Thursday, May 26th, 2011

The Weird, Frictionless Politics Of 'Parks And Recreation'

There are a lot of different ways to say that NBC’s "Parks and Recreation" is a very upbeat show. Willa Paskin classified the show as a “comedy of niceness.” Showrunner Michael Schur points out that everyone on the show is passionate about something. James Poniewozik talks about how the show is sincere where others are ironic. And at Splitsider, AJ Aronstein focused on the show’s optimistic view of politics. But here’s another way to say it: the show is twee.

Twee is a loaded word, but twee things are not necessarily bad. April and Andy’s relationship, from their individual personalities right down to their manic pixie dream girl wedding (so kooky, so spontaneous!), is fundamentally twee, and it’s fun to watch. So are things like Leslie’s love of waffles, Ann Perkins’ bafflement about men, and Rob Lowe’s entire character. But the sort of childish optimism that makes "Parks and Rec" so entertaining can, at its worst, edge into self-satisfaction, encouraging a willful retreat from the world as it is into an uncomplicated, low-stakes vision of the world as people with anxiety problems would like it to be. You could see that clash when Ben moved in with April and Andy and was legitimately appalled by their inability to take care of themselves as adults. The whole third season of the show consisted of every other character trying to make Ben more twee, and while it’s been great television, it’s weird politics. Ben’s job is to keep Pawnee running within its budget, but people keep insisting that he can just go ahead and spend more money without worrying where it’s going to come from. When Ben gives an individual money for plates and he instead buys a marshmallow shooter, that’s hilarious. But when Ben gives the parks department more money, that money comes out of someone else’s budget. Maybe it’s a social program, maybe it’s the schools. No matter how well-intentioned, that decision is not without consequence, and pretending otherwise just validates the very twee, very middle-class vision of living in the world. There’s always more money somewhere, right?

I may be the only person in the world who really liked the first season of "Parks & Rec." I was excited to see something on network television that depicted the administrative aspect of politics accurately, and I loved the clash between Leslie’s sincere ideals—she really did want to build a park, and she really did think government could help people (nevermind Paskin’s calling her a clone of the eternally self-centered Michael Scott)—and the difficulty she had putting them into practice. In the second episode, Leslie eagerly hosts a public meeting, hoping to impress her hardened realpolitik mom, but gets blindsided by angry comments and has to filibuster her way out of it. There was something really at stake there: if Leslie didn’t make that cheap and transparently desperate last-minute move, the project would have been dead. Contrast that to this season, when, as Paskin puts it, there’s never any chance that Leslie will fail, just “the possibility they will not meet her very high standards.” Since we like her, that’s great. But a politics in which there’s never any chance of one person failing isn’t a democracy. If you look at it from the other ideological pole, Leslie’s not a more successful Obama. She’s a liberal Dick Cheney.

Take, too, season one’s fifth episode, “The Banquet.” Leslie needs to get a meeting with a zoning official for the project to move forward, and her mother urges her to exploit some personal information she has about the official to get what she wants. Leslie is uncomfortable with this, but considers doing it anyway because it’s a means to her desired end. The way events fall out is a perfect representation of what it’s like to be an outsider in politics: after taking the high road but failing, Leslie gives in and tries to blackmail the official, but does it so awkwardly that it blows up in her face. The episode highlights that what matters in politics isn’t the strength of your ideals but your command of the process, and that you can’t help anyone without a killer instinct. Leslie’s very twee-ness places her outside the old-boys network that would teach her those skills, and she has to decide whether she cares more about being true to herself or about achieving what she thinks is right. Watching her navigate a compromise between ideals and goals was fascinating. It spoke to the essential political need to sublimate your own desires to the collective activity in which government workers are always involved. But in the current season, this tension has been removed. Leslie never has to navigate morally problematic situations. Her problems negotiating the power structures of city government have somehow disappeared, and though she had been an outsider just two years prior, she now knows everyone in town intimately. When she runs into a problem with a park split over two towns, she just gets the gang together and builds a baseball field in a day. It’s a lovely ending; but as a reflection of politics, it’s on a par with acting like we’re in a Mickey Rooney picture. Let’s put on a show! Let’s balance the budget! C’mon, gang!

Poniewozik wrote that the first season had “an off-putting dark edge.” It may be true that the show’s tendency to not always have everything work out displeased the audience (though according to the Wikipedia, there were about a million fewer average viewers per show for seasons two and three than there were for season one). But the idea of a show about politics without a dark edge seems deeply weird to me. Politics is the business of power, and one of the oldest human endeavors. How is that not going to be a little dark? That people expect politics to be some sort of folksy, sincere charm-off is one of the biggest reasons people like Leslie tend to be unsuccessful once they actually get into government, a reality that was part of the first season but utterly gone by the third. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the “comedy of niceness” as it’s practiced in some places, particularly non-narrative or non-representational places like Jimmy Fallon’s show or Beyoncé’s music. But our ideas about institutions like government (or the health care industry, or the courts, or advertising) are powerfully shaped by how they are portrayed in popular culture. And many of the writers above have talked about how "Parks & Rec" represents a heartening vision of politics. But if that vision isn’t based in any sort of reality, do we want to let it ride anyway? Or can the fantasy do more harm than good? Are we really well served by unrealistic visions of how pleasant politics could be?

Another example is Ron Swanson, one of the most beloved characters on the show. And why not: he likes steaks and whiskey and emotional reticence, just like hipster boys everywhere! But in season one, Ron wasn't part of the gang. He was an obstacle in Leslie's path. And that's the role you'll find people like Ron playing in administrative departments around the country: working to cut or eliminate social programs, to ensure that taxes aren't raised, and to outsource vital services. These paradoxically anti-government government employees get away with it not because there's broad agreement with their ideological position. While only 15% of Americans are libertarian, most people still agree that government is the problem. That's not because they dislike the idea of government. It's because they have a fundamental distrust of this government, of government right now. But what can we do about that? Well, if you think about trust as the distance between what we expect the government to do and how it actually performs, then there are two angles to work. One is Leslie's: act more trustworthy! But no matter how trustworthy government officials are, it won't make a difference if our expectations for government are impossibly high. If we expect government to work in the way it does on "Parks and Rec"—convivially, quickly, logically, joyously—then we will always be disappointed, we will always distrust those who work in our interests, and the Ron Swansons of the world will always win.

"Parks and Rec" presents a provincial utopia of philosoraptor-kings in which there are never competing legitimate interests, never hard choices, and never any need to engage in political maneuvering. Between seasons one and three, Leslie Knope’s fiefdom transformed from a recognizable example of small-city politics to a kind of put-a-bird-on-it polis where decisions are made not on the basis of power (or analytical rigor) but out of authenticity, whimsy and friendship. Easy enough when all that’s at stake are things like parks and zoos and festivals with tiny horses; but if Leslie and the gang ever had to deal with the real issues facing municipalities—that is, things like schools, taxes, and infrastructure—that just wouldn’t fly. Some viewers may like this optimistic vision of politics, but I'd argue that the vision isn't optimistic, it's fundamentally unreal. Leslie’s department within the Pawnee government is the political equivalent of Li’l Sebastian: they never have to do any real work, and they never have to win any races. They just have to stand around looking adorable. And that’s a great thing for sitcom characters to do. But it’s a dangerous way to expect politics to work.

Mike Barthel does this sort of thing for a living.

49 Comments / Post A Comment

lempha (#581)

Don't really understand MPDG when applied to April because girl is plain not manic.

kpants (#719)

@lempha I'd argue it's Andy who's the MPDG (MPDB?) in that equation.

queensissy (#1,783)

@lempha I agree. The manic pixie is a completely different animal than April. She's more of a morose petulant dream girl.

helliott (#4,354)

"But when Ben gives the parks department more money, that money comes out of someone else’s budget. Maybe it’s a social program, maybe it’s the schools. No matter how well-intentioned, that decision is not without consequence, "

Actually, that decision is without consequence seeing as how (SPOLER ALERT) it's a fictional TV show.

MousesHouse (#8,815)

Good thing I don't look to sitcoms for how politics should work then!

kpants (#719)

"If we expect government to work in the way it does on 'Parks and Rec'—convivially, quickly, logically, joyously"

Are you watching the same show I am? Because what we've seen repeatedly on P&R is the repeated failures of government to act in those ways. For example, the pit was only filled by Leslie acting outside the bounds of her bureaucratic responsibilites, the internecine fighting between the library and the park departments bubbles up multiple times, and City Hall's fourth floor aka "the creepiest place on Earth" is home to the DMV and Records departments, etc.

We have seen Leslie, however, act (or at least try to act) convivially, quickly, logically, and joyously: which is where the charm of that charcter is located. Most of our everyday experiences with government agencies and functions don't particularly leave us with the impression those employees have much desire to perform their jobs with those qualities.

falese@twitter (#13,109)

Fiction brah! its fiction!

if we wanted to see realistic hilarious politics i'll watch cspan coverage of the house budget committee meetings!

melis (#1,854)

No, you won't!

pemulis (#903)

Working on my pitch for The Awl: Closed for Business: Why The Office Is a Terrible Primer for How to Run a SMB

After that, will tackle the problem of Community not accurately reflecting the changing needs of higher education in America.

@pemulis It'll hold nothing to my pitch eviscerating Swing Time's picture of socioeconomic struggles in 1930s New York.


deepomega (#1,720)

I think this argument would work better if it weren't for the finales of 2 and 3. 2 ends with everybody furloughed, 3 ends with the looming specter of political dirt, and neither of them leaves anyone with the impression that Leslie and company have somehow made a significant difference. The only real political success in the show is the harvest festival they use to close the budget gap, which is obviously absurd on the face of it, but is still just one political success. The department is still budget crisis-y, Leslie and Ben are still incapable of figuring out that they need to change departments before they start fucking, etc. etc. etc.

sharilyn (#4,599)

You are FAR FROM the only person who enjoyed the first season of "Parks & Rec"! Granted, it's a twee vision of small-town America, but it's a place I quite enjoy visiting, and I'm obviously not alone.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I completely disagree with this! From a comedic perspective, Parks & Rec is just about perfectly pitched to differentiate itself from the Office, 30 Rock, and Community. From a social perspective, you've got it completely backward: Parks & Rec gives viewers a warm, fuzzy feeling about local government and a positive impression of community involvement, while deriding civic narrow-mindedness and NIMBY selfishness.

Basically, if your thesis were correct, the Arthurian legend would have been bad PR for the British monarchy.

deepomega (#1,720)

@DoctorDisaster: It's West Wing-y not because of any sort of "realism" about politics, but because everyone on the show actually wants to get shit done, even the political opponents. (Except Ron, obviously.)

The lowered stakes and increased tweeness of the show did make season 3 a bit less satisfying for me, but I think the writers are making these choices because the show has become less about politics and more about the characters that have been developed, just like 30 Rock used to make a lot more reference to the content and production of TGS, which is way more in the background now. Also, like other people are saying, I think this mainly bothers you because you are such a policy wonk. I have a hard time seeing how the representation of government in P&R could actually be bad for real democracy in any significant way.

La Cieca (#1,110)

@Saelan Twerdy@facebook It's a standard progression in any sitcom, or let's say any quality sitcom, that the stories derive less and less from situation and more and more from character. Take The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where the emphasis shifted from Mary's proto-feminist mini-struggles in the WGN newsroom to stuff like the ongoing love/hate banter between Sue Ann and Murray, or Georgette's patient efforts to make Ted act like an adult. The "situation" becomes a pretext, basically a reason to bring the characters together. (I believe Linda Bloodworth-Thomason once said that the whole point of Designing Women was to bring four southern women into a room where they could sit and talk. The design firm just provided that venue.)

The tweeness issue on Parks and Recreation this season may be related to the season-long love story arc for Leslie and Ben. People who are in love (especially star-crossed lovers) tend to be sympathy magnets, plus it is very hard to write one lover as crass or mean without throwing off the tone ("Why does she like that jerk in the first place?"); as such, love stories tend to sentimentalize the comedy very quickly. That higher level of sentimentality is I think what a lot of people find disturbing this season on P&R.

Another possible issue to be watched is the trope of "we're there for you," which means that the whole gang always has to turn out to support harebrained schemes like the Snake Juice launch, even though they know the scheme is harebrained. Again, this tends to sentimentalize the characters and rob them of individuality. (The problem, of course, is that the "there for you" trope is so ingrained that having a character actually boycott another's blatant idiocy would be perceived as deliberate cruelty and the "sensible" character redefined as a smug prig. So let's hope that Snake Juice launch storylines will be kept to a minimum.)

From what I've seen (which is certainly much less than Mike has, but > nothing), the "political realities" of a small government office in a small (notwithstanding the actual size of its population — HIYO!) town like Pawnee actually are relatively trivial. Compared to the realpolitik (groan) of getting things done in a "bustling metropolis," when you've got what is intended to be a podunk town? And you're focusing on the freakin' Parks department of said podunk town? What kind of Carcetti-esque machinations are you expecting??

I.e., my point is that the show was always intended to be frivolous (w/r/t "talking about politics"). It is frivolous. And that is nothing short of GREAT!

nogreeneggs (#12,239)

@DorothyMantooth I agree! It's a show about the parks department of a small town in middle America. How much political responsibility would they have? As someone from a small town, I think the town meetings were everyone is complaining about ridiculously mundane things are totally accurate.

kpants (#719)

@DorothyMantooth Yes. Parks & Recreation ≠ The Wire. (Or for those that enjoy Canadian TV, Parks & Recreation ≠ DaVinci's Inquest.)

HelloTitty (#830)

@nogreeneggs "Now, I have a few things I want to say about Laura Linney." I was absolutely hooked after that line in the pilot.

dikwad (#2,308)

Thinking about the show in terms of real-world politics makes the show way more fun!

Cheruth (#13,134)

I agree with the underlying point but this article isn't exactly accurate. Outside of the one concert with Freddie Spaghetti last season the Parks department hasn't received any special financial attention. The whole point of the Harvest Festival was that it had to be self-funding and even profitable. Which is why if it failed (and the government had to step in and cover the cost) the whole department could lose their jobs. And we see them tirelessly trying to get funding and sponsors (even when Leslie had the flu). After the festival Chris insisted that they come up with ideas that generate profits and do not sink government money. Which is why Leslie had to come up with all of those profitable ideas rather than focusing on building something on what used to be Ann's pit (in the camping episode). So, the department hasn't done anything that would lead to loss of money to other departments.

Leslie isn't constantly looking for more money from the government. At this point, she is creating her own ways to both increase revenue and provide services she thinks are necessary for a community. Even in the Parker Posey episode you see that the hastily converted baseball field was sponsored by Sweetums (it was on the scoreboard). The show is naive not because they are avoiding the realities of the government (that there isn't money just for the taking and giving to one takes from the other) but because it believes that if you work hard and think outside the box we can find solutions to any problem. When, in reality, thinking outside the box is next to impossible to do in local government because of all the red tape.

GailPink (#9,712)

Dude, it's a TV show. Don't overthink it.

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

Pretty much my entire career has been as a policy wonk in local governments (big cities, at that!) and I have to tell you that it's about as silly and personality-driven as P&R makes it out to be.

danbo (#8,510)

especially in "non-essential" departments like parks, to which i can attest as a former park ranger. you know, a walkie-talkie costs like six grand, right? and we get new ones like every other year, but that doesn't mean it's the reason children aren't getting a new chalkboard let alone a proper education. in conclusion, this article is bogus. people need to stop being so serious about comedy!

valark (#13,140)

Dan Quayle is Mike Barthel's hero.

Neopythia (#353)

Parks and Rec is a live action Simpsons these days and one of the two funniest sitcoms on tv, along with Community. I would just enjoy it for what it is. Perhaps the politics of The Chicago Code are more your sort of thing?

bmichael (#213)

I for one will not criticize the premise of the piece (I mean, we all know House [qua show] is flagging because Dr Cuddy isn't spending enough time administering the hospital, what with her all shacked up with House)–it stands on its own.

I'd say that Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe–ofc. I can tell the difference between reality and fiction!) is -not- twee. He's an excersize nut, master communicator, and a hardnose boss. He's a Hegelianized bro, if he's of any type.

Mike – thanks for a thoughtful piece. I think you make a lot of strong points, and my best counter argument would simply be: Parks & Recs makes me laugh. It makes me laugh often. It makes me laugh out loud.

The reality of our political world rarely makes me laugh, and is almost never an enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes. I will take the twee for as long as Ron Fing Swanson makes me laugh.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@Conor Yunits@twitter I love it too! I watched that clip of Andy with the marshmallow gun at least three times after I found it. The actors are amazing, and the writing is really sharp. I just saw a few people saying that the show was an example of all that's great in politics, and I think that's a problematic way of looking at the show, and politics. I don't think this should stop anyone from watching the show, because why would you stop consuming a piece of art just because it expressed different ideological values than you hold? It's just something to be aware of if you're the kind of person who uses fictional situations as analogies for making sense of the real world. Which, luckily, no one commenting here ever does! So that's reassuring.

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

Dude, Mike. Really nice piece. It really makes you think…

Thus far, none of the characters on P&R are elected officials … they all work in the government, but no, they don't have any elections to win (although it looks like Leslie might) and they are all relatively low-level officials. This isn't a look at politicians, it's a look (and a damn funny one) at the grunt work of the parks department in a local government.

my_piru (#13,158)

mike, how about the perspective that your suggestion that good government types are coeval with twee is actually incredibly cynical position, and therefore not twee? i believe you're conflating twee with hipster, in order to derogate it as strawman, in opposition to earnestness and sincerity (which we should all strive toward to beat terrible republicans and increasingly-evil and neoliberal obama) but i think you're wrong: hipster is located at a particular axis of time and space in the continental US' metropolitan spaces, and is very ironic. twee on the other hand isn't ironic at all – its our unemployed women selling knit scarves on etsy and enjoying potlucks in the park. this is twee, like the maletwee, the apatow, wherein irony and cynicism – positions that distrust and criticize – are to be discarded in pursuit of True Love.

now, i hate Hipsters as much as i should, as part of the hipster backlash that i think ended a long time ago, but say what you will about them, at least their position (as free floating as it is) embraces some kind of critique of the status quo, and makes room for boehimian or deviant positions in society. twee doesn't.

nooowwwwww.. i'm a little drunk, but back to parks and rec. i think parks and rec is beautiful because its supremely feminist, and not in the "sarah palin is a feminist because she is a woman and runs for office" kind of way, but in actual that shows that leslie can be a woman, and also a strong and effective leader. i think parks and rec is beautiful because it offers a vision of politics not where it ignores that things get cut, or that funding is scarce, but it shows employees up against systems of privatization and budget funding and how they work around it to do their one true mission: civic duty. they slog thru bullshit townhall meetings (which are everything but twee mike, they are awful kafkaesque nightmares) and purpose-less redecorations of their office in order to continue to fight the pathetic fight that they, rightfully or not, see as their duty.

as for not reaching too high, or the failure to point out a marxist critique of where the funding for the schoolbuses comes from, i think thats exactly the point – where 30 rock (a show i think is incredibly lame and incredibly neoliberal, with its emphasis of show as politics and its tame calling out of GE and its corporate owners) thinks that jokes are somehow political moves (and they've moved away from this for the last two seasons and are almost unbearable to watch), parks and rec shows that a commitment to ethics and people working for the public can actually bubble up, trickle down, choose your metaphor.

as for ron swanson, i may be the only person who isn't obsessed with him, because i'm not a hipster (and the new Trade Gothic hipster, with his love of craft, mustaches and some kind of weird manliness when nonhipsters are just busy being men, or fathers, or working on hard jobs), but i love his character because he is your typical small government hack: he actually loves his city more than he hates the government, so whereas he was a block in season one, he realizes that good governance is important to the running of a city. why is that so bad?

anyway, the show's fucking funny, and season 3 is the best of them all. oh, tobias, you blowhard.

fitz (#13,182)

how you got to do this sort of thing for a living is totally amazing.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@fitz I took the GRE!

fitz (#13,182)

@MikeBarthel – i was quoting the marshall mcluhan scene in annie hall.
"i heard what you were saying. you know nothing of my work. you mean my whole fallacy is wrong. how you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."
i was half joking around with your bio tag because your article makes some stretches in criticism, just like the teacher standing in line at the movies behind woody allen. its nothing personal.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@fitz Oh, I thought you were looking for help getting into grad school.

fitz (#13,182)

@MikeBarthel nope, just taking umbrage with your article!

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@fitz Taking umbrage at articles is also a good way to get into grad school.

fitz (#13,182)

@MikeBarthel not sure id want to go to a school that would take me because of internet commenting. and yes, that is another garbled annie hall quote.

Matthew Perpetua (#2,418)

I think, basically, the very things that have made this show improve over time — character development, the emergence of a distinct comedic perspective rooted in kindness, just being more funny — are at odds with a realistic portrayal of local politics. This is fine with me! If you want comedy about the brutal misery of politics/life, England will give you what you need. And it won't be as funny.

sophiah (#13,210)

As someone who regularly points out the race and gender issues in other people's favorite TV shows, books, and movies, I must say that "It's just fiction — don't overthink it!" and "Well, I like it anyhow" are the laziest defenses around, so you have my sympathies there. If it's worth watching, it's worth analyzing, and nothing gives anyone the right to turn off their brain when it comes to social issues.

However, I disagreed with this this article mainly because I think the point is too specific. We can obviously argue all day about the veracity of P&R's politics, especially when it comes to a small and non-essential city department without a lot of responsibilities, but what I think your point actually boils down to is "Things are too easy for these characters," which I semi-agree with.

That's why I stopped watching The Office, because nothing Michael ever did had consequences for him or the business, and more importantly because Pam and Jim went from realistically star-crossed personally and professionally to a smug couple whose twee problems were always solved in 22 minutes and were fine working a shitty job as long as they had a cute baby. Things got too easy for the characters, and that makes for awful TV, especially when the show started with realistic difficulties.

I don't think P&R is quite to that point yet, but I do think April and Andy's marriage is going suspiciously well, and that despite the looming budget problems nothing has really worked out badly for any of the characters (except Jerry) in a long time. Right now I still love everyone and it's early days for the show, but I acknowledge that I will get bored if all their political problems vanish with a Harvest Festival and everyone gives in to Leslie because she's so goshdarn-cute. I think the finale set up some more trouble on the horizon, so I'm reserving judgement for now, but the possibility is there.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@Maren Thanks Maren! Yeah, generally agreed, though I actually started watching The Office again after the baby was born – I think people started having real problems again, and also I never cared about Jim and Pam.

Jim347 (#13,212)

Love Ron Swanson!

keanesian (#1,116)

I think there is one key takeaway here: the Ron Swansons of the world will always win.

The entire statement about people with anxiety problems is incredibly offensive to me. Because anxiety problems are a real mental issue, and implying that you have to have mental issues to believe in the tone of the show is really insulting.

@Caitlin O'Malley@twitter Caitlin, I don't think you interpreted that correctly. No one is challenging the validity of anxiety as a real mental issue; he is simply using it as a metaphor. People with anxiety problems generally would like to not have anxiety. And that ideal, anxiety-free world is the one that he is comparing P&R to (not that I agree).

Bridget Callahan (#5,234)

"philosoraptor-kings" is my new favorite phrase.

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