The Brilliance of Parks and Recreation
I don’t watch television very often, and by extension I tend to write about it even less. But the ending of a show as gloriously hilarious as Parks & Recreation calls for a moment to reflect. Not only was the show funny, uplifting and entertaining, but it also had a very interesting take on American politics.
Before watching the show the show, I’d mostly heard about it through my friends telling me, “dude, you have to watch it, you are almost exactly like Ben Wyatt!” After watching the episode where Ben throws himself an “early 90s themed birthday party” and quibbles over the selection of REM albums (they only had Monster with them apparently, amateurs) I’d have to say…this was pretty accurate. And to be honest, if they ever actually made “The Cones of Dunshire,” I’d be very tempted to buy it. But it was also the uncompromising, stern brilliance of libertarian Ron Ulysses Swanson that also attracted me to the show.
I know what you’re thinking, “oh great, another libertarian who loves Ron Swanson”- but hear me out on this one.
In American movies and television, highly-opinionated political characters are usually limited to two stereotypes: hyper-sensitive, self-righteous liberals, and joyless, condescending conservatives. This should come as no surprise, as American audiences already know these characters from their real-life counterparts on MSNBC and Fox News. South Park once brilliantly lampooned this reality by having a fictionalized Bill O’Reilly pit an “aging hippie liberal douche” against a “pissed-off white trash redneck conservative.” By both satirizing and playing into the cliche of American media, the show displayed the limitations of our mainstream political consciousness. Though a few things have changed since 2004, this polarity still exists in the minds of many Americans.
Although many politically-engaged Americans still pretend to live in this world, social media and the internet have exposed more people to ideologies outside the norm. The obvious benefactor of this being political radicalism: a dash of Jacobin-esque Marxism here, a bit of wacky neo-reactionary sky shouting there.
But it’s made a lot of room for libertarianism as well.
Unfortunately, most coverage of libertarianism is confined to ridiculous hit pieces in Salon and Alternet (who seem to have an inexhaustible obsession with Ayn Rand), or the laments of people like Ann Coulter that we’re a bunch of pot-smoking “pussies.”
No one would describe Ron Swanson that way (so long as Tammy #1 isn’t around).
Like many of the show’s main characters, Ron’s portrayal in the first season was very flat. Just as Leslie Knope’s character was very self-absorbed and naive- Ron came across like a stock character, a suit-wearing type who proclaimed the virtues of corporations, unapproachable in the way strangers are when you argue with them on the internet. In fact, you couldn’t really relate to any of the characters, as the writers seemed to go out of their way to make them unlikeable. But as the second season progressed, each character was gradually given fuller, rounder personalities, as the rough-edges where fined out into real human qualities.
Leslie goes from scheming and robotic to an ambitious person who cares deeply about her job and her friends. Sure, she’s a bit crazy and overzealous, but it’s all for the right reasons. She embodies the well-meaning liberal who, with an idea of public service as a noble thing, flails against the banal, bureaucratic idiocy that characterizes the public sector. Additionally, she tries in vain to engage the passions of the petty, ignorant townsfolk:
And though we’re rooting for Leslie, we laugh at the absurd futility of it all. And there’s libertarian Ron Swanson laughing right along with us. But while he disagrees with Leslie about the role of government, he knows her heart’s in the right place and quietly roots for her as well. And in those moments when Leslie gets worn down by the struggle, Ron gives her the needed pep talk over a glass of whiskey. There’s only so much that can be done effectively through the mechanism of the state, and Leslie needs a friend and boss like Ron to remind her of this and reassure her that in the face of such reality, she managed to do her best.
There are things about Ron’s character that are ridiculous (and awesome). Libertarianism provides plenty of space for quirky behavior, an inevitability of being surrounded by the architecture of statism. When everyone around you is used to wearing either blue or red, seeing someone wearing yellow will seem a little curious at best. However, we are not made to laugh at Ron as a person. Ron’s meat-and-potatoes-and-even-more-meat version of libertarianism and Leslie’s moderate-yet-determined form of liberalism are seen as understandable, and workable given the right circumstances. Whereas other ideologies are left to look ridiculous, take for instance the “family values” conservative advocates: the angry, finger-wagging housewife with the closeted husband. Or the spot-on portrayal of the turtlenecked NPR host and a myriad of other ideologues and activists.
And though Leslie usually gets her way over the policy of the Parks Department, events often play out in favor of Ron’s philosophy, as a Reason article once illustrated (emphasis my own):
Parks and Recreation may mock the inanities of American democracy, but in a way that often celebrates the civic spirit underneath. Voluntarist solutions, the show seems to say, are the finest expression of that spirit. Near the end of the second season, Pawnee goes broke. All non-essential functions of the government are shut down indefinitely, much to Ron’s delight and Leslie’s horror. The city’s lack of funds jeopardizes a free family concert with children’s entertainer Freddy Spaghetti, so Leslie and other parks department employees take the job into their own hands. Because all the city parks are closed, they hold the event on the empty lot where the pit used to be and gather donations from businesses and individuals to pay Freddy Spaghetti and provide concessions and rides.
The event is the parks department’s greatest success, and they realize it outside the official channels of government. The people of Pawnee make the city work, and it usually works better when they go around its government instead of through it.
There’s another thing the writers were very smart about. They didn’t make Ron a tea partier. While the show began as the movement was heating up, it was wise not to limit Ron’s character by chaining him to the reputation of a populist insurrection. While certain parts of the movement have their virtues, they don’t represent libertarianism in any broad sense, and exist as a re-energized iteration of movement conservatism. To put Ron into this camp would have been out-of-character and a change of the subject. As Ron explained to Andy Dwyer (aka Burt Maclan, aka Johnny Karate): “libertarianism is all about individual liberty, and it should never be defined by the terms liberal and conservative.” If the show had a laugh track, that wouldn’t be a laugh line. And it’s not a signature Ron Swanson line (e.g. “I like saying no, it lowers their enthusiasm” or “I’m a simple man, I like pretty, dark-haired women and breakfast food”), it’s just a statement of principle. You can argue about it, as I’m sure the comments will, but you can’t just laugh it off. I can’t think of a better way to bring libertarianism onto American TV screens.
But that’s just my political appreciation for the show. I haven’t even gotten to many of the other characters. There are few shows that I’ve enjoyed as much as Parks, and even fewer sitcoms. And in the years it aired (2009-2015), its 125 episodes gave us something we sorely needed in mainstream television. The sitcom format has truly declined, as the comedy output of the major networks has become stale, predictable and not very funny. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy angry cynicism just as much as any other disillusioned millennial, but there was a lot to like in the show’s genuine positivity. The bachelor party episode is a particular favorite of mine, where the male characters each get to do exactly what they want, but all together- it’s heartwarming, but still hilarious. It never took it too far, always carefully balanced by humor. Even in the Johnny Karate farewell episode, Andy comforts a crying April saying, “You’re my Verizon-Chipolte-Exxon.” Apparently in the year 2017, the three companies merged (!). It wasn’t necessarily alone in this regard, How I met Your Mother did much of the same thing, but Parks did it better and without as much sentimentality. It could be cynical, but after the first season it used it more as a plot-building device rather than an end in itself (see: 30 Rock).
And like it’s progenitor, The Office, it put the viewer in charge of when to laugh. Rather than relying on punch-lines, the show used situations and characters to generate its humor. But in its chief protagonist, Leslie eventually evolves according to the reality of her job, whereas Michael Scott (and David Brent for that matter) remains gloriously oblivious to his own absurdity. This obliviousness was part of Leslie’s character initially, but I’m glad Amy Poehler and the writers ditched this trait, as it would have become insufferable.
And though I’m sad to see it go, perhaps it’s better to cap the show off where it is now. The cast’s move to Washington DC could have created a new set of situations, but it would have slowly become redundant. And I don’t see any sort of spin-off potential either, as most spinoffs are usually terrible anyway (Frasier and Daria notwithstanding). But there are always movies!