We Love Ron Swanson Only Because He’s Not Real
Because judgmental absolutists are best left fictional
Ron Swanson (and, of course, Andy Dwyer) easily top any Parks and Recreation’s favorite character list. As with all sitcom comic reliefs, they’d be impossible to actually deal with in real life; par for the course, obviously. Andy — especially in the first few seasons — is incredibly inept at everything, including thinking. Ron is the ultra-libertarian, no-nonsense, self-made man who takes every opportunity he has to spit on and otherwise undermine government.
Andy is dumb, sure, but well-meaning. He’s someone you could actually see yourself being okay with; we all have that person in our friends circle. But Ron, on the other hand, for all his great Parks and Rec moments, is actually brow-pinchingly disturbing, if you had to port him into the real world.
Like The Office, Parks and Recreation revolves around a dysfunctional office of people who are either incompetent, lazy, unintelligent, selfish, or eccentric. Both shows suffered from early low ratings because the characters — unsurprisingly — were too unlikable. So they were transformed into likable people, and, voila, the shows, too, became likable.
This creates a bit of an uncomfortable tension, however. Take Dwight, or Andy, or Tom Haverford, for example: they’re all people whose personality quirks would probably drive you insane after five minutes in real life. Sure, they’re entertaining, but we don’t like them. But the shows needed us to, so they started to develop more likable aspects. Dwight’s eccentric family history and unshakable loyalty are seen as adorable; Andy’s earnest buffoonery earns the affection of April and the others; and Tom’s extreme selfishness and terrible business practices are products of his dreams, and therefore legitimate and cute. This makes us go, “Oh yeah, I see. They’re totally good people, underneath the incompetence and psychopathy, you know?”
But Ron is neither intellectually challenged nor is he incompetent. In fact, he’s probably the most skillful and intelligent member of the office. His quirk? He’s an uncompromising ideologue, quick to judge and dismiss others. His “likable” redeeming feature is that, deep down, he cares about the people around him. Except it’s not exceptional, because that’s what human beings do.
Take for example, the fact that Ron takes on a government job for the sole purpose of running it into the ground. It’s one thing to push legislation to reduce and minimize government, it’s another thing to actively foster incompetence. It’s plain mean to the people he works with, as well as all the people of Pawnee affected by his mismanagement. It takes a special kind of sociopath to hurt that many people and waste that much money just to prove a point.
Ron is also wholly dismissive of Chris and his whole foods way of life, preferring his steaks and burgers. Inherent to this way of thought, however, is his preference to do things simply his way and to reject everything else, judging them to be inferior. The things he does like, however, he likes with near-fanaticism, whether its Charlie Mulligan’s steakhouse, or The Bridge on the River Kwai.
He’s an absolutist. In politics, he’d be referred to as a hardliner, someone who sees compromise as a weakness rather than a social necessity, or, you know, practice in empathy. And while all sitcom characters challenge reality with their paradoxical natures, Ron’s faults come with actual sinister intentions.
He’s my favorite character in Parks and Recreation, bar none. But I’d like him to definitely stay behind the screen, thank you very much.