Why Parks and Recreation Was One of the Most Countercultural Shows of Its Time

About a week ago, I watched the final season of Parks and Recreation. It struck me, at the end of the series, that this might be the most counter-cultural show I’ve seen on television in the last two decades. When you think of pushing the envelope, you tend to imagine characters doing darker things and breaking social norms. But this show is counter-cultural in a different way. If Seinfeld started the “show about nothing” trend, Parks and Rec turned out to be the opposite. It was unabashedly earnest in a culture of irony. It didn’t seem that way initially. In its first season, it felt like a cheap knock-off of The Office.

In fact, if you see just one episode, the show might seem sarcastic, ironic, and absurd. The town seems petty and negative and, well . . . weird. You have raccoons taking over part of the town and a community that boasts the highest rate of obesity in all of Indiana. And they use Alta Vista instead of Google. But beneath the surface, something emerges from the larger narrative arc: sincerity. (It’s an element that Master of None would later explore even further with perhaps even better results)

The show constantly pushes you to think differently about characters, not by seeing how dark they are, but by revealing a positive that you didn’t expect to see. It is unabashedly optimistic without ever feeling sappy or saccharine.

The Quiet Influence of Jerry Gergich

So, there’s a character on the show named Jerry Gergich (though he becomes Larry and Gary and even Terry at one point, too). He’s the goofy guy that keeps making mistakes that everyone laughs at (and yet, he is also doing amazing work that nobody notices because they have defined him as the “lovable mistake guy”). In any other series, he would remained a flat character. Or perhaps he would have become even more of a foil (think Kevin in The Office) to the point that he no longer feels human. But in Parks and Recreation, he is ultimately the one who gets it right. Ron chooses rugged individualism. Leslie pursues civic service. Tom chases after materialism. April embraces dark irony. Andy follows any hedonist whim.

But quietly, away from it all, you’ve got Jerry who chooses relationships and family and who remains the most self-sacrificial character of the show. As the series progresses, the other characters become more like Jerry — often when they catch a glimpse of his life outside of work. In the long run, it’s Jerry who changes the people around him and perhaps even Pawnee itself.

Jerry emerges as the hero of the story.

This is the genius of Parks and Rec. In a world dominated by personal branding, you have Jerry reminding us that life is found in family and relationships and quietly doing what you love. And what if Parks and Rec is right on this point? What if, in the long run, people ultimately notice those who quietly do great work without engaging in excessive self-promotion? What if the Jerry Gergiches of this world really do come out ahead in the long run?