Already Great

Already Great

On the dead-end optimism of Parks and Recreation.

“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 many of the essays that took over Blue America’s collective social media feed in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, the piece asked readers to join what would soon be called 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.”

Except “Leslie Knope” wasn’t a real person. She was a character in Parks and RecreationParks and Rec, to its fans—a critically acclaimed NBC sitcom that aired its final episode in 2015. The show centered on a handful of bureaucrats at the parks department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie, played by Amy Poehler, was the focus of the series. A ferociously competent public servant, Leslie slept four hours a night and devoted the rest of her time to figuring out how to make her hometown a slightly better place, with the help of a cast of future stars that included Aziz Ansari (the greedy but lovable Tom Haverford), Chris Pratt (the goofy but lovable Andy Dwyer), and Nick Offerman (the libertarian but lovable Ron Swanson).

Before Parks and Rec debuted in the spring of 2009, Poehler had been best known for her role on Saturday Night Live portraying Hillary Clinton, and the show alluded to the president-in-waiting throughout its run. She’s mentioned by name around the one-minute mark of the first episode, and her picture is prominently displayed in Leslie’s office. In 2016, comparisons between the two became 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 in the Guardian. According to Vox, “Democrats’ not-so-secret-closing argument” was that “Hillary Clinton is Leslie Knope.” The show was even used to excuse Clinton’s botched attempt to cover up her pneumonia, which Salon dubbed her “Leslie Knope moment.” Mike Schur, co-creator of the series and likely author of the post-election war cry against Trump, said in the summer of 2016 that Leslie would be out “campaigning like a mofo” for the Democrats. Clinton herself blessed the association, filming a video with Poehler where she asked what kind of president Leslie Knope would be.

Ten years after its premiere, we’re living in the world Parks and Rec helped make. That’s not just because it remains a ubiquitous cultural presence, especially among millennials. (“I can’t go on Tinder without finding some idiot comparing himself to Ron Swanson,” a friend complained to me the other day.) Parks and Rec was animated by a coherent philosophy—a philosophy that was still unusual a decade ago, but is now as widespread as GIFs of Ron Swanson eating bacon. It’s a worldview that fits perfectly with what American liberalism has become, a self-satisfied politics so confident in its righteousness that it can’t quite believe there’s anything left to argue about.

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

 

You can think of Parks and Rec as an answer to two sets of questions that were on Mike Schur’s mind as the series was going into production 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 said in a 2015 interview. “The Tea Party hadn’t happened yet, but the nation’s divide was getting worse every day.” Both sides of the debate had a spokesman in the cast. Leslie Knope was a do-gooder who wanted an active and effective government; Ron Swanson opposed bureaucracy in all its forms. (“Child labor laws,” he said in one episode, “are ruining this country.”) Their relationship provided the series with its major political arc. Could a libertarian with stockpiles of gold buried in his backyard work alongside an idealistic reformer who hadn’t yet found a problem that government couldn’t solve? If they could do it, what excuse did the rest of us have for not getting along?

The next set of questions was inspired by David Foster Wallace. In interviews, Schur talks about his discovery of Wallace’s work with the kind of passion normally reserved for religious awakenings. “It’s not a stretch to say that it’s influenced everything I’ve ever written,” he’s said. “It kind of rescrambled my brain.” As an undergraduate at Harvard, Schur arranged for Wallace to visit campus so that he could meet his hero in person, and the pair struck up a correspondence. After moving 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 said, “without me reading David Foster Wallace.” And it must be relevant that as he was bringing Leslie Knope to life in the fall of 2008, Schur learned, along with the rest of the world, that Wallace had committed suicide.

Today, Schur keeps quotations from Wallace in his office for inspiration. 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 of the shows that Schur has created, including Brooklyn 99, The Good Place, and his new series Abby’s. Wallace believed that contemporary American culture had been overtaken by an easy but poisonous cynicism. Could sincerity survive in a culture of irony? Could earnestness, maybe, be cool? Schur was willing to gamble that the answer was yes.

Ironically, he chose to wage his campaign for sincerity using the art form that Wallace held singularly responsible for cynicism’s hold on the national psyche: television. Schur came by his love of TV honestly—he watched Cheers devotedly as a child—and by 2009 he had a résumé that few in the industry could match. From the presidency of the Harvard Lampoon, he had moved on to a job writing for Saturday Night Live and then left to join Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak on the original writing team 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 come up with a spinoff for The Office, he tapped Schur to help bring the show to the screen. They ditched the idea and came back instead with a pitch for what Daniels called “a mockumentary version of The West Wing.”

Although the series probably never would have made it to the screen without Daniels’s clout, it was Schur who gave Parks and Rec its distinctive worldview. Breaking from the model set by Seinfeld, this would be a show about something—about how optimism could prevail over pessimism, and about how much people could achieve when they worked together. Jokes were their secret weapon: they would turn irony’s characteristic mode of attack against itself.

Transforming that aspiration into a viable sitcom took some work. The writers struggled to find the right tone for Leslie, to make her flawed without appearing pathetic, ambitious without being unmoored from reality. Both sides of the character were hinted at by her surname, which rhymes with “hope” but more directly suggests “nope.” Early in 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 would have made sense in a spin-off from The Office—Steve Carell’s barely competent Michael Scott specialized in delusions of grandeur—but coming from an anonymous government employee wasting away in the middle ranks of Indiana bureaucracy it mostly seemed sad.

Parks and Rec found its balance in the second season. The writers boosted Leslie’s IQ enough to make her a talented public servant, and they turned the rest of the parks department, including her supposed ideological antagonist Ron Swanson, into her accomplices. Other departments still got in her way, the public made impossible demands, and the local business community could always block her path. But she would do what she could with the material she had.

Leslie’s character, like the rest of the series, 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 said 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.” That might sound hokey, but it worked. The writers let characters fail, confront problems that didn’t have easy solutions, and feel shitty about their lives, all while being really funny. And they pulled it off week after week, for a whole season of television.

 

There was just one problem: the ratings were abysmal. The series averaged 5.97 million viewers an episode in its first season, making it the ninety-fourth most-watched show on network television. It did even worse the next year, losing more than a million viewers.

Facing imminent cancellation, the writers came up with a plan to save the show: they would turn Leslie into a superhero. A series that began as a parody of the earnest take on government exemplified by The West Wing turned into its Obama-era equivalent. The producers hinted at the transition by adding a new name to the cast: Rob Lowe, last seen on NBC playing the fictional counterpart of George Stephanopoulos in Aaron Sorkin’s glossy reinvention of the Clinton White House.

At the outset of the third season, Pawnee’s government was gushing red ink and the parks department was in danger of being eliminated, a plot point that neatly brought together the real-life austerity crunch of 2010 and the show’s own precarious standing. By the end of the year, Leslie had—with the support of her scrappy team—saved the parks department, found love with a Paul Ryan–ish auditor the state had sent to trim the town budget, and been courted to run for city council. She won that race in season four, setting her off on a path that, the series finale heavily suggested, would end at the White House. In the first season, the writers had played the idea of a Knope presidency for laughs; six years later, it had turned into a prophecy.

Critics lapped up West Wing: Pawnee, and politicians were just as smitten. Though the show obviously leaned Democratic, Leslie was at heart a partisan of the American political system, and the producers snagged major figures from both 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. Ratings remained low, but it was a hit with TV executives’ favorite kind of viewer: the rich kind. It did better with affluent households than every network comedy but Modern Family, giving Schur and his team the cachet they needed to keep the series on air for 125 episodes.

But as the writers made Leslie smarter, the rest of Pawnee, which had never been that bright to begin with, seemed even worse. After a year of supporting right-minded but disastrously unpopular policies—starting with a soda tax and culminating with Pawnee’s version of a Wall Street bailout—she lost 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 ahead two years, placing the show in a not-so-distant future when Leslie had taken up a high-ranking job in the National 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 once described as “overrun with raccoons and obese toddlers,” had become a miniature Brooklyn dotted with yoga studios, juice bars, and chic restaurants. The only major question was whether she would be able to persuade a tech giant—a combination of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—to make Pawnee its regional headquarters and gentrify the last derelict part of town. Spoiler alert: she won.

So did everyone else. By the last episode, which aired in February 2015, characters who began the series stuck in bureaucratic anonymity were launched onto careers that would bring all of them fame and success, usually outside Pawnee. One would became a best-selling author, another a real-estate mogul, and a third a congressman. Then there was Leslie, who would round out two terms as Indiana’s governor with the aforementioned turn in the White House. Remember, this was the series that was going to break TV’s habit of insisting that “the only noble choice in life is to be the biggest, best, fastest, strongest.”

Not everything was perfect. The show alluded to a coming financial crash and cuts to education budgets so deep that schools had to stop teaching math, and an Infinite Jest–style parody commercial for Verizon-Exxon-Chipotle included the tagline “proud to be one of America’s eight companies.” But with Leslie Knope on a glide path to the presidency, the country would be in safe hands. America, you see, was already great.

 

Two months after the Parks and Rec finale aired, Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president. The writers had toyed with the idea of asking Clinton to appear on the show, but setting the final season in 2017 raised the tricky question of what she would be doing after Election Day 2016. They decided to avoid the issue, never mentioning the president by name in the entire season. That’s one of the strangest things about watching this era of Parks and Rec today, because in our timeline the only thing that Leslie Knope would be talking about is Donald Trump.

The gap between Parks and Rec and our own reality had been widening for years. Leslie transformed into a bureaucratic superhero in the spring of 2011, just as Republicans were taking over the House of Representatives and state governments across the country. The major legislative accomplishments of the Obama administration were all in the rearview mirror, but frustrated liberals could watch Leslie put together an epic town harvest festival. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Donald Trump was going from station to station demanding that Barack Obama release his birth certificate. “I’m starting to think that he was not born here,” he said on NBC, the same network that broadcast Parks and Rec—and, of course, The Apprentice.

Parks and Rec had tried to prove that Republicans and Democrats could still communicate with each other, and that each would be better for it. But the show’s version of conservatism had no room for Trump. In 2016, Mike Schur told interviewers that even Ron Swanson would have voted for Clinton. He had set out to represent all sides of the country’s political debate; in the end, he couldn’t even include all of NBC’s primetime lineup.

That fall, Trump carried Leslie Knope’s home state by almost twenty points, boosted by the presence of Indiana governor Mike Pence on the ticket. Although Barack Obama won the state narrowly in 2008, it had been trending toward the GOP for the entirety of Parks and Rec’s run. By 2012, it was back in the GOP’s column; Romney beat Obama by ten points, helping give Pence a narrow victory in the governor’s race. But the writers don’t seem to have thought about politics much when they decided to put the show in Indiana. According 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 different understanding of ambition and optimism. While the winning team in each episode sipped champagne in private pools, the defeated were forced to spend the night in the backyard, put up in tents without electricity. Summarizing his show’s message, Trump told them that “life’s a bitch.” It sounds tough, but Trump knew his audience, and The Apprentice regularly drew twice as many viewers as Parks and Rec.

Popularity was never Leslie’s top priority anyway. She wanted to help people, not be like them, or be liked by them. “Pawnee has done you a favor,” a political consultant tells her after she loses her recall vote. “You’ve outgrown them.” By the end of the series, she was holding lunch dates with Madeleine Albright and playing charades with Joe Biden. She was still looking out for Pawnee, but from a distance. Leslie’s future had taken her where she belonged, all the way to Washington. Then again, so did Trump’s.

 

What’s striking in retrospect is how easy it was to bring together the two questions that Schur was puzzling through in 2009—the Obama question of how to transcend the divide between red and blue America; the Wallace question of whether sincerity could survive in a culture of irony—and how quickly both answers led toward a particularly oblivious variety of liberalism.

Maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. Reading Wallace today, what most stands out is how much the cultural landscape has changed. By 2009, it should already have been clear that the cynics were on the defensive. Obama’s presidential campaign was one long demonstration of a profound hunger for something worth believing in. Liberal America was primed for an optimistic series that claimed to speak for the country as a whole, even if most people didn’t bother watching it. In other words, a show like Parks and Rec.

It’s often forgotten, however, that Wallace thought the ironists had a point. His most extended discussion of irony’s hold on the American psyche, the 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” granted that American society was filled with hypocrites spreading platitudes contradicted by the realities of daily life: “corporate ascendancy, bureaucratic entrenchment, foreign adventurism, racial conflict, secret bombing, assassination, wiretaps, etc.” Against this backdrop, he noted, “rebellious irony . . . seemed downright socially useful.” The problem was that the ironists had no second act. They could tear down a system, but they had no plan for what came next.

According to Wallace, it had taken decades for irony to change from a valuable cultural counterweight into the “cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon” it had become by the 1990s. On Parks and Rec, the decline of sincerity took just seven years. The most telling sign of decay became apparent around season four, when the jokes stopped being funny. A suffocating niceness settled over the show. The characters spent most of their time trading compliments with each other, and the stakes could never be that high, because Leslie would always swoop in to save the day. Earnestness, it turned out, could be every bit as narcissistic and empty as cynicism. Like the ironists before them, champions of the new sincerity didn’t have a next move.

 

Today, there’s a name for the genre Parks and Rec pioneered: hopepunk. According to Alexandra Rowland, coiner of the term, 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 perfect for a cultural moment that treats posting online as a form of ideological warfare.

Back in the Obama years, Parks and Rec could afford to be more covert about its politics. Only in the last season did the series acknowledge that Leslie was a Democrat. Schur admitted that the show indulged in wishful thinking, but 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. Really, though, it was the same liberal fantasy, where everyone could laugh together because they were all on the right side of history.

Schur might have taken a different turn if he had paid closer attention to David Foster Wallace’s critique of TV. “Television,” Wallace observed in 1993, “from the surface on down, is about desire.” Producers kept 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 most of its run, assuaging the anxieties of managerial-class liberals by telling them everything would be okay if we trusted the grownups—the Obamas, the Clintons, the Knopes—to look out for us. “On some level,” Schur said, “we have to present optimism.” By the end of the show, optimism meant a future where public services are gutted, a handful of corporations dominate the economy, and all your favorite characters are doing just splendidly. Faced with a similarly dreary vista a generation ago, Wallace noted, “the forms of our best rebellious art have become mere gestures, shticks, not only sterile but perversely enslaving.” Though he never underestimated the power of catering to desire, Wallace asked a question that still deserves consideration today: Shouldn’t we want something better?


Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels