The Political Optimism of ‘Parks and Rec’ Would Not Survive In This World
The much-beloved NBC sitcom was hailed for its rosy vision of government. Now, it returns to a world where the bad people are in charge.
It seems ludicrous, looking back, that we ever believed life could work like Parks and Recreation. The NBC sitcom, which aired from 2009 to 2015, was much beloved in its day — hailed for its “brilliant, confident liberalism” and relentless idealism, a show in which optimism was cool and hard work led to “happiness and success and achieving great things.” Those “great things” came mostly to the titular Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana, where a team of good-hearted public servants, led by the passionate and over-prepared feminist Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), looked past their ideological differences and worked tirelessly in the name of the public good.
It is exactly the sort of scenario one absolutely cannot imagine in the America of 2020. It says something that showrunner Michael Schur’s next sitcom, The Good Place, took place in the afterlife yet seemed more realistic than Parks and Rec. Now Knope and co. are returning once again for a 30-minute reunion special, to air on NBC this Thursday.
It’s been five years since we’ve last seen the gang in Pawnee, and how things have changed. Since 2015, politics has been demarcated as a vicious sport for vicious people; several Knope-like female candidates have gone down in a hail of “lock her up” chants and snake emojis; Leslie’s feminist crush, Joe Biden, has been accused of workplace harassment or sexual assault by eight women; we elected a president who, in addition to being accused of rape or sexual assault by over two dozen women himself, has lately suggested that people inject bleach to combat a pandemic. Parks and Recreation was always sunny and silly; what can that vision of civic life offer us now?
The people of Pawnee can be stupid, or weird, or misguided, but they are almost never bad.
Parks and Recreation has been put through the thinkpiece mill over the years, with articles like this 2019 take from Dissent, which blames the show’s…