How 'Parks and Recreation' found all-time greatness in simple goodness
Early in the debut episode of "Parks and Recreation," Leslie Knope turned to the camera and announced, "It's a good time to be a woman in politics: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, me, Nancy Pelosi. I like to tell people, 'Get on board and buckle up, because my ride's going to be a big one.'"
At the time, Leslie (Amy Poehler) was a low-level functionary in the small town government of Pawnee, Indiana — moments before that declaration, we saw her at work, trying to coax a homeless man off of a playground slide — and that speech marked her as delusional.
In hindsight, she was prophetic.
Leslie began the series a powerless civil servant who was an object of derision and/or pity. She ends it (the series finale airs tomorrow night at 10 on NBC) an influential federal official who counts Madeleine Albright as a confidante and scares the bejeezus out of John McCain, and as a wife and mom with a small army of adoring friends.
Leslie's shift from delusional woman to super woman began relatively early in the series' run — the leap in quality from season 1 to 2 was like watching a promising but undisciplined slugger learn to stop swinging at bad pitches — and not coincidentally matched the show's transformation from an awkward copy of "The Office" into an all-time classic very much like its heroine: warm and smart and goofy and enthusiastic, and capable of accomplishing whatever it set its mind to. (Other than getting a large audience, that is, but the show's ability to last seven seasons despite middling-to-awful ratings is a Knope-ian feat in and of itself.) In the end, it is one of the best comedies TV has ever seen, and one that stands out from so much of the great shows of this new Golden Age of Television because its default emotion was joy when so many of this era's great shows are defined by darkness, and its default philosophy was one of optimism at a time when even the best comedies today tend towards ironic detachment.
"Parks and Rec" was born from NBC's desire for an "Office" spin-off. Creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur abandoned that idea almost immediately — Schur tells me none of their spin-off pitches "even got past the level of like 'Maybe Darryl could be a dad,' or 'Maybe Andy (Bernard) could become a high school teacher,' or whatever" — and instead chose an office in the public sector to contrast with the private sector hijinks of the gang at Dunder-Mifflin. And though none of Leslie's co-workers shared her fanatical belief in the power of government to fix people's lives — her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), was in fact a staunch libertarian who worked in civil service with the sole aim of preventing the local government from getting anything done — the show itself did. It recognized the great difficulty of effecting change, even on a small level — it took until late in the sixth season for construction to finally begin on the park Leslie first talked about building when the series began — but like Leslie, it hoped for the platonic ideal of government(*), and community, and friendship, and achieved it far more often than anyone but a blind optimist like its heroine might expect.
(*) "Rock Show," the first season finale, and the first episode to really hint at the heights the show would attain starting the next fall, has a scene where Leslie congratulates city planner Mark Brendanawicz (who would get Chuck Cunningham'ed in later years) on getting a speed bump lowered by two inches. Mark assumes she's mocking his tiny achievement, but she tells him with all sincerity, "You fixed a problem. That's what we're supposed to do." This is Leslie Knope: not only is there no task too big to be accomplishment, but there is no accomplishment too small to be celebrated.
Over the course of the series, Leslie checked off most of the life goal boxes of a sitcom heroine, acquiring a best friend (Rashida Jones' puzzled straight woman Ann), a husband (Adam Scott's put-upon nerd Ben), and triplet children (whose baby years were mercifully skipped over by a time jump at the end of last season), all while working tirelessly to improve the quality of life of her friends. (A running gag of the show was how it could be simultaneously wonderful and terrifying to have Leslie in your corner.) But she also got that park built, saved the economies of both Pawnee and its neighboring city of Eagleton, won a city council seat (she was later recalled, but those jerks didn't deserve her), was placed in charge of her own branch office of the National Park Service, and recently out-maneuvered a Google-esque tech company to establish a new national park in Pawnee.
This is Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky stuff, flying in the face of all that modern TV has been telling us is necessary for comedy to work. But the genius of "Parks" was the way it combined that sunny worldview — one that would allow Leslie to not only accomplish so much professionally, but to become such dear friends with her philosophical opposite in Ron — with a wicked sense of humor. "Parks and Recreation" was a show with Andy Griffith's temperament, yet with an anarchic comic spirit that seemed more appropriate for Homer Simpson(**).
(**) Daniels wrote for "The Simpsons" and co-created "King of the Hill," and he, Schur and their many talented collaborators turned Pawnee into a community every bit as rich and bizarre as Springfield or Arlen, TX.
Having Poehler — capable of playing any style of comedy, but with a level of heart that made you love and believe in Leslie even when she and the show were at their craziest — at the center was a godsend, but she was surrounded by supporting actors so great and versatile in their own ways that one can imagine any of them at the center of the show.
There was a time I might have suggested, for instance, that Ron Swanson — lover of privacy, independence and, above all, bacon — would be by far the show's most enduring creation. But what makes Ron — and Offerman's incredible performance as Ron — so special is the same thing that makes all of the "Parks" characters special. They are all familiar comedy types, but they are the best possible example of that type, both in terms of their humanity and their comic potential. Leslie always looked for the best in people, and with her friends and co-workers, she was almost always proved right.