Parks and Rec & The Women of Pawnee — An Introduction
Meet Leslie Knope
When Parks and Recreation first came out, from the same people and with the same mockumentary format as The Office, I wasn’t fully on board. I tend to distrust, as I think a lot of us viewers do, anything that looks calculated. Then again, the mockumentary format was used in films I love, like Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show… What I saw then, cynical twenty-something that I was, as a calculated copy, I see now as good way to frame a character-based story as it allows you, with the “talking head” segments, to get into a character’s head in a way nothing short of narration can. And it doesn’t keep you to just one character’s inner thoughts. You get a glimpse into everyone that fleshes out the world, which is really a great way to get a viewer invested in more than just the lead.
Anyway, back then, I was definitely a doubter, but I gave it a chance based on it having a female protagonist and the goodwill Amy Poehler had generated among… me. I don’t know about you. But she had certainly gained enough of a foothold for me to believe she could helm a show. I liked that the cast was about equally divided between male and female, avoiding the dreaded Smurfette Principle. They could have easily made this show about a woman (of all things!) trying to make it in politics. They instead made it about a woman, who is trying to make it in politics (there’s a difference). I was also interested in them taking that mockumentary format into a relatively inconsequential patch of a town’s government, since I love watching people take whatever silly thing they’re into dead seriously (see all the movies above). I still thought it was calculatedly quirky, but I gave it a shot for that very short first season. And it was… okay.
I liked Poehler’s performance, but I thought she was just a gender-flipped Michael Scott: lovable but, ultimately, a bit too silly to truly invest in. There was a reason the Jim and Pam relationship was the emotional anchor of The Office. You couldn’t, back then, relate to Michael Scott as much as cringe at him like you would at your worst junior high memory. Parks didn’t have an emotional anchor in season one. It seemed like they were teasing Leslie’s crush on Mark Brendanawicz as kind of a will-they, won’t-they, but Leslie’s reasons for fixating on him seemed superficial and I just didn’t find his character compelling. I did love some of (internet darling) Ron Swanson’s quotes and found Tom Haverford annoyingly likable. Fact is, I found most of the characters annoyingly likable.
Cringe humor has never been my favorite variety, strictly because I keenly feel second-hand embarrassment. I’m not kidding. I have physical reactions (namely, curling up in a ball and peeking through my fingers) to any scene where a character humiliates themselves in even small ways. Was that what this show would be? A bunch of silly people that bumble around in small government with Ann Perkins watching in bewilderment as the Only Sane Person?
It was too much quirk and too little substance. I did find it enjoyable to watch, but not compelling. It wasn’t a bad show, but I saw it more as something to watch when nothing else was on than “appointment television.” I came back to it at some point in the second season when other shows were on hiatus, mildly interested in what those quirky kids were up to.
And then it just got good! Leslie’s silliness and occasional bumbling was further explored as painful earnestness and hyperactive overachieving. It wasn’t like they changed her, they just fleshed her out. And I understood her as, at different points in my life, I was her. They didn’t changed the other characters’ quirks, either, they just reinforced them. Ann wasn’t just the the requisite sane person, she became Leslie’s anchor when she started to float off with her schemes. April wasn’t just a surly teen, she was a teen for whom surliness was a way to cope with her dissatisfaction with life. Donna was brought out of the background and given this amazing confidence that made me wish I had her life.
Though my main focus here is on the women, the men were also fleshed out and interesting (all but Mark, but we’ll get to him). But it went from a collection of quirky characters to a well-done character based comedy somewhere in season two and became appointment TV for me from then on. And, the fact is, when I rewatch season one now, I like it much more than when I first saw it because I know and love every one of these people. I think, had this show been given a full season in its first, or anything more than just six episodes, I might have known and loved them sooner. With the final season coming (any day now, NBC! Can you just give us a date?), I want to pour out all that love.
In the next weeks, much like my Game of Thrones recaps, I’ll be summarizing events, focusing on the women, seeing how it measures up to The Bechdel Test, then making some general notes and verbally worshiping that which deserves it. But I will be focusing on the season rather than each episode. As we at Legendary Women love a good female protagonist, I’m so happy to cover someone as awesome, ambitious, and loved, both in-universe and out as Leslie Knope. I really can’t wait.
Parks and Recreation is truly one of those shows that leaves me with the feeling that all is right with the world. For some reason, putting the world’s issues into the microcosm of Pawnee gives you perspective enough to laugh when you need to. It’s something South Park also does really well, I should note, but Parks approaches everything with a warmer, sweeter energy — nothing against South Park, obviously. I’m a long time, slightly obsessive fan, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. Seeing people with such differing views on the world working together (Leslie and Ron couldn’t disagree more, for instance) to make it better where they can makes me feel we, the general we, can get there someday. It’s a sweet show and always leaves me grinning by the end and I can’t wait to share it with you.
Next up: Season One
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All images from Parks and Recreation are property of NBC Universal, Greg Daniels, Michael Schur, Howard Klein (among many other entities) and used here for criticism and analysis only.