19 July 2019

Who Is Leslie Knope?

Hayley and I were watching Farscape together, but once we moved, we fell behind on our recaps, and knew we needed to pause and watch a different show; we ended up picking Parks and Recreation, because it was on Netflix, and seemed like a good show to watch while folding laundry.  We started in February 2018 and finally wrapped up the series last week. Overall, I really enjoyed Parks and Rec as a sitcom, and though I felt the show floundered a little bit once Leslie became a city councilor (I did not enjoy the merger or recall storylines), the three-year jump for the final season pumped some new energy into it; especially the second half of the season, once Leslie and Ron stopped being at cross purposes, which was success after success after success. The finale itself was very enjoyable (I'm sappy like that), and I enjoyed a lot of the characters' fates, particularly Jerry's.

I'm not here to review the show as a whole, though, or the final season, or even just the final episode; I just have one thing I want to comment on.

During the recall plotline, where Leslie had made yet another mistake and alienated her constituents, it dawned on me. Leslie is a terrible politician. She's not good with groups of people, she's bad at telling people want they want to hear, and she usually gives people what they need, not what they want.

On the other hand, Leslie is an amazing bureaucrat. She's great with people one-on-one (in and out of government), she's good at filling out forms and writing proposal documents, and she usually gives people what they need, not what they want. But, I thought, the show has set up this idea that Leslie wants a political career, so giving that up would mean failure. Even if the writer recognized the distinction I was making, it was hard for me to imagine them making Leslie give up on her dream.

But then at the end of the penultimate season, there's a whole subplot about how Leslie is legendary in the National Park Service for a proposal she once put together, and she's approached by them to run their Midwest province. However, it meant moving to Chicago, and I knew the show would ultimately have to abandon this thread in favor of Leslie continuing to eke out a political career in a town that despises her.

But but they figured out (somewhat implausibly, but whatever) how to have Leslie take the NPS job and stay in Pawnee, and in the whole final season, Leslie is her great bureaucratic self, while Ben suddenly moves into a political plotline. And while I would have told you that Ben is a good bureaucrat, too, the transition into politician makes sense for him, given both his backstory and character growth.* Then, as we vault even further into the future in the finale, Leslie moves up in the world of the Department of the Interior, embracing her true self. 

Or so I thought. Because then later in the finale, Leslie is approached to run for governor of Indiana by the DNC. Which rang untrue to me. Do anonymous mid-level federal bureaucrats really make good gubernatorial candidates? I'm doubtful. It just did not seem likely to me, on a political or personal level.  Leslie is a great bureaucrat, and bureaucrats can be great. Let her be one!

Two Side Comments
  • Parks and Rec has an astoundingly deep bench of quality recurring characters, from Perd Hapley to Jean-Ralphio Saperstein to Joan Callamezzo to Kyle the guy who get shoeshines to Shauna Mulwae-Tweep to Ethel Beavers to Jennifer Barkley to Orin to Brandi Maxxxx to Crazy Ira and the Douche to Ken Hotate to Other Ron to Ginuwine(!) to Marcia and Marshall Langman. I can't think of a live-action show with so many except for Deep Space Nine. And they managed to squeeze them all in to the final season despite how short it was, some in really delightful ways. (Brandi Maxxxx's final appearance was fantastic.)
  • Just before the finale, Hayley and I rewatched the pilot. Wow. The characters are totally different. And not in a "they grew over time." But in a "the writers retconned them" way." Season one Leslie is pathetic. But there's no way season seven Leslie ever was that pathetic. But at no point did I notice a discontinuity-- it was done slowly and subtly as everyone refined their approach. What really struck me, though, is that I don't think season one Leslie is written hugely differently. The change is mostly in other components of the medium: performance, hair and makeup, cutting style, even sound design. (Also, season one Ron is weird; he ends the pilot going on about basketball, and he has huge sports posters on his wall. I cannot imagine this of even season two Ron. Also also in the pilot, they acknowledged the documentary set-up, which largely vanished as the show went on.)
  • Also Craig is great.

* Some commenters on the AV Club from the time the ep aired were skeptical Ben would get elected as a Democrat in Indiana... but what we didn't know when that episode aired is that 2017 would be the year of the Blue Wave. There weren't any actual Democratic gains in Indiana that year, but some were close enough I can buy Ben winning. He's definitely got a history of fiscal conservatism!

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