How the sitcom has cheerfully made the case for a "liberal" idea that didn't used to be considered so liberal.
Reviewing “Leslie and Ron” earlier this week, I wrote that part of the appeal of Parks and Recreation, specifically Leslie and Ron’s friendship, is that it’s a model–or fantasy–of how people of opposite politics can still work together and care about each other. It’s a sitcom about politics that works, in part, because of how its characters put friendship over politics–or at least aside from politics.
But what about the show’s politics itself? I wrote about that in my farewell column to Parks in the print TIME this week (subscription required). Even though Parks has never been assertively political (it’s foremost a workplace sitcom, set in a world as richly developed as The Simpsons‘ Springfield), and it’s generally avoided real-world, hot-button issues, the show does have politics in its way.
Parks‘ politics, like Leslie’s, are liberal. But “liberal” only in the sense that the definition of liberal has been shifted rightward, along with the general conversation about government and what it’s for, over the past few decades:
There’s a big idea in Parks’ small-scale vision. In the frame of today’s politics, it might be a liberal notion, but it’s one that for much of the 20th century was centrist, and even championed by Republicans like park lover Teddy Roosevelt: that we need government to do things the private sector can’t or won’t, like preserving public spaces.
Shockingly, Parks has dared to suggest that while some civil servants might be bumbling–sorry, Jerry!–they can also be well-intentioned and competent. (This too wasn’t considered a liberal notion before the era when Ronald Reagan joked that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”)
One reason, I think, that Parks‘ politics don’t play especially “political” is that they grow out of a worldview that goes way beyond politics: about the importance of community, the idea that people need each other, that when you help someone, you’re also helping to make yourself better. That community goes well beyond government–it’s friends, neighbors, businesses–but Parks doesn’t hesitate to say that government, however imperfect and ludicrous, is another aspect of community, not an outside force imposed on legitimate community. (At the same time, though, it’s been respectful of the opposition view, if only by putting it in the mouth of Ron Swanson, the most awesome man on the planet.)
I’ve written this before, but this is one of the biggest things Parks has in common with American stories from It’s a Wonderful Life to Friday Night Lights, a touchstone that Parks has referenced repeatedly. People in FNL were liberal or conservative or neither; community meant everything from teams to churches to school systems. But the constant was that nobody does anything alone.
So it is on Parks: it’s only by pulling together that you turn a pit into the Pawnee Commons. In its own little way, that central story has made the case for what didn’t used to be such a divisive idea: that there is such a thing as the public common, and that it’s a good thing. Congratulations, Leslie and Parks: You built that.