The radical optimism of Parks and Recreation

Josh Pease

I was obsessed with Seinfeld in high school. I wasn’t allowed to watch the show at home, so I would go over to the house of a friend, who had taped a number of episodes, and we would watch them for hours. Ever since, I’ve been a die-hard fan of the cleverly constructed, 30-minute sitcom format.

There’s just one problem with these kinds of shows: they tend to be extremely cynical. Seinfeld is the king of bitter existential irony, with its “no hugging, no learning” writer’s-room credo. Most of the sitcoms I love are directly inspired by this approach: Arrested Development (returning on Netflix soon!), Community(during the Dan Harmon administration) and the teetering-on-the-edge-of-cancellation Happy Endingsbeing just a few examples. Each of these shows is wickedly clever - and largely pessimistic about the ability of humans to change or accomplish anything of lasting value.

In defiant contrast to this is NBC’s criminally under-watched Parks and Recreation, which closes its fifth season on Thursday. Originally designed as a clone of The Office, Parks and Rec has evolved into one of the most positive, life-affirming shows on television. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a supervisor with the parks and recreation department of Pawnee, Ind., would on any other sitcom be the butt of the joke - an idealistic idiot who foolishly believes she’s making a difference. On Parks and Rec, however, she’s a courageous, optimistic hero who believes in her local community and friends fiercely, and always sees the best in those around her.

Her co-workers are an ideologically diverse crew that includes one of the best sitcom characters of all-time: Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a gun-toting, steak-loving bureaucracy-hating libertarian who is constantly butting heads with Leslie. In any other show Ron would be the villain to Leslie’s hero, but on Parks Leslie and Ron have a loving, if occasionally strained, friendship, built on mutual admiration for the other’s integrity.

These are people who believe in being good while staring into the face of a world that doesn’t understand their goodness.

Whereas most sitcoms find humor in the characters' selfishness - thereby exposing their inner demons - Parks and Rec finds it in their decency, thereby celebrating their inner angels. In a recent episode Leslie learned that her workaholic habits were keeping her from investing in the people she loves, while her friend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) realized her plan to deliberately have a child by herself was selfish. She then took steps toward a committed relationship with the child’s father. These plots could have been supremely cheesy, but Parks and Rec makes optimism something noble, not naive. These characters aren’t buffoons. They are people who believe in being good while staring into the face of a world that doesn’t understand their goodness.

Did I mention the show is ridiculously hilarious? Each member of the Parks and Rec community - Leslie, Ron, Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) - is a perfectly written character. The dialogue is clever. And the ridiculousness of small-town politics makes for great parody. But the humor is never cynical. We care about these people, just as they care about each other. 

If ever there was a sitcom that Christians could get behind, it’s this one. The show is about loving your family, but also your neighbor. It’s about trying to make a difference in the world. It’s about being who you are and finding joy in that. Mostly it’s about daring to live a radical life of optimism. And that more than anything makes the show worthy of more attention.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure