Parks And Recreation has a Leslie Knope problem
More For Our Consideration
- What do we mean when we call music pretentious?
- The crowd-funding conundrum: The line between bringing fans closer and taking advantage
- How The Office became one of the greatest television series about the American dream
- High infidelity: For the love of side projects
- Are oral histories a good way to write about music?
To the degree that there are things “wrong” with Parks And Recreation, they’re the sorts of things that would be wrong with any sitcom in its fifth season. The show has largely run out of overarching stories to tell, which gives it a lack of dramatic impetus. Many of the characters are paired off in relationships that occasionally lack narrative momentum. And, most damningly, the various characters are now so well known to viewers that it’s fairly easy to know what kinds of jokes they’re going to tell. Once vital characters like Ron Swanson have been diminished, at least in terms of comedy, to a handful of reliable punchlines, and the show turns to them over and over again. What’s more, problems the show has always had—like its inability to figure out what to do with Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins—continue to exist this deep into the show’s run.
But again, this is the sort of thing that happens to nearly all comedies at this point in their run. It’s hard to come up with 50 stories for a network sitcom, let alone 80 or 100, and eventually, most comedies—even the really good ones—settle into a comfortable rut. The hope is that, by that point, viewers will be so in love with the characters that when they behave mostly predictably, they’ll be happy to forgive that in favor of spending more time with those characters. It’s happened to far better and far worse shows than Parks, including the show’s spiritual forebear, The Office. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s the natural life cycle of a long-running TV show, and there are certain advantages to running as long as Parks has. Things like weddings and hookups and career goals now have even more weight to them, because we’ve spent so long getting to know these people. In short, even if the comedy has become predictable, a good portion of the drama still works as well as it ever has—perhaps better than it used to.
The problem is that Parks too often runs away from this particular strength when it comes to its main character, Leslie Knope, and in such a way that the show ends up shooting itself in the foot more often than not. The series has always prided itself on being one where people are mostly nice to each other, where conflicts are dealt with reasonably and believably among friends. There are times when this feels revolutionary, but it also too often relies on introducing conflict from without, and combined with the show’s penchant for broad small-town satire, it can be disruptive to the program as a whole. At some point, all of these elements combined to arrive at the show’s central problem: Leslie Knope hasn’t faced credible opposition to attaining her goals since 2011 (at least), and this has led to a program that often feels frozen in place.
It’s worth pointing out that Leslie Knope has been, for a long time, one of TV’s best characters. It’s arguable she’s been so even when she’s been trapped in stories that often let her down. A battering ram of optimism who works in the parks department of Pawnee, Indiana, Leslie comes at problems with a smile and a can-do attitude that eventually leads to those problems getting out of her way. In the show’s first season, this came off at times as too pushy, and the show was frequently guilty of trying to make the character into a spin on The Office’s Michael Scott, only in the public sector. But after that shortened season, the series found a Leslie that worked, someone who encountered opposition but managed to make it melt away by continuing to push in her firm but friendly way. The walls that sprang up in front of her eroded, and the series made her a sunny face of public service, the happiest warrior in these Obama-influenced times. As envisioned by the top-notch writing staff and played by Amy Poehler (in one of TV’s best performances), Leslie was someone who usually got her way but did so after pushing back against a system that rarely wanted to accommodate her.
If I had to pinpoint a moment when the show’s view of this changed, I would go back to the early half of its fourth season. The fourth season is an often-disjointed season, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit, but it started out promisingly enough. Leslie finally realized her dream of running for higher office when she was recruited to run for Pawnee’s city council by a group that grooms local public workers to run for elected positions; but she discovered shortly after being asked to run that she’d be unable to continue in a relationship with Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt. The attraction between the two had been one of the major unifying stories of the series’ third (and best) season, as the two nerdy optimists were drawn together by something that seemed almost like destiny. Now, however, she realized that sleeping with Ben would throw several of her decisions into question, that the city’s policy against having employees dating was a hard and fast one. She had a choice: Run for office or date Ben. The first part of the fourth season showed her agony at choosing her goals over Ben, but this was consistent with the Leslie we knew, who was ambitious to a fault. It suggested a show that understood ambitions often come with loss, with lives that could have been led but weren’t.
Eventually, however, the series simply chose to let her have both Ben and public office.
Now, it would take a real curmudgeon to wish that the series had somehow kept Leslie and Ben apart, something that would have led to yet another fruitless will-they/won’t-they. But the consequences of the two getting together amounted to something very much like a slap on the wrist. Ben had to quit his job and eventually settled into a role as Leslie’s campaign manager. The group backing Leslie left her once she was tainted with scandal, so she rallied the parks department employees around her as her new campaign staff. This was all fine as a basis for the back half of the fourth season. It might have even worked as a way to lead to Leslie having both a position as a city councilwoman and the man of her dreams, with some proper dramatic stakes. The problem came when Leslie’s competition for the city-council seat was revealed to be incredibly incompetent. Porn stars, gun-shop owners, and Paul Rudd as an inept man-child created a scenario where if Leslie lost, it would make the show seem far too cynical, and if she won, it would be hard to see it as much of a victory. So she beat a bunch of simpletons? So what?
The episode in which Leslie ultimately triumphs, the fourth season finale, “Win, Lose, Or Draw,” is one of the series’ finest, but the road to that episode was filled with weird decisions, goofy romantic subplots (remember Ann and Tom?), and an utter lack of conflict. Whatever came up against Leslie, she and Ben easily skirted around. It got to a point where the most believable opposition to Leslie was a rival campaign manager, played by Kathryn Hahn, whom Leslie rarely interacted with. (Hahn got some excellent scenes with Scott, however.) Parks And Recreation was bumping up against the fact that most sitcoms eventually turn into hangout shows—series where the laughs come as much from the audience getting to spend time with a bunch of fictional friends as from anything else—precisely when it needed to up its dramatic storytelling. But pushing the drama and conflict would have run counter to making the show an easy, breezy hangout show, because it would have cut back on the “just hangin’ out in Pawnee” vibe that helps the show work as well as it does these days. The series attempted to split the difference by turning to one of its favorite comic devices, broadly comic types from the streets of Pawnee, but it mostly just turned out a weird, disjointed story at precisely the time when tight storytelling was most needed.
Again, this didn’t turn Parks into a bad show. It’s still one of TV’s best, most resolutely funny sitcoms. But it did turn the series into a much softer one than it had been before, and it’s not hard to feel as if the show has lost a step from its glory days in seasons two and three. What conflict the series has now is usually gleaned from ridiculous Pawnee citizens wandering into Leslie’s path, then succumbing in the face of her sunniness. Certainly the series had these sorts of storylines in its heyday, but it also featured stories where Leslie’s projects—like the park in that vacant lot or season three’s Harvest Festival—faced serious setbacks that threatened them, before Leslie ultimately succeeded. In the current season, a storyline about Leslie clashing with another council member over the use of a vacant lot started promisingly but concluded with the other council member shouting stupid insults at Ben and Leslie’s wedding, reduced to yet another gibbering madman in the face of Leslie Knope.
Ben and Leslie’s relationship has been similarly free of drama. In some ways, this has been a relief. There are plenty of shows that would have forced some sort of drama about whether the two would stay together in the face of some imagined conflict or another. But at the same time, the relationship has been a steady, predictable progression. There was a surprise engagement and a surprise wedding, but both paled in comparison to the show’s similar treatment of the nuptials of Andy and April in season three. In fact, looking at Andy and April, who’ve remained a vital and interesting couple throughout the series’ run, without ever dealing with invented “will they break up” drama, is instructive. Where Ben and Leslie’s relationship seems to be defined primarily by just how in love they are, Andy and April are defined by a host of things, including their odd-couple pairing and the way their relationship pushes both of them to be better, more adventurous people.
What’s frustrating about the Leslie Knope stasis is the way that the series has continued to grow and enhance all of its other characters. Tom was frequently a problem in previous seasons but has gotten some excellent character work in season five, as he’s started a new business. Andy’s failed in his dream of becoming a police officer, for unlikely reasons. April’s slowly engaging with the world, moving beyond the closed-off woman she was when the show began. Chris has become more comfortable with the fact that not all of life is positivity, while Ann is deciding to have a baby. Ron has fallen in love and is pushing himself into arenas in which he’s uncomfortable. Even Ben pops in storylines where he’s paired with other characters.
And it’s not as if Leslie is unsalvageable. The most recent episode—“Bailout”—posited a scenario where Leslie’s attempt to save a local video store clashes with Ron’s dislike of government intervention, a conflict based on things very basic to who the characters are. The Leslie and Ron relationship has always been one of the show’s most reliable centers, and it’s arguable that the series’ downward trend began once it was deemphasized. By framing “Bailout” around a real conflict with real stakes between the two friends, Parks quickly found its way back to the Leslie Knope of old. Sure, the whole thing was resolved over one meal’s conversation, but when Parks is working well, that’s part of its charm.
The lesson here, then, isn’t that Leslie needs to come up against horrifying, difficult-to-solve problems or that she needs to lose every other battle she begins. There’s nothing wrong with a series wanting to give its protagonist—particularly a character as wonderful as Leslie Knope—as many wins as she can get. The question is just whether Leslie will face believable opposition on the way to those wins. When she does—particularly when it comes from the other characters and not characters invented to stand in her way—the show may still show signs of its age, but it can be as vital as it ever was. When she faces off against problems that are too easily quelled, however, it does no services to the storytelling or the character. Leslie Knope shines best when she faces off against great difficulty. It would be great if the show she’s on remembered that every once in a while.