“Parks and Recreation” was never really about politics. Of course, the Michael Schur- and Greg Daniels-created comedy would dip its toe in the game from time to time — memorably lambasting post-scandal apologies and non-issues made meaningful by the media — but Amy Poehler’s series never wanted to deconstruct the political failings of our democracy like “Veep” or take a topical real-world stand a la “The Daily Show” (or “Weekend Update,” Poehler’s TV gig prior to “Parks”). Instead, it was about the vital nature of public service done well and for the right reasons. Never was this better defined then in Leslie Knope’s closing speech during the Season 7 finale, when she said her first profession “was all about small, incremental change every day.”
Yet “Parks and Recreation” went through a major change in its final season, and I’m not referring to the time jump. Just like its leading lady, “Parks and Rec” was always fiercely optimistic, pushing a positive agenda built on two main themes that would eventually establish its legacy: feminism (which means equality for anyone irrationally averse to the f-word) and, with equal measure if not influence, small town pride. Yet, in a twist more shocking than all the finale’s flash forwards combined, that legacy was tarnished in Season 7, as the show’s progressive ideals were honored while its heroically “small” home was martyred for the cause.
The Iconic Leslie Knope
When “Parks and Recreation” began on April 9, 2009, many quickly wrote off the cinema verite production as a cheap knockoff of “The Office” because of two big problems. One was what Variety‘s Brian Lowry described as such: “Poehler certainly has acting oblivious down to a wide-eyed science,” before labeling the series “‘Office’ Lite.” Lowry wasn’t alone in his conviction that the blonde-haired politician was too much of an airhead early on, nor was he the only critic to complain about the show’s setting — Lowry arguing that it lacked “political bite” — as the undefined small town in rural Indiana was first utilized as a target of mockery more than a platform to mock others.
As any die hard fan knows — or even a casual-but-committed binge-watcher on Netflix — these issues were quickly righted. “Parks and Recreation” went through a makeover akin to the one Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) gave the department in “Smallest Park,” transitioning aggressively from a clone of NBC’s past success into a marker of what its future would become between its first and second seasons. Gone was the zany and inept Leslie Knope and in was the savvy, overly-energetic department leader fans quickly came to idolize.
And rightly so. Poehler’s character took a place next to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon as a feminist icon for a new generation, mantles the actresses picked up together on “Saturday Night Live” and ones they carry forward to this day, even outside their groundbreaking sitcoms. What made Knope such a profound beacon for equality can’t be summed up in a single post. As Indiewire’s TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller wrote when she ranked Leslie as the best character on “Parks and Rec,” Knope is more than a hero. She’s a superhero.
Her incredible drive matched her overreaching ambition to create an impossible example for anyone to match. The show wisely commented on this trait many times over, making it clear Leslie’s talents were beyond the grasp of an ordinary human but admirable pursuits for all (wo)mankind. The rest of the characters worked as stand-ins for the audience in this regard, as the group was inspired by Knope’s extreme enthusiasm rather than defeated by it. Even April, who began as a staunch hater of everything work-related blossomed into a woman of conviction and purpose. Ron was always a lover of “strong, dark-haired women” (and breakfast food) but he developed an appreciation for a government — or at least a section of it — run by his “work associate.” The example set by Leslie transcended the series and has become an ideal for us all, elevating “Parks and Recreation” itself beyond the class of “very good” sitcoms to the top tier of essential television.
A Fictional Town with a Real Impact
Not to be overlooked, though, was the setting for Leslie’s unending list of accomplishments. Once merely Anytown, USA, Pawnee also got an indelible makeover after a rocky start in Season 1 — or so we thought. Early on in Season 2, the show’s writers made a conscious effort to redefine its town as somewhere both unique and instantly relatable when they devoted an entire episode to the cause in “Sister City.” After enduring days of humiliating insults and comparisons to Boraqua, Venezuela, the visiting delegation led by Raul Alejandro Bastilla Pedro de Veloso de Morana (Fred Armisen) met its match in a fired up Leslie Knope. “Those guys were rude, arrogant, narrow-minded class-A jerks,” Knope said (twice) to Ron, after reaching her limit.
This battle was established as one for democracy over dictatorships, but from that moment on the show’s mission became a unique and admirable quest to bring respect to small town life; an area often depicted horribly in television and film (look no further than “The Judge” for an eye-rollingly awful alternate take on the “hoosiers” of Indiana). Pawnee isn’t exactly a blip on the map. As revealed in bits and pieces — and through this extreme long shot of the Harvest Festival — the city has to be home to at least 50,000 people (more after its absorption of Eagleton in Season 6). Yet as a part of the oft-forgotten-though-nonetheless-great state of Indiana, Pawnee and its government body carry the same burden as many Midwesterners, rural residents and small town citizens who endure the humiliating label of living in the “flyover states”: to convince outsiders — often big city folk or pretentious coastal residents — their way of life holds equal cultural relevance.
Like the rest of its themes, “Parks and Recreation” took up the challenge with glee. It never felt overly preachy and Knope refused to talk down to her constituents — not even in the many frustrating and lengthy public forums she entered into with impressive and undying exuberance. Leslie continued to check boxes off her lengthy bucket list, from becoming an elected public official to marrying the man of her dreams. She even conquered a long-distance relationship, survived the public shaming of being recalled and convinced higher-ups in the national parks department that Pawnee was the best fit for its headquarters, all while remaining the proudest member of a community bursting with town pride.
Then something changed. When Season 7 began less than six weeks ago, “Parks and Recreation” almost immediately became obsessed with big cities. Tom and Andy visited Chicago in Episode 2. April started looking for a new job, eventually landing one in Washington D.C. (and taking Andy with her). Donna bought a house in Seattle with her new husband, Joe. Ben is recruited to run for Congress, thus drawing him out of his adopted hometown of Pawnee. Finally, our superhero and Pawnee Goddess (literally) leaves a place she once defended as fiercely as a mother bear protects her cub to take up a new position near April and Andy in the nation’s capital.
A Mixed Message on Equality
These developments meant the only people left in Pawnee before Tuesday’s series finale were Tom, Jerry and Ron, the latter of which provided the most heartbreaking confessional in “Parks and Rec” history when he told Leslie how upset he was over losing his friends — including her — in the time jump that ended Season 6. Though everyone returned for “One Last Ride,” none actually confirmed a return to their hometown, not permanently at least. Unless Pawnee expanded to the point of becoming a suburb of Bloomington, Chris and Ann weren’t going to be commuting to his new job at Indiana University every day. Leslie and Ben did live in Pawnee for a time during her two terms as governor, but thanks to an implied election to higher office — were those security guards at Jerry’s funeral a Presidential escort? — we can never be sure if the ultimate power couple lived out their days in their favorite city.
While it’s hard to be upset about the beloved characters of “Parks” reaping just rewards for their professional endeavors, did they have to come at the expense of one geographic equality? Until Season 7, viewers were taught a full and exciting life could be lived somewhere besides a congested concrete jungle laden with skyscrapers. Then, suddenly, the decree was reversed without warning or necessity, making it seem like the only way to reach your full professional potential was by being elevated to a bigger stage in a bigger role in a bigger city.
What makes the decision so disappointing — and ultimately devastating — is its needless nature, and how the eternal question of “Why?” will echo in a world without “Parks” from here on out. Leslie had already conquered impossible odds to get a coveted job at National Parks by convincing them to move their headquarters to her hometown. Why did she have to leave her home to live out her dreams? Sacrifices are a necessary part of life, but Leslie’s superhuman status stems in part from her ability to have it all; a supportive husband, loving family, great friends, whatever job she wants and, yes, to have it all right there where she was raised (but not born). Instead, she lost her friends to big cities — Donna’s relocation to Seattle and Tom’s permanent residency in Pawnee are especially confounding given the duo’s obvious desire for the big time — and eventually she too was forced to spend at least half her time away from her chosen city.
Making the final season all the more frustrating is that the precedent for such a discussion on small town vs. big city relevance was set the same year “Parks and Recreation” premiered by someone forever linked to Poehler as an icon for equality. Early in the third season of “30 Rock,” Jack and Liz travel to Stone Mountain, Georgia, the fictional hometown of Kenneth and a place repeatedly ridiculed for its outdated practices. Jack is convinced he’ll find a “real person” in the heart of middle America to join the unrelatable ranks of “TGS,” while Liz tries to convince him that no part of America is any more American than another. She’s eventually proven correct as the talent Jack takes a liking to turns on him, revealing a nasty side the New Yorker didn’t expect from a such a “wholesome” place.
The message of “Stone Mountain” leans more toward defending big cities than small ones, framing the events under the perspective that New York is seen as an amoral gutter while middle America has better values. Yet the lesson of the episode is based in equality. Neither location is better than the other, just as no person is better than another simply because of their gender. “Parks and Recreation” spoke to the latter point with great conviction, insight and dedication from (more or less) start to finish, earning the series rarefied significance and a near-perfect legacy. Sadly, some of the “small” things got lost in the shuffle.