
Maybe that’s why Parks and Recreation is the most surprising political show on television: We don’t think of it in those terms. Despite featuring likeable characters—Vulture’s Willa Paskin rightly complimented the show’s ability to “explore the comedic potential of super nice people”—the NBC sitcom (now in its sixth season) sharply satirizes exactly what’s wrong with government, the media and all the rest of us (a.k.a. the American people). At the same time it’s also sweetly forgiving of our many failings.
Ordinarily, nice characters don’t make for funny characters, but Parks is an exception. Its cast is led by Amy Poehler, who plays Leslie Knope, a former deputy parks department director and current city council member. Enamored with female role models such as Hillary Clinton, Leslie is exactly the person you want in office: She’s sincere, smart and driven, and she cares deeply about her quaint hometown of Pawnee, Indiana.
With the show structured around Leslie’s attempts to improve Pawnee, Parks utilizes its small-town setting as a metaphor for national political campaigns, government bureaucracy, uninformed electorates and the scandal-obsessed news business in a way that feels refreshing as opposed to cynical. A program like The Daily Show confirms our assumptions that everyone in Washington is a fool, so it doesn’t tell us anything new. As a counterargument, Parks humanizes its government employees, forcing us to see these people (and the people they work for, everyday Americans) in a new light. That doesn’t mean the show condones the ugliness of politics—just that Parks’ humanizing provides a more astute survey of our messed-up political process.
Consider these five core truths that Parks makes self-evident:
1. Politics isn’t just tainted by evil; sweet simpletons also are destroying it. With House of Cards, viewers tuned in to watch the juicy machinations of Kevin Spacey’s vindictive U.S. congressman Frank Underwood, the quintessential ruthless politician. But such evil doesn’t exist within Pawnee’s City Council. (Snide, crass Councilman Jamm is as close to wicked as Pawnee gets.)
Instead, Pawnee’s greatest threat is from the unmotivated and spoiled. When Leslie ran for city council in season four, she was pitted against Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), a rich local family’s lazy, unremarkable son who decided to run mostly on a whim. To help his dim-bulb son win the election despite his lack of credentials, Bobby’s father hired a big-shot Washington campaign strategist, who actually admired Leslie’s passion but decided to crush her anyway. (The paycheck meant more to her than good governance.)
Though clearly the better candidate, Leslie refused to go negative. Consequently, she was vulnerable to the strategist’s endless mudslinging, which tricked Pawnee’s citizens into thinking that Leslie was pro-landmines and anti-elderly. Meanwhile, Bobby, despite being a genuinely kindhearted person, was little more than another George W. Bush: a well-connected rube who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near important decisions. Leslie’s eventual victory was a happy ending, but it stirred uncomfortable realizations. In real life, Bobby probably would have won—and he would have been a terrible representative, even though he doesn’t have an evil bone in his body.
2. There’s a lot of bureaucracy in Washington—just like every other workplace in America. The Tea Party should love Parks’ Ron Swanson. Played by Nick Offerman, Ron is a diehard libertarian who serves as the director of the parks department. But he’d be happier if his department didn’t exist at all—not to mention the government as a whole. (“My idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk,” Swanson once said, “and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.”)
Parks is filled with characters who strengthen Ron’s case for limited government. Although Parks takes place mostly at Pawnee City Hall, we don’t see a lot of government work being done. Everybody’s too busy with their own lives. Aspiring mogul Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) is obsessed with his various entrepreneurial endeavors. Parks employee Donna Meagle (Retta) mostly just cares about her Benz. And Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir)—a warmhearted, older employee who actually tries to do a good job—seems exempt from the show’s patina of sweetness, his coworkers endlessly mocking his mistakes.
These characters are the sorts of people whom limited-government advocates despise, dismissing them as lazy and incompetent. What’s funny is that Parks doesn’t necessarily disagree—they do screw around (and screw up) a lot. But Parks creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur originally worked on The Office, and they’ve carried over from that show a belief that all offices are filled with people who dislike their jobs and want to do the bare minimum. One of these writers’ unspoken tenets seems to be that whether a character is working for City Hall or Dunder Mifflin, it’s unfulfilling—a depressing daily reminder that life didn’t pan out exactly as the person had hoped.
But rather than being tragic or contemptible, Parks’ characters are a treat to be around. Coming across as warm as the Cheers gang, Parks’ melting pot of young and old, African-American, Indian and Caucasian suggests modern America with its mixture of different cultures and points of view. On Parks, we don’t see stereotypical bureaucrats: We see thwarted dreamers, quirky personalities and just plain decent folks—i.e., we see ourselves.
And if there wasn’t enough reason to have sympathy for those who work at the lower levels of government, let’s not forget who these poor souls have to serve, which brings us to…
3. Americans (meaning, all of us) are a pain in the ass. Other political shows tend to focus on politicians rather than the electorate, essentially rewarding the viewer for being clued-in to the fact that Washington is dysfunctional. Parks twists the knife by suggesting that we, the American people, can be an infuriating bunch as well—unreasonable, uninformed and susceptible to responding to our base desires rather than concentrating on the greater good.
Although Parks is set in a small town, the show doesn’t get much comic mileage out of local-yokel humor. Instead, Pawnee’s citizens are recognizable human beings, albeit ones with serious hang-ups. Sometimes, Leslie and Ron have to contend with that one guy who likes to attend town hall meetings and get really angry over meaningless things because he feels unappreciated. Or, in a memorable episode from last season, a history buff played by Patton Oswalt took it personally that Leslie wanted to excise some of Pawnee’s antiquated laws, deciding to save the laws by filibustering a council vote and launching into his weird idea for a Star Wars sequel. Even when Leslie tries to do something nice, like save the struggling neighborhood video store by declaring it an historical landmark, the owner repays her kindness by converting it into a porn shop for higher profits.
4. The media is terrible everywhere. Watching The Colbert Report,we can be guilty of assuming that only major media outlets like MSNBC and Fox News distort and hype. But Parks shows that this also happens in our backyard—and that, actually, the failures of local media might be worse.
It’s telling that there’s not a single media figure on Parks who isn’t a narcissist or an idiot. This is most often seen with Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), the popular local newsman who’s so comfortable with the glibness of TV that he’s now more of a blankly affable robot than a real person. (He’ll kick off his political roundtable show, The Final Word With Perd, by saying, “Issue number one is the first issue we’re going to talk about. … When I say your name, I want you to respond.”) Likewise, the shallow Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins) hosts Pawnee Today, which is more about gotcha journalism and titillating dance segments than informing viewers. This media commentary is always funny, but there’s a sting to the laughs: It’s bad enough that CNN is often shallow and flashy in its news coverage, but if local media takes its cues from cable and duplicates the formula, how can we even understand what’s going on in our own neighborhoods?
5. Politicians are crooked, but that doesn’t mean we can’t believe that there are a few good people out there. If Parks was The Newsroom, its political commentary would be treated with a sanctimonious seriousness, a table-slamming self-righteousness that Things Should Not Be This Way. Thankfully, Parks doesn’t have a lick of Aaron Sorkin in it. Instead, Parks mostly accepts these irritations as just part of everyday life—certainly annoying but also inevitable.
That might sound complacent or defeatist, but like everybody on Parks, we look to Leslie’s indomitable optimism as a guide. She’s been kicked around—and she might be stripped of her job if she loses a recall election prompted by greedy local companies that are upset that she’s tried to protect Pawnee from big business. But her cheerfulness sees her through.
That’s no small thing. Just as we’re used to shows that play up the dark side of politics, we tend to be suspicious of programs (and people) that have a change-the-world idealism. We think they’re either disingenuous or not very bright. (If they were smart, they’d know everything is terrible.) But after watching Leslie for so many seasons, it’s clear that her optimism is a choice, and it’s helped her find a great husband (Adam Scott), a loving group of friends and her dream job. Her very existence is an argument for holding on to a modicum of hope amidst the soul-crushing cynicism of politics. Just because she’s a nice person doesn’t mean she’s dumb. And just because Parks and Recreation is a deeply likable comedy doesn’t mean it can’t be wise.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available now on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal/Getty