TIME Television

Knope and Change: The Politics of Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation - Season 7
Colleen Hayes/NBC

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.


TIME Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: We Used to Be Friends

Thanks to fans and Kickstarter, Veronica Mars is coming back. But not every beloved show should.

A year ago, I paid $35 to see a movie. Not to watch a movie, mind you: to see it made. Whether I watched the movie was entirely up to me.

That movie, you may have guessed, is Veronica Mars, the Kickstarter-funded revival of the UPN/CW series that is released in theaters and for digital download on Friday. I saw a critics’ screening of the movie last week, and my column in the print TIME this week (subscription required) looks at what it means to be a TV fan in the age where nothing really dies for sure–when cult hits can come back in the movies, on another cable channel, on Netflix:

You can buy a sequel, but you can’t buy back time. Years have passed; a movie is not the same as a TV season. The Arrested Development revival was a fascinating narrative experiment, but different–darker, stranger, sadder–from the series that fans had come to love. Would giving the fans the power of resurrection become like the horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” reanimating zombie shows that we should have let go, remembering them at their best?

With Veronica Mars, I felt my money was well spent: the series deliberately ended without real closure, and the movie does a smart job of working the can-you-go-home-again theme into its story. On the other hand, if this had been an option when, say, Freaks and Geeks went off the air, I’d have gladly paid–and might well have regretted it in the end. Judd Apatow and Paul Feig created such a lovely ending to the single season of their show that I’m not sure it would be worth messing with for the sake of two more hours.

For that same reason, though I loved HBO’s Enlightened, I don’t agree with the calls I’ve been hearing for it to be saved by Netflix, Amazon, cable, or the movies. Mike White had wanted to continue the series, but he also created such a luminous ending for Amy Jellicoe’s story, one that felt like a series ending, that it’s best for us to move on and the talent connected to do other great work.

I’m not going to do a full advance review of Veronica Mars; it works well for fans of the series–who most likely are going to see it anyway–and I wouldn’t in good conscience recommend it to someone who never watched. (The script makes the story perfectly accessible, but it really relies on having known the characters for three seasons to have any emotional pull. If you’re interested, watch the series first.) But I may do a follow-up post after the movie’s been out for a while, to discuss some points that would be spoilers in a review.

In the meantime, though: What other shows would you like to Kickstart back into life? And what ones do you feel it would be better to leave alone–dead too young, but leaving behind beautiful reruns?

To read the full column, subscribe to TIME.

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