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ObituaryMarch 3, 2015

Obituary: The Political Power of Pawnee


José Barbosa farewells Parks and Recreation, the American sitcom that stood for the power of people, Pawnee or otherwise. //

I have a friend who is a political junkie. He nerds over the finer details of democracy’s pulsating innards and loves nothing better than witnessing true political engagement. A few years ago he had a small rant about Parks & Recreation after a group of us declared our love for the chronicles of Pawnee’s Parks Department. The show, he said, was just another sugary American sitcom with stock characters. His argument was that the show had no edge and didn’t offer anything beyond entertainment.

He was right in some respects – Parks & Recreation is categorically an American sitcom. It has a main family unit with characters that have their analogues in TV history: the boychild Andy Dwyer shares a family tree with Buddy from Charles in Charge, Ron Swanson is an updated Lou Grant and Jean-Ralphio is a wealthy cousin of The Todd from Scrubs.

On the show, problems introduced at the opening of each episode were often neatly resolved at the conclusion – often facilitated by Leslie receiving sage fireside wisdom from Ron.

Even the mockumentary style of the show felt dated when it first aired (The Office US had ripped through that set of conventions like Augustus Gloop hitting the five dollar special at the local Fish ‘n Chip shop). The confessional pieces to camera became little more than a time saving device, a writing trick to impart information quickly. For an audience gobbling up outwardly more adult fare like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development or Louie, Parks & Recreation could have seemed kinda lame, y’know?

What my friend failed to see was something that’s been commented on by several people (most eloquently by Grantland’s Andy Greenwald), now that the show has finished after seven years on air. What Greg Daniels and Mike Schur did when they created the show was prove that being optimistic didn’t wall you off from being smart or making TV that at times could be pointed.

With Leslie Knope the show had its manifesto in a trouser suit. Each season focused around her journey through local government and her drive to improve the lives of her fellow Pawnee citizens. Knope and her team filled in pits, built a festival around a celebrity miniature pony, created dog parks and partied hard.

In some ways the show was a reverse House Of Cards, each episode usually featured Leslie getting what she wanted by finding a way to leverage her way around roadblocks set up by government antagonists, but (unlike Francis Underwood) Leslie wanted “to make people’s lives a tiny bit better.” Parks & Recreation poked fun at the insanity of government life which is perhaps the correct way to approach such annoyances. Laughing at something can drain it of power.

The show was careful where it landed its heaviest blows. The Pawnee public meetings were always stocked with crazy and barrel pushing citizens, “ham and mayonnaise, ham and mayonnaise!” but it was rare to see any of them portrayed as anything other than a bit clueless or misguided. The real villains were always motivated by profit at the expense of others: the Sweetums corn syrup factory or city councillor Jeremy “You got jammed” Jamm.

The show was smart enough to reserve true scorn for those who deserved it. Parks & Recreation might have gently mocked the syrupy family life of Garry/Jerry/Terry/Larry Gergich, but in the final episode, and here come some spoilers, he’s celebrated as a 100 year old patriarch of a huge family who all love their “pop pop.” There’s nothing snarky there, just honouring a character who truly doesn’t wish harm on anyone.

What my friend should have recognised in Parks & Recreation was a show that championed the idea that people can overcome a political system designed to favour the powerful and the rich. All you need is guts and the support of friends.

If a show can do all that and make me laugh so hard I make corn shoot out my nose, I’d say it deserves to be remembered as some of the best American TV ever made.

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