Television viewers with a sour taste in their mouth from this year’s election can restore their spirits by logging into Netflix and watching the least cynical political show on television: “Parks and Recreation.” In particular, you want to seek out the final episodes of last season (season four), when the earnest, public-service-loving Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, runs for the City Council.
“Parks and Recreation” (together with “The Office,” “Community,” and “30 Rock”) is one of four brilliant series that have made Thursday night one of the joys of television. Highly regarded by critics but hardly ratings blockbusters, these shows are the last gasp of broadcast television’s commitment to innovative comedy -- and by the end of the season, they will probably all be gone.
In many respects, “Parks and Recreation” is the most conventional of these four shows. It’s a traditional workplace comedy, with odd characters who -- surprise! -- come together to form a surrogate family. Yet the characters themselves are so fresh and original and the comedy is so subtle and gentle that it’s daring in its own way.
“Parks and Recreation” is set in the fictional small city of Pawnee, Ind., the kind of place that is frequently mythologized as the “real” America. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is slightly preposterous in her aspirations. Modeling herself on other successful female public servants like Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, Leslie takes her job as a middle manager in one of city government’s most innocuous departments as seriously as she would if she actually were Secretary of State.
Leslie never seems to care that her fellow employees are drones and bureaucrats who do as little work as possible (indeed, her boss spends most of the day doing crossword puzzles). Part of the fun, as she sees it, is motivating them through the force of her enthusiasm into actually providing the taxpayers with the basic public services they deserve.
Part of the conceit of “Parks and Recreation” is that the small city of Pawnee has all the political machinations and accoutrements of a major metropolitan area, so that when Leslie decides to run for City Council, she needs to assemble a campaign apparatus and run the gauntlet of the political media, including the absurdity of the television news.
This comes to a head in “The Debate,” which is probably the best show in this narrative arc. This debate for this local city council seat itself is presented with all the seriousness of a debate for U.S. Senate, complete with a spin room, viewing parties for big campaign donors and self-important TV anchors serving as moderators. (One of the moderators’ questions -- about the best James Bond -- might seem absurd, except that in the recent real-life New York Senate debate, the moderator asked the two female candidates whether they had read “Fifty Shades of Grey.”)
Leslie’s main opponent is Bobby Newport, the scion of the town’s “Sweetums” candy fortune, whose father is massively overspending on the campaign so Bobby can find meaningful employment. But it’s the genius of “Parks and Recreation” that this rich frat boy, played by a puppy dog Paul Rudd, is not the entitled jerk you’d expect; instead he’s a goofy, guileless naïf, completely without ego or self-awareness. Devoid of ideas or personal drive, Bobby thinks the campaign is a lark. He’s having a blast and has no sense that he and Leslie are competitors; heck, he wants Leslie to come over to a post-debate party at Dad’s mansion.
It’s this guilelessness that almost does Leslie in. When she attacks Bobby for being funded by his father and never earning anything in life, he gets the audience on his side by responding honestly, “That hurt my feelings. You’re supposed to be this positive person. Can’t we just talk about the things we like?”
But the Newport campaign machine overreaches too. They instruct Bobby to announce that if Leslie is elected, his father will move his operations (he’s the manufacturer of a candy called “Sweetums”!) to Mexico an eliminate hundreds of local jobs.
This gives Leslie a chance to respond off-script and from the heart, “I love this town -- and when you love something, you don’t threaten it, you don’t punish it. You fight for it, you take care of it, you put it first… If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on too strong, it’s because I feel strongly. If I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home, you are my family. And I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.”
This is hardly a political platform. You shouldn’t elect someone just because they “care,” since most candidates actually do care. But it’s a welcome reminder that at its core, politics has meaning -- and that the candidates themselves, even if we disagree with them, deserve our gratitude. So before you vote, fire up that Netflix account and watch some episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” You’ll feel better about this country.