Hillary? Sarah? With all due respect, Leslie Knope hopes to win the White House before either of them—but she'll have to make it through a stint as a mid-level bureaucrat first. So she's biding her time as deputy manager for the Pawnee, Ind., Parks and Recreation department, seeing the gig as a low rung on a sky-high political ladder.
It's not a particularly thrilling job. Her biggest achievement has been getting a gigantic pit filled in, for cryin' out loud—and that took the better part of two years. But is Leslie bitter? Bored? Hardly. She's as buoyant as a Ping-Pong ball, as dedicated as the plaque in City Hall. At a time when most of us have come to believe politicians aren't any better than the slob on the street—and in many cases are so much worse—Leslie's a preternaturally peppy politician who really seems to believe this whole "public service" shtick, and she attacks her work with the sort of gleeful zeal most folks reserve for bacon and Girl Scout cookies.
Leslie's so conscientious, so enamored with public work, in fact, that many of her co-workers think she's a few congressional aides short of a statehouse. Not that they should talk. Ron Swanson, Leslie's boss, wants to privatize the whole department. Schmooze-meister Tom Haverford buys his clothes from the Brooks Brothers' boys collection and rarely has met a woman he didn't try to bed (even when she's married). And April Ludgate, Ron's lusterless, world-weary assistant, may be underachieving her way to the top of the Pawnee power stricture.
Parks and Recreation, like The Office and Modern Family, is set up as a mockumentary, with conscientious cameramen stalking characters both in and out of the office. It's a pretty familiar trope by now, but Parks and Rec—after a rocky start—has mastered it, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed comedies on network television.
It's also managed to capture a vibe that's all too absent in most of its peers: niceness. Really.
When Parks and Rec first came out in 2009, its heart seemed less certain. As I wrote of Leslie then, "Perhaps it says something about our cynical culture that such a character—a politically innocent ideologue—is also the show's primary punch line." We still laugh at Leslie. But we're encouraged to root for her, too. Sure, she reminds us of those kids in algebra class who always sat in the front row and were perpetually raising their hands. But while Michael, the boss from The Office, drives his underlings nuts because he wants to be liked so very, very badly, Leslie just wants to make Pawnee a better place to live. Her focus on others, rather than Michael's focus on self, makes all the difference here: Leslie means well, however it manifests itself. And we can't help but like her for it.
And come to think of it, most of her workmates have good qualities too. Ron, a red-state caricature in some ways, also can be the show's voice of reason. Andy, the city hall shoeshine guy, is as single-minded and kind-hearted a fellow as you're likely to meet. The city of Pawnee (motto: "First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity") seems to be full of folks with oversized eccentricities … and generous hearts.
Nancy DeWolf Smith of The Wall Street Journal wrote, "The sentiments [Parks and Rec] ultimately evokes—kindness, fairness and the pursuit of happiness even in the face of frustration—are pretty close to the ones in those Foundation for a Better Life ads. Better yet, Parks exudes charm without the self-awareness or coy preachiness of Glee. It consistently pokes fun at our culture and foibles in ways that are clever and sometimes sharp but never mean."
That's not to say that Parks and Rec doesn't have problems. It has loads of them, from crass sexual jokes to drug-themed story arcs to some rough language. "I passed up a gay Halloween party to be here," Leslie tells us in a Season 2 episode, for instance. "Do you know how much fun gay Halloween parties are? Last year I saw three Jonas Brothers make out with three Robert Pattinsons."
And these moments feel even more jarring given the show's sweet core. So Parks and Recreation, in the end, is much like its characters. It means well, but it can't seem to stop undercutting its own good intentions.
Leslie, Tom and budget expert Ben Wyatt hit Pawnee's media in an effort to drum up interest in the upcoming Harvest Festival. First stop: the morning radio show of "Crazy Ira and the Douche," two shock jocks who fill their routine with sexual innuendo and flatulent sound effects. During the interview, they (and we) learn that Ben bankrupted a town when he was an 18-year-old mayor—and that he can't speak into a microphone to save his life.
Now the center of a scandal, Ben makes embarrassing statements at every turn. Comments about gays. Recollections of how he "felt up" a girl when he was in high school. But Leslie comes alongside him, and he eventually redeems himself.
Jokes revolve around obesity, "colleagues with benefits" and abducting teens. A child hits Andy in the nether regions with a toy bat. We hear references to Fung Shui and the book The Secret, and two people engage in a suggestive exercise pose. Characters say "b‑‑ch," "butthole" and misuse God's name several times.
Leslie, trying to breach a governmental beer-drinking "boys club," cracks open a gift basket full of wine and passes it around to her testosterone-endowed brethren. The next morning, she wakes up feeling awful—not from a hangover, but from thinking about the fact that the gift basket, by law, should've been sent back. Leslie's pulled in front of a disciplinary committee, and Ron defends her. "Leslie has never broken a rule in her life, to the point where it's annoying," he says.
Leslie proves to be a surprisingly likable character, but much of the episode's good points are undermined. It begins with a poop fight. Foul language includes misuses of God's name and a reference to "b‑‑ch." We see one character hobble down a residential street altogether naked. (His rear is pixelated when the camera's behind him, his groin is covered with a black circle when it's in front.) Bikini-clad women pop up on a computer screen, and there's talk of getting "gently laid tonight." We learn that an underage intern has posted a video of herself drinking the illicit wine on the Internet.