When you spend a good portion of your formative years watching a particular show, it can become ingrained in who you are. It informs your other interests and, to a certain extent, even your worldview. That is my relationship with Parks and Recreation.
Parks and Rec is a top five TV show for me. I’ve watched my favorite episodes countless times, quoted the lines, bought the merchandise, and thought about its lessons. But much like my relationship to movies like The Lord of the Rings, I am so close to the show that it’s difficult to point out exactly what I love about it.
Until recently, if you had asked me what I liked about the show, I would have said, “It is hilarious and there are no bad main characters,” both of which are true. But there’s more to it, and I didn’t realize it until the show’s cast reunited via Zoom for a Quarantine Special.
Parks and Rec premiered on April 9th, 2009, less than three months after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States. It was a time of hope for change, and the show perfectly exemplified that idea. Leslie Knope, the show’s main character, is the personification of hope and the drive to change things for the better.
Leslie was an inspirational character who espoused positivity and the drive to get things done. Ben Wyatt was completely in awe of Leslie’s relentless attitude. Ron Swanson disagreed fundamentally with Leslie’s politics, but still respected her drive. April and Andy fell in love because they saw their differences and accepted each other’s core identity. Ann Perkins just wanted to help others. Chris Traeger was the eternal optimist and cheerleader. Jerry Gergich always kept a positive attitude, even amidst endless mockery from his co-workers. Tom Haverford was a self-starter who never gave up. Donna Meagle was a selfless sweetheart, even when she put up a facade.
These characters were a product of the time when the show was airing, and they likely wouldn’t exist in the same way had the show originated today. In fact, this show would not even be able to exist in our current environment. This is why the Quarantine Special was such a needed breath of fresh air.
Like just about everyone else, I’ve been feeling hopeless, scared, and confused in the midst of a global pandemic. It hurts me to see families and communities become broken and hopeless because of tragic loss. I don’t know anyone who has been affected by COVID-19, nor have I personally felt the effects, but I’ve endured the loss of loved ones before, and I can’t imagine having to say goodbye the way thousands of families have.
I wasn’t expecting the Parks and Rec Quarantine Special to be one of the best episodes of the show, but I was looking forward to seeing these familiar faces all together once again. What I got was something so refreshing and uplifting that it came completely out of left field.
As I watched the cast I love so much of the show I love even more sing the most ridiculous but also the most fitting song, 5,000 Candles in the Wind, I felt unexpected emotion well up inside. Suddenly, it was clear why I love this show so much – it’s the passion behind the characters that creates a drive to be better in the viewer.
And I do want to be better. And I want to have hope.
That’s why Parks and Rec works so well as a time capsule. The show pokes fun at ideas that would have seemed ridiculous and impossible while it was running, but are an ever-present and even frightening reality for us right now. In season four, Leslie runs for city council in Pawnee and her main competitor is Bobby Newport, a local celebrity who is the son of a wealthy businessman. The only reason he wants to run for office is to prove he can do it because no one ever believed in him and he wants to run the town like a business. He’s your typical dopey sitcom character, has nothing of real substance to say, and is portrayed as a long shot to win the election. But the people like him.
There is the obvious difference between real life and this season-long arc on a television show simply in that Newport’s political bid is treated as a total joke that would only happen in the wacky town of Pawnee. Leslie has real policies she wants to enact and she actually cares about her town, so she’s simply the logical choice in the election.
In Parks and Rec‘s reality, Donald Trump would never have made it to the White House, which is regarded as a mecca for Leslie’s political aspirations. She meets Michelle Obama, Joe Biden (Leslie’s one true crush), and John McCain, and the audience is supposed to view them positively as the goal Leslie is trying to reach. She’s ecstatic to see them and her vigor for the job spikes whenever they’re on screen. What present-day government officials could garner this kind of reaction from a character like Leslie? The answer is probably, none.
If Parks and Rec was being made today, the main characters would have the exact opposite attitude towards the White House. It’s now seen as a place that needs complete overhauling and not one from where you can enact positive world-altering political and social change.
This time of quarantine has now begun to morph into and merge with a time of unsettling civil unrest and need for true leadership – the kind that maybe only Leslie Knope could provide. It may seem silly, like getting choked up over a song about a fictional pony, but I believe we can take the positive lessons of Parks and Rec and let them lift our spirits through the negative times in which we live.