My favorite comedy of all time is without a doubt NBC’s The Office. I have watched the series multiple times and have offered my own reflections on the show (see here). The Office is unique in television comedy. It is filmed in a documentary-style mocking modern reality television. Its writing is rich, its characters are fantastic, its casting is perfect, and its humor is unique. Repeatedly, friends recommended another NBC show, Parks and Recreation, starring Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones (from The Office), Aziz Ansari, Paul Schneider, Rob Lowe, Adam Scott, and Chris Pratt as a show similar to The Office.
Like The Office, the show is filmed like a documentary. Though Parks and Rec take less advantage of this than its predecessor, the characters frequently speak directly to the camera and utilize the traditional “interviews.” The Office is a show centered on a private company, Dunder Mifflin (a paper company) whereas Parks and Rec (as the name suggests) centers itself in the realm of government. It is here we find the unifying story of the show. Where The Office was a story about acceptance, Parks and Rec is a story about the utility (or better futility) of the state.
Without knowing the writers personally, one could assume a show written in Hollywood about local government is likely produced by progressives who favor government involvement. Yet what NBC offers viewers is largely the opposite: a show about the incompetence of the state.
To begin, every character, apart from its main character Leslie Knope, see their government work as a means to an end. Ron Swanson, the best character on the show, only works for the government as a sort of libertarian mole. His ultimate goal is to gut the beast from the inside. By the final season, we find him working in the private sector still waging his personal war against bloated government.
Tom Haverford, whose job at the parks department remained a real mystery to me for the first five seasons, sees government as a means to business success. In one episode, Tom openly confesses that the motivating factor of entering public work was for the business connections. For several seasons the viewer is inundated with his business ideas most of which are for comedic relief. At one point, Haverford opens his own business only to see it predictably flop which proves to be a turning point for his character. Eventually he matures and becomes a successful (though arrogant) business man. Even then, his restaurant business is launched off the back of the Pawnee Unity Concert. Again, if it were not for his connections with government (the means), Haverford would never have found entrepreneur success (the ends).
Ann Perkins, a nurse by trade also sees government work as a means to an ends. We are introduced to her at the beginning of the series. She wants to turn the land behind her house into a park and works closely with the parks department to accomplish just that. By the sixth season she moves away pregnant. As a final act of friendship, Leslie Knope officially breaks ground (five years later!) on the park (the ends) behind her old house. More than that, government was a means to friendship. Thus for Perkins, the state is the means by which both a park she wants and a friend (and later her future husband Chris Traeger) she needs.
April Ludgate, the young cynical millenial who outwardly hates everything and everyone, is no different than the other characters. We discover she began working at the parks department as an intern and eventually was hired full time. Ron Swanson appreciates her pessimistic attitude about work in general, which he interprets to be government work in particular. Of all the characters, she has one of the more interesting arcs. Slowly she comes out of her shell and reveals her guarded self. Yet what we discover is that government work is the means to bringing her to that maturity. Though she began as a bored intern, she slowly works her way up (to her great regret). When she becomes the Deputy Director of Animal Control, her character really begins to reform. Thus it is in government she finds her true calling and her true love (Andy Dwyer).
Finally, we come to the main character, Leslie Knope. She alone does not see government as a means to an end but as the ends itself. She is a true believer in state work and her idealism makes for great writing between her and Swanson’s libertarianism. Only Leslie believes in everything she does in the government and thus she is portrayed as a genuine fool. Even though Larry/Gary/Terry is loathed by the other employees as clueless and accident prone and Andy as a bumbling ignoramus, it is Leslie who does not realize she is the butt of her own joke. Her faith in government makes her foolish.
The evidence of her foolishness is overwhelming. First, it takes six seasons to break ground on a project introduced in the pilot episode. I recall at one point realizing that I had forgotten about that park. Apparently both the writers and the Pawnee government had too. Even when they “broke ground” it was in the middle of the night and in secret. Knope was eventually elected city councilwoman only to be recalled. Of the other members, she’s clearly the most qualified and the only one who takes it seriously. Yet it is her that is kicked out of office. She is passionate, yet alone in her passion. She is pushy to a fault and outside of her co-workers and friends, virtually everyone rejects her. Leslie Knope is the Michael Scott of Parks and Recreation. The difference is that Michael Scott knows he’s Michael Scott.
What is significant about all of this is what it says about government. One should assume that the writers, producers, and actors are largely progressives who believe in government intrusion, yet Parks and Recreation unfolds in comedic form why only fools would believe that. That is the irony of the show. The viewer finds themselves in agreement with Ron Swanson, not because they’re libertarians, but because governments like Pawnee (and your local, state, and federal government is far worse than Pawnee) are overgrown and wasteful.
The series finale did its best to turn the ship around portraying everyone as having found success in and through government. We discover Larry/Gary/Terry remained mayor of Pawnee for life. Leslie and her husband served as high as President (which one do you think?) Even Mr. Swanson gets to enjoy the great outdoors by means of a federal job. Yet after seven seasons of government incompetence, the finale ended on a happy note, but we’re not buying what they’re selling.
In the end, I largely agree with the premise of the show which promotes the idea, to quote Reagan, that government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem. One wonders if the Leslie Knopes in DC or in your hometown will ever get the message? I doubt it, which is itself its own comedy, if it weren’t a real life tragedy.