The arc of the American sitcom bends inward. Every great TV comedy, from M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Cheers and Seinfeld, is about a ragtag group of outsiders who find surprising solace and companionship inside a bubble of their own choosing, be it a triage tent in Korea, a newsroom, a bar, or their own sociopathic self-involvement. These are all family shows, whether the characters are united by blood or not: Families that form out of love and necessity. Families that come together not to help make sense of the the universe, but as a defense mechanism against it.
It’s a bunker mentality that extends to the audience as well. In 2015, TV dramas shock, challenge, and occasionally infuriate us. But TV comedies, particularly the dying breed known as network comedies, offer comfort above all else. There’s a warmth and familiarity to their rhythms. You can set your watch to the dexterous zingers. You can be lulled to sleep by the flirtatious banter. It’s funny, sure, but above all it’s stable. We’re in the midst of an incredible moment for television, able to witness such wonders as zombies devouring people and Oscar winners devouring scenery at the touch of a button. But isn’t it nice, on occasion, to take a break from all our worries? Sometimes all we really want from TV is a chance to hang for half an hour in a quiet place and be reminded that our troubles are all the same. (It helps, too, if it’s actually possible to know everybody’s name.)
Parks and Recreation, which ended a glorious seven-season run last night on NBC, was very much this sort of show. It didn’t entertain as much as it embraced. The motley crew of civil servants in the Pawnee Parks Department was steadfast and inseparable — a true family long before its members started pairing off and forming actual families of their own. (With three committed couples out of a 10-person cast, Parks was more devoted to intramarriage than most cults.) They clung together in the face of government obstruction, romantic folly, and sex-crazed librarians. They threw parties and cleaned rivers. They buried memories and saved a town.
But what they never did was settle. Parks and Rec was utterly unique among significant sitcoms of the past 30 years because it measured happiness not in the intensity of its characters’ retreat from the world but in their wild, open embrace of it. Parks was a show about misfits coming together to do more than lick wounds and eat Chinese food. To borrow Leslie Knope’s words from last night’s finale, their mission was to fight, scratch, and claw “to make people’s lives a tiny bit better.” It was about celebrating the merits of “small, incremental change every day.” Few comedies have been so unfailingly clever about highlighting the absurdity of day-to-day existence, the frustrations caused by petty bureaucracy, hurt feelings, and the perpetual scourge of other people. But for Parks, these observations weren’t a punch line. They were a challenge.
If you think any of this was easy, you’re crazier than Ira. It’s far, far simpler to get laughs by pointing fingers at insanity from a safe distance rather than strapping on your boots and wading in. (Do you think you have something insightful to say about feminism? Try saying it in 21 minutes with room for three dozen jokes and a puppet show about the Bill of Rights set to “Party in the U.S.A.”) But Parks and Recreation was dedicated to the importance of work — hard, unglamorous, often boring work. There were forms to be filled out in duplicate, copies to be collated, envelopes to be stuffed. Parks and Recreation, spurred on by the wonky optimism of its showrunner, Michael Schur, and the indefatigable positivity of its star, Amy Poehler, made caring seem cool. Its heroes were municipal workers, nurses, and accountants. Contra Seinfeld, there was an enormous amount of learning. There was an impossible number of hugs.
Do you want proof that this attention to small-bore busywork pays off? You don’t need to point to Parks’s miraculous survival — 125 episodes on the back of an anemic audience that, by the end, numbered less than half the population of Indiana — to find it. Instead, roll back the clock to the hiatus between Parks’s stunted, six-episode first season and its expansive, 24-episode second. In a recent interview with Alan Sepinwall, Poehler insisted that she played Leslie in more or less the same way from the beginning, and, looking back, she’s right. What changed was the way the rest of the world reacted to her. Initially, secondary characters like Tom and April gawped and sneered at their go-getting boss with classic, Halpertian disdain. This made sense, given that Parks was originally conceived as a spinoff of The Office. (For background on how and why that didn’t happen, here’s another useful Sepinwall Q&A.) But Leslie — and Poehler’s performance — was far too powerful to be used as comic relief. So Schur and his cocreator, Greg Daniels, wisely retrofitted their young show, transforming Leslie from a dopey obstacle to a roaring engine of competence and enthusiasm. In retrospect, the decision was obvious and, in the moment, it may have felt slight. But, as Ron Swanson would tell you, you can’t build a load-bearing chair without first selecting the right quality wood.1
Speaking of Ron, let’s raise a glass to one of the greatest sitcom characters and performances of all time. I wrote about Nick Offerman last week and I wish I had another month to extol the virtues of Poehler, Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari, and the rest of the incomparable Parks crew.
Coming on the back of a rousing, intoxicating year of hope and change, this celebration of public service may have seemed canny. But as the fuzzy glow of 2008 gave way to the dim reality of stress tests, shutdowns, and vicious partisan rancor, the sunniness of Parks became more essential than ever. Being loud, smart, and right about things isn’t particularly novel — it’s the foundation of successful satirical news shows and entire self-righteous swaths of the Internet. What mattered about Leslie’s tireless advocacy for unsexy ideas like responsible governance and workplace fairness was that she was willing to engage with her opponents, to cooperate and cajole, to make a case, not a lecture. It’s the difference between ideology and politics, and it’s one that’s increasingly hard to recognize, both on TV and in real life.
It helped that Pawnee (“first in friendship, fourth in obesity”) proved to be the perfect petri dish for issues ranging from gay marriage to constitutional originalism.2 It was a town in flyover country so small that rhetoric sailed way over the heads of its citizens; what mattered there was results. It was the sort of place where a crusading liberal and an unsmiling libertarian could become the best of workplace proximity associates, thanks to a shared love of accomplishment and waffles. At the peak of its powers, Parks wasn’t just the funniest show on TV, it was also the smartest, the most engaged. Nothing else captured the infuriating, occasionally inspiring paradox of loving a country that appears to be fundamentally different from the one your neighbor also claims to love. Parks made the simple act of being reasonable feel radical. Better: It made being reasonable seem possible.
In its best seasons (likely 3 and 4, though I was quite fond of Leslie’s brief time on the City Council in Year 5), Parks was able to deftly mix the salt of realpolitik with the sugar of classic sitcom warmth and affection. (At one point, Leslie even invented a spaghetti topping to combine the two.) But Parks never bothered to hide its soft heart. Schur’s actual, unironic affection for representative democracy — check him out kvelling over a 76-year-old federal law during my set visit from 2012 — translated into an equally unironic love for happy endings. So was it really such a surprise that Parks would give us a series finale that may as well have been sponsored by Sweetums? The syrupy “One Last Ride” handed out dreams like Oprah at the auto dealership — “You get exactly what you want! And you get exactly what you want!” It’s a small mercy that cowriters Schur and Poehler managed to restrain themselves from showing Leslie as president in the year 2048. Instead, they just strongly implied it.
Did all of this time-jumping and hand-holding work dramatically? I’m not the one you should ask. A show that triumphed through quiet decency and consistency can be excused for ending with an exclamation point. The tender softie in me — otherwise known as “me” — loved seeing April wearing Halloween makeup in a birthing suite, Ron paddling his own canoe, and Ben happily ceding the electoral spotlight to his dynamo of a wife. Emotions aside, I was able to forgive Parks its many final indulgences because they were the logical result of the series’ core policies. The rewards we saw were outrageous — Tom’s a best seller! Jean-Ralphio’s going to Tajikistan! — but they weren’t freebies. They were the natural results of a lifetime of engagement. Tom became a mogul not through vanity and swag but through an (semi) honest public reckoning with failure. April found happiness by working to share it. Donna, regal and content, finally accepted the value in treating others as you would be treated yo’self. We were reminded that Jerry, the long-suffering punching bag of the series, never suffered at all. He did his job, loved his family, and lived a life that far exceeded anyone’s expectations. (Especially Tom’s.)
As Parks neared the homestretch, a number of writers correctly pointed out the show’s deep debt to The Simpsons, the way Schur and his brilliant writers had populated Pawnee with a depth of supporting characters and residual strangeness worthy of Springfield and more or less unparalleled in live-action TV. This is true and wonderful and deserving of an essay longer than this one. But the more important comparison to make is to a very different type of series, though one equally committed to constant, unsparing change. Schur never made a secret of his adoration of The Wire over the past six years. It came up in nearly every interview, and one only has to look at the way Parks devoted each of its seasons to an overarching idea to see the influence. Yet is it really possible to connect the dots between a grim drama that dismissed hope as a delusion and change as a fiction with a glowing comedy that, by the end of its run, had granted nearly every impossible wish?
I say yes and not only that, I’d go further: It’s unwise to consider one without the other. Art doesn’t always have to be a dark mirror reflecting reality. It can and should also be a window, thrown open to let in every last bit of possible light. Parks and Recreation never quite resembled the real America. But every episode was imbued with the idea that maybe it could, if only we, the people, cared a little more and tried a little harder. The Wire, the greatest drama of the young 21st century, left us with a tough legacy to reckon with. Parks and Rec, the best comedy of that same century, gifted us with a beautiful model to which we can collectively aspire. I doubt the future will be as bleak as David Simon’s vision for it or as rosy as Mike Schur’s. The joy of being a TV fan is that we get to consider both.
That’s not a cop-out, by the way. That’s a compromise, and one that even President Leslie Knope could accept. After all, Parks was built on the bedrock belief that opposing ideas could not only have merit, they could coexist. Like the show itself, it’s an idea that sounds simple but in practice is anything but. From its humble beginnings to its euphoric end, Parks and Recreation treated its audience with the same respect it showed its characters. It gave up on no one. It loved us and it liked us. And for seven remarkable seasons, we were thrilled to do the same.