The Conflicted Populism of Parks and Recreation

March 5, 2015
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ParksandRec-AdamScott-ChrisHaston-NBC-751x500In the Parks and Recreation episode “Pie-Mary” (Season 7, Episode 9; original airdate: February 10th), Jennifer Barkley, Ben’s campaign adviser, tells Leslie and Ben that it is impossible to underestimate voters because they are, basically, idiots.  Judging from the last seven seasons of this series, one could be forgiven for thinking that voters, especially those in small-town America, are indeed the embodiment of mob mentality idiocy, prone to crude and often barely-disguised rhetoric and propaganda from the powers that be.

Part of this, of course, has to do with the series’ diegetic location. As Staci Stutsman has suggestedParks and Rec participates in a long-standing television tradition (also seen in other media) of painting the Midwest as a land of backwards, obese, parochial nitwits.  At the same time, however, I would also suggest that it has to do with the series’ fundamental political project.  While Parks and Rec has, rightly, been lauded for its fundamentally liberal/progressive point of view and generally optimistic perspective on politics, this has always been tinted with a bit of (perhaps psuedo)-intellectual snobbery, which invites viewers to engage in the contradictory feelings of somewhat patronizing affection for the “ordinary people” of Pawnee, as well as a related feeling of head-shaking frustration at their unwillingness/inability to think critically for themselves or to be grateful to their eternally-beleaguered public servants.

One of the series’ running gags typically involves one or more of the townspeople leading the others into a rousing chant of whatever inane suggestion has been put on the table.  This has included, among many truly absurd suggestions, changing the town’s motto to focus on a man’s goldfish (Crackers, the orangest goldfish in Indiana).  The town meetings are almost inevitably full of unbridled chaos, a populist nightmare in which reason, sanity, and all of the traditional elements of good government and reasoned argument are quickly (and, it must be admitted, humorously) abandoned, leaving Leslie and her fellows shaking their heads in resigned despair.  In an interesting twist, in the final season the townspeople finally join with Leslie in her desire to call Gryzzl out for its invasion of the town’s privacy, a show of solidarity and support as shocking to Leslie as it is to us in the audience.

GryzzlNor are these good citizens susceptible only to their own chaotic desires, for the people of Pawnee are notoriously prone to the two forces that, in the populist frame of mind, almost always work against the people: big business and big media. From the successful attempt to recall Leslie (orchestrated by the business interests that she relentlessly curtailed) to the rantings of such media personalities as Joan and Purd and the increasing ubiquity of tech giant Gryzzl, fast food chain Paunch Burger, and chronic polluter and exploitative candy company Sweetums, Pawnee is a microcosm of American politics and culture writ large. While the series makes it quite clear that the corporations and media personalities bear the brunt of the blame, it also does not shy away from pointing out that the citizens of Pawnee share a measure of responsibility in their own manipulation.  The notoriously fickle and pseudo-libertarian people of the town seem to revel in their own state of exploitation; they might be exploited, but damn it, it’s because they want to be. And no government do-gooder is going to take away their right to fast food and sugary candy.

And yet, Parks and Rec is not always so condemnatory of its small-town voters. As Ben put it so memorably way back in the third season, the people of Pawnee may be weirdos, but they’re weirdos who care. Given that this series consistently validates and valorizes Leslie for precisely the type of caring that seems to be a prominent feature of so many Pawnee residents—right down to the woman who wants the slugs removed from in front of her house without killing them—this compliment crystallizes the series’ attitude toward the average American voter.  It is, in some ways, an optimistic point of view, suggesting that, given the right type of encouragement and service from their government servants and intellectual betters, the American electorate, fundamentally good-willed at heart, can be guided and encouraged to doing the right thing for everyone.

Right up until the end, Parks and Rec seems quite undecided how it wants us, its presumably educated viewers, to view the American electorate.  Do we see them as wacky yet lovable weirdos all too easily led astray by the malevolent and self-serving forces of the media and big corporations?  Even a seemingly innocuous and fun episode such as “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show,” which showcases all of the things the series utilizes to show that there is still some good in the world—Andy’s ludic energy, April’s endearingly bizarre morbidity, Leslie’s ruthless good cheer—also features ads from Paunch Burger (encouraging people to indulge in their food or else risk being labeled a “nerd”).  And, even in an otherwise optimistic and upbeat finale, we still see a citizen of Pawnee express profound ingratitude toward Leslie and company, even after they went out of their way to fix a swingset at his request.

Yet even these signs of disquiet cannot entirely dampen the triumphant spirit that Parks and Rec leaves us with, as we celebrate with Leslie the unquenchable hope for a better and more just future, and the hope that we can all do our part to make it come to pass.


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