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Already Great

On the dead-end optimism of Parks and Recreation.

Timothy Shenk ▪ Spring 2019
“In the first season, the Parks and Rec writers had played the idea of a Leslie Knope presidency for laughs; six years later, it had turned into a prophecy.” (NBC)

Two days after the 2016 election, an article from Leslie Knope went viral. Like most of the essays that took over Blue America’s collective social media feed within the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, the piece requested readers to hitch what would quickly be referred to as the Resistance. “I reject out of hand the notion that we have thrown up our hands and succumbed to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and crypto-fascism,” she declared. “Today, and tomorrow, and every day until the next election, I reject and fight that story.”

Besides “Leslie Knope” wasn’t a real individual. She was a character in Parks and Recreation—Parks and Rec, to its followers—a critically acclaimed NBC sitcom that aired its remaining episode in 2015. The present centered on a handful of bureaucrats at the parks department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie, performed by Amy Poehler, was the main target of the collection. A ferociously competent public servant, Leslie slept four hours an evening and devoted the rest of her time to figuring out learn how to make her hometown a slightly higher place, with the assistance of a forged of future stars that included Aziz Ansari (the grasping but lovable Tom Haverford), Chris Pratt (the goofy however lovable Andy Dwyer), and Nick Offerman (the libertarian however lovable Ron Swanson).

Before Parks and Rec debuted in the spring of 2009, Poehler had been greatest recognized for her position on Saturday Night time Reside portraying Hillary Clinton, and the present alluded to the president-in-waiting all through its run. She’s talked about by identify across the one-minute mark of the primary episode, and her picture is prominently displayed in Leslie’s office. In 2016, comparisons between the two turned a staple of liberal punditry. “[T]he only sensible way to look at the US election is through the prism of Parks And Recreation,” wrote Hadley Freeman within the Guardian. In accordance with Vox, “Democrats’ not-so-secret-closing argument” was that “Hillary Clinton is Leslie Knope.” The present was even used to excuse Clinton’s botched try and cowl up her pneumonia, which Salon dubbed her “Leslie Knope moment.” Mike Schur, co-creator of the collection and certain writer of the post-election warfare cry towards Trump, stated in the summertime of 2016 that Leslie can be out “campaigning like a mofo” for the Democrats. Clinton herself blessed the affiliation, filming a video with Poehler the place she asked what kind of president Leslie Knope can be.

Ten years after its premiere, we’re dwelling on the planet Parks and Rec helped make. That’s not simply because it stays a ubiquitous cultural presence, particularly amongst millennials. (“I can’t go on Tinder without finding some idiot comparing himself to Ron Swanson,” a good friend complained to me the opposite day.) Parks and Rec was animated by a coherent philosophy—a philosophy that was still uncommon a decade in the past, however is now as widespread as GIFs of Ron Swanson consuming bacon. It’s a worldview that matches perfectly with what American liberalism has develop into, a self-satisfied politics so confident in its righteousness that it may well’t quite consider there’s something left to argue about.

However it didn’t start out that means. The story of Parks and Rec is the story of liberalism in the Obama years. And both start with hope.

You possibly can consider Parks and Rec as an answer to 2 units of questions that have been on Mike Schur’s mind because the collection was going into manufacturing in the fall of 2008. One batch was raised by Barack Obama. “[T]he show was sort of forged in the pre-Obama, ’08 election,” Schur stated in a 2015 interview. “The Tea Party hadn’t happened yet, but the nation’s divide was getting worse every day.” Each side of the talk had a spokesman in the forged. Leslie Knope was a do-gooder who needed an lively and effective government; Ron Swanson opposed paperwork in all its types. (“Child labor laws,” he stated in one episode, “are ruining this country.”) Their relationship offered the collection with its main political arc. Might a libertarian with stockpiles of gold buried in his yard work alongside an idealistic reformer who hadn’t but found an issue that government couldn’t clear up? If they might do it, what excuse did the remainder of us have for not getting along?

The subsequent set of questions was inspired by David Foster Wallace. In interviews, Schur talks about his discovery of Wallace’s work with the sort of ardour normally reserved for spiritual awakenings. “It’s not a stretch to say that it’s influenced everything I’ve ever written,” he’s stated. “It kind of rescrambled my brain.” As an undergraduate at Harvard, Schur arranged for Wallace to visit campus so that he might meet his hero in individual, and the pair struck up a correspondence. After shifting to Los Angeles, Schur purchased the film rights to Infinite Jest and wrote a character named “David Wallace” into The Office. “The creation of Leslie Knope would not have been possible,” he’s stated, “without me reading David Foster Wallace.” And it have to be related that as he was bringing Leslie Knope to life in the fall of 2008, Schur discovered, together with the remainder of the world, that Wallace had dedicated suicide.

Right now, Schur keeps quotations from Wallace in his office for inspiration. Considered one of them reads: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” It’s a mission statement for all the exhibits that Schur has created, together with Brooklyn 99, The Good Place, and his new collection Abby’s. Wallace believed that modern American tradition had been overtaken by a simple however poisonous cynicism. Might sincerity survive in a tradition of irony? Might earnestness, perhaps, be cool? Schur was prepared to gamble that the reply was yes.

Mockingly, he chose to wage his campaign for sincerity utilizing the art type that Wallace held singularly chargeable for cynicism’s hold on the national psyche: tv. Schur got here by his love of TV truthfully—he watched Cheers devotedly as a toddler—and by 2009 he had a résumé that few in the business might match. From the presidency of the Harvard Lampoon, he had moved on to a job writing for Saturday Night time Stay after which left to hitch Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak on the unique writing workforce for the American adaptation of The Office. All of them had been hired by showrunner Greg Daniels, another veteran of the Lampoon and SNL. When NBC executives asked Daniels to provide you with a by-product for The Workplace, he tapped Schur to help convey the present to the display. They ditched the thought and got here back as an alternative with a pitch for what Daniels referred to as “a mockumentary version of The West Wing.”

Although the collection in all probability by no means would have made it to the display without Daniels’s clout, it was Schur who gave Parks and Rec its distinctive worldview. Breaking from the mannequin set by Seinfeld, this might be a present about one thing—about how optimism might prevail over pessimism, and about how much individuals might obtain once they labored collectively. Jokes have been their secret weapon: they might flip irony’s characteristic mode of attack towards itself.

Reworking that aspiration into a viable sitcom took some work. The writers struggled to seek out the best tone for Leslie, to make her flawed with out appearing pathetic, formidable with out being unmoored from actuality. Each side of the character have been hinted at by her surname, which rhymes with “hope” but extra instantly suggests “nope.” Early within the first season, she announced, “It is my dream to build a park [long pause] that I one day visit with my White House staff on my birthday. And they say, ‘President Knope, this park is awesome. Now we understand why you are the first female president of the United States.’” A line like that might have made sense in a spin-off from The Workplace—Steve Carell’s barely competent Michael Scott specialised in delusions of grandeur—but coming from an anonymous government employee losing away within the middle ranks of Indiana paperwork it principally appeared unhappy.

Parks and Rec discovered its stability in the second season. The writers boosted Leslie’s IQ sufficient to make her a gifted public servant, they usually turned the remainder of the parks division, together with her supposed ideological antagonist Ron Swanson, into her accomplices. Different departments nonetheless obtained in her means, the public made unimaginable demands, and the local enterprise group might all the time block her path. But she would do what she might with the material she had.

Leslie’s character, like the remainder of the collection, was designed to impart a lesson that Schur credited to Wallace. “I think TV has, at some level, trained people to believe that the only noble choice in life is to be the biggest, best, fastest, strongest,” he stated in 2012.  “One of the themes of this show is to kind of celebrate the nobility of working really hard for your little tiny slice of America, and doing as well as you can for that part of it in a way that tangibly helps people.” Which may sound hokey, nevertheless it worked. The writers let characters fail, confront issues that didn’t have straightforward solutions, and feel shitty about their lives, all whereas being actually funny. They usually pulled it off week after week, for an entire season of tv.

There was only one drawback: the scores have been abysmal. The collection averaged 5.97 million viewers an episode in its first season, making it the ninety-fourth most-watched present on community television. It did even worse the subsequent yr, dropping more than one million viewers.

Dealing with imminent cancellation, the writers got here up with a plan to save lots of the present: they might flip Leslie right into a superhero. A collection that began as a parody of the earnest tackle authorities exemplified by The West Wing become its Obama-era equal. The producers hinted at the transition by including a new identify to the forged: Rob Lowe, last seen on NBC enjoying the fictional counterpart of George Stephanopoulos in Aaron Sorkin’s shiny reinvention of the Clinton White House.

At the outset of the third season, Pawnee’s authorities was gushing pink ink and the parks department was in peril of being eliminated, a plot level that neatly brought collectively the real-life austerity crunch of 2010 and the show’s personal precarious standing. By the top of the yr, Leslie had—with the help of her scrappy staff—saved the parks department, discovered love with a Paul Ryan–ish auditor the state had sent to trim the city finances, and been courted to run for city council. She gained that race in season 4, setting her off on a path that, the collection finale closely instructed, would end on the White House. In the first season, the writers had played the thought of a Knope presidency for laughs; six years later, it had became a prophecy.

Critics lapped up West Wing: Pawnee, and politicians have been just as smitten. Though the show obviously leaned Democratic, Leslie was at coronary heart a partisan of the American political system, and the producers snagged main figures from each parties for a litany of excruciating cameos. The roster of guest stars included Madeleine Albright, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, Olympia Snowe, and Michelle Obama, plus two appearances each from John McCain and Joe Biden. Scores remained low, nevertheless it was successful with TV executives’ favourite sort of viewer: the rich variety. It did better with prosperous households than every network comedy however Trendy Household, giving Schur and his group the cachet they wanted to maintain the collection on air for 125 episodes.

However as the writers made Leslie smarter, the remainder of Pawnee, which had never been that vibrant to begin with, appeared even worse. After a yr of supporting right-minded but disastrously unpopular insurance policies—beginning with a soda tax and culminating with Pawnee’s model of a Wall Road bailout—she misplaced a recall vote and found herself out of a job. “I love my town, but you know how they repay me? By hating me,” she complained. “The people can be very mean and ungrateful, and they cling to their fried dough and their big sodas, and then they get mad at me when their pants don’t fit.”

The final season jumped forward two years, putting the present in a not-so-distant future when Leslie had taken up a high-ranking job within the Nationwide Park Service, splitting her time between Washington and Pawnee, which was finally seeing the fruits of the Knope agenda. Leslie’s hometown, which she had as soon as described as “overrun with raccoons and obese toddlers,” had turn into a miniature Brooklyn dotted with yoga studios, juice bars, and stylish restaurants. The only major query was whether or not she would have the ability to persuade a tech big—a mixture of Google, Fb, and Amazon—to make Pawnee its regional headquarters and gentrify the final derelict a part of city. Spoiler alert: she gained.

So did everybody else. By the last episode, which aired in February 2015, characters who started the collection stuck in bureaucratic anonymity have been launched onto careers that might convey all of them fame and success, often outdoors Pawnee. One would turned a best-selling writer, another a real-estate mogul, and a third a congressman. Then there was Leslie, who would spherical out two terms as Indiana’s governor with the aforementioned flip in the White House. Keep in mind, this was the collection that was going to interrupt TV’s habit of insisting that “the only noble choice in life is to be the biggest, best, fastest, strongest.”

Not every thing was good. The show alluded to a coming financial crash and cuts to schooling budgets so deep that faculties had to stop educating math, and an Infinite Jest–fashion parody business for Verizon-Exxon-Chipotle included the tagline “proud to be one of America’s eight companies.” However with Leslie Knope on a glide path to the presidency, the nation can be in protected palms. America, you see, was already nice.

Two months after the Parks and Rec finale aired, Hillary Clinton announced that she was operating for president. The writers had toyed with the thought of asking Clinton to seem on the show, but setting the final season in 2017 raised the tough query of what she can be doing after Election Day 2016. They decided to keep away from the difficulty, never mentioning the president by identify in the complete season. That’s one of many strangest issues about watching this era of Parks and Rec immediately, because in our timeline the one thing that Leslie Knope can be talking about is Donald Trump.

The hole between Parks and Rec and our own actuality had been widening for years. Leslie reworked right into a bureaucratic superhero in the spring of 2011, simply as Republicans have been taking up the Home of Representatives and state governments across the country. The key legislative accomplishments of the Obama administration have been all within the rearview mirror, but annoyed liberals might watch Leslie put together an epic city harvest pageant. In the meantime, back in the actual world, Donald Trump was going from station to station demanding that Barack Obama release his start certificates. “I’m starting to think that he was not born here,” he stated on NBC, the identical community that broadcast Parks and Rec—and, in fact, The Apprentice.

Parks and Rec had tried to prove that Republicans and Democrats might nonetheless talk with one another, and that each can be better for it. However the present’s version of conservatism had no room for Trump. In 2016, Mike Schur advised interviewers that even Ron Swanson would have voted for Clinton. He had got down to symbolize all sides of the nation’s political debate; in the long run, he couldn’t even embrace all of NBC’s primetime lineup.

That fall, Trump carried Leslie Knope’s residence state by virtually twenty points, boosted by the presence of Indiana governor Mike Pence on the ticket. Though Barack Obama gained the state narrowly in 2008, it had been trending toward the GOP for the whole thing of Parks and Rec’s run. By 2012, it was back in the GOP’s column; Romney beat Obama by ten points, serving to give Pence a slender victory within the governor’s race. However the writers don’t seem to have considered politics much once they decided to put the present in Indiana. In response to co-creator Greg Daniels, he and Schur chose the state because it was “a real backwater to contrast with [Leslie’s] amazing ambition and optimism.”

The Apprentice had a special understanding of ambition and optimism. Whereas the profitable workforce in each episode sipped champagne in personal swimming pools, the defeated have been pressured to spend the night time within the yard, put up in tents with out electrical energy. Summarizing his show’s message, Trump advised them that “life’s a bitch.” It sounds robust, but Trump knew his audience, and The Apprentice repeatedly drew twice as many viewers as Parks and Rec.

Reputation was by no means Leslie’s prime priority anyway. She needed to assist individuals, not be like them, or be favored by them. “Pawnee has done you a favor,” a political advisor tells her after she loses her recall vote. “You’ve outgrown them.” By the top of the collection, she was holding lunch dates with Madeleine Albright and enjoying charades with Joe Biden. She was still searching for Pawnee, however from a distance. Leslie’s future had taken her the place she belonged, all the best way to Washington. Then again, so did Trump’s.

What’s putting on reflection is how straightforward it was to convey collectively the 2 questions that Schur was puzzling by means of in 2009—the Obama query of learn how to transcend the divide between purple and blue America; the Wallace query of whether sincerity might survive in a tradition of irony—and the way shortly each answers led toward a particularly oblivious variety of liberalism.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be that shocking. Studying Wallace immediately, what most stands out is how a lot the cultural panorama has changed. By 2009, it ought to have already got been clear that the cynics have been on the defensive. Obama’s presidential campaign was one long demonstration of a profound hunger for one thing value believing in. Liberal America was primed for an optimistic collection that claimed to talk for the nation as an entire, even if most people didn’t hassle watching it. In other phrases, a present like Parks and Rec.

It’s typically forgotten, nevertheless, that Wallace thought the ironists had some extent. His most extended discussion of irony’s maintain on the American psyche, the 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” granted that American society was crammed with hypocrites spreading platitudes contradicted by the realities of day by day life: “corporate ascendancy, bureaucratic entrenchment, foreign adventurism, racial conflict, secret bombing, assassination, wiretaps, etc.” Towards this backdrop, he famous, “rebellious irony . . . seemed downright socially useful.” The problem was that the ironists had no second act. They might tear down a system, however that they had no plan for what came subsequent.

In response to Wallace, it had taken many years for irony to vary from a helpful cultural counterweight into the “cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon” it had grow to be by the 1990s. On Parks and Rec, the decline of sincerity took just seven years. Probably the most telling sign of decay turned apparent round season four, when the jokes stopped being funny. A suffocating niceness settled over the show. The characters spent most of their time buying and selling compliments with each other, and the stakes might never be that prime, because Leslie would all the time swoop in to save lots of the day. Earnestness, it turned out, could possibly be each bit as narcissistic and empty as cynicism. Just like the ironists earlier than them, champions of the brand new sincerity didn’t have a subsequent transfer.

At the moment, there’s a name for the genre Parks and Rec pioneered: hopepunk. In accordance with Alexandra Rowland, coiner of the time period, hopepunk is “about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can.” It’s a melodramatic framing good for a cultural second that treats posting online as a form of ideological warfare.

Back within the Obama years, Parks and Rec might afford to be extra covert about its politics. Only within the last season did the collection acknowledge that Leslie was a Democrat. Schur admitted that the show indulged in wishful considering, however he distinguished it from the “liberal fantasy” promoted by The West Wing. Parks and Rec had a post-partisan agenda—“an American fantasy” of mutual respect and cooperation. Actually, though, it was the same liberal fantasy, the place everyone might snicker collectively as a result of they have been all on the correct aspect of historical past.

Schur may need taken a special turn if he had paid nearer attention to David Foster Wallace’s critique of TV. “Television,” Wallace noticed in 1993, “from the surface on down, is about desire.” Producers stored viewers in their seats by giving them what they craved. “This is what TV does: it discerns, decocts, and represents what it thinks U.S. culture wants to see and hear about itself.”

And that’s what Parks and Rec did for many of its run, assuaging the anxieties of managerial-class liberals by telling them every thing can be okay if we trusted the grownups—the Obamas, the Clintons, the Knopes—to look out for us. “On some level,” Schur stated, “we have to present optimism.” By the top of the show, optimism meant a future the place public providers are gutted, a handful of firms dominate the financial system, and all your favourite characters are doing just splendidly. Faced with a equally dreary vista a era in the past, Wallace famous, “the forms of our best rebellious art have become mere gestures, shticks, not only sterile but perversely enslaving.” Though he by no means underestimated the facility of catering to want, Wallace requested a query that also deserves consideration at this time: Shouldn’t we would like something higher?


Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.