One of my favorite movies about American democracy in action is “Election,” Alexander Payne’s 1999 dark comedy on the making of a high school president. Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, has cited the 1992 presidential election as inspiration, and it makes sense. The movie follows the same basic plot as that election – the contest, which has come down to two of the usual types of people who enter the political sphere, is suddenly thrown into chaos when a truth-telling outsider with nothing to lose enters the fray and exposes the hollowness of our electoral system.
It is an incisive political allegory, but towards the end of the film, Payne makes a risky choice. He brings his two central characters – teacher Jim McAllister and student Tracy Flik – to Washington, DC to show that Tracy, many years later, is working for Congress. On the DVD commentary track, Payne expressed reticence about moving his story to the place he was actually satirizing. In an allegory, it is crucial to maintain distance between the plot and one’s true subject.
It wasn’t a problem in “Election” because the scenes set in DC were just a coda to the film. But after a brilliantly restrained start to the series, “Parks and Recreation” has made the same mistake in a much bigger way.
Television shows have to go somewhere these days. After a couple of seasons of getting to know the characters, writers usually run out of single-episode story ideas and turn to multi-episode arcs. Even “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” two shows known for self-contained comic masterpieces, turned to this technique eventually. I guess it was inevitable that Leslie would not just be sitting behind her desk at the Parks and Rec department for the rest of the series. And so in the fourth season, producer and show runner Mike Schur made an obvious move and set Leslie on a new, series-shifting journey: he had her run for office.
It was a mistake. In terms of pure comedy, the fourth season may have been the best. It has a season-long arc to hook the viewer, Rob Lowe is at his weirdest and funniest, and the romantic relationship between Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie (Amy Poehler) is genuinely affecting. For political junkies, it was fun to watch the series ape our political system. Leslie deals with her own “birther” issue, struggles over the ethics of negative campaigning, and participates in a debate that features many of the same dynamics, only slightly exaggerated, we have seen on the national stage in this presidential cycle.
But season four’s reflection of our political system is only surface level and so ultimately disappointing. It mines our electoral system for some very big laughs, but the degree of difficulty for that kind of comedy is not very high. Our political system is already absurd – so I’m not that enthused by a show that merely reflects that absurdity back to its audience. Sure, it’s funny. But it makes virtually no comment on the system; it is just standard situation comedy in the context of a political campaign. Worst of all, it appears that season five is headed in the same direction – the preview for tonight’s season premiere features Leslie stammering nervously in front of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe. Here’s a clip. Not exactly cutting-edge comedy.
Season two is another story. As I mentioned earlier this week, “Parks and Recreation” works best as a vehicle for social and political reflection when it illuminates how the community benefits from a well-run government. This is, in essence, the mantra of the show. But in the final two episodes of season two, this idea reached its apex. These episodes could be seen as an impassioned and emotional defense of government in the face of massive spending cuts which were then – and still are now – being debated in Washington. It dramatized a response to the complaints of the Tea Party in ways that “The Newsroom” can only dream of.
The Master Plan/Freddy Spaghetti (originally aired on May 20, 2010)
In May of 2010, the Tea Party was in full swing. The Affordable Care Act had been signed into law just two months earlier, and town hall meetings were filled with angry citizens protesting both the ACA and the recent vote to raise the debt ceiling. For most Americans, it was a time of deep political unrest. For “Parks and Recreation,” it was an opportunity to reaffirm the show’s commitment to government by giving it a foil that reflected the goals, if not the mood, of the Tea Party.
That foil came in the form of Ben (Adam Scott), one half of the two-man team sent by the State Budget Office to fix Pawnee’s books. Due to reckless spending and “crippling gridlock in the city council,” the town is broke, and Ben and his relentlessly upbeat partner Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) have arrived to lower the boom, i.e. locate and enact massive departmental cuts that will save the town. Ben is not a Tea Partier – he’s more like black coffee, an all-business, no-nonsense bureaucrat who has no compunction about laying people off to balance the budget. He does not embody the side of the Tea Party that favored angry public protests – although that element is featured throughout the run of the series in Pawnee’s madcap public forums (see season 3’s “Time Capsule” for the best example) – but he does represent the form that the Tea Party has taken in Congress. He emphasizes balancing the budget at all costs, and he has little public sympathy for the people who will be affected by the loss of services.
In other words, he is Ron Swanson’s dream camping date, but he is a major threat to Leslie, who cares deeply for the people of Pawnee and often operates as if the Parks Department has an unlimited budget. In these episodes, for example, she is in the final stages of planning an outdoor concert for kids.
Chris and Ben discover that Pawnee’s books are even worse off than they thought, and they order an immediate government shut down, a manifestation of the threat Congressional Republicans have been making over the debt ceiling battle the last few years. All city employees are out of work, but more importantly, the kids concert by Freddy Spaghetti (an appropriately weird-looking sort who inserts the names of various pasta shapes into his songs, i.e. “Penne and the Jets”) has been cancelled. But our Leslie Knope, provider of services to the public, is not deterred, and she rallies the staff to put on the concert themselves – on the site of her proposed park (which has been tabled indefinitely due to budget cuts) and with food and services donated by the town. Inherent in this plot is the question that was being asked on a much larger stage at the time. Should we provide services that most Americans deem non-essential – like free concerts in the park – or should we slash the budget and simply bear the social cost to the community?
Despite this eloquent dramatization of the issue, the show’s writers must not have been so sure that the viewers would get it, so they have Leslie verbalize the position, as well. It’s unnecessary but unsurprising; television is not a medium for subtlety. Arguing with Ron, who is advocating for a cut to social programs, Leslie retorts, “That’s what government does. It provides services.” Later, while trying to pump up her troops at the concert site, she states emphatically, “Everyone agrees that what we are doing here is essential.”
And when in an emergency task force meeting to cut the budget, Ben suggests that Leslie’s position be eliminated, Ron fights it tooth and nail and succeeds in saving her job. Despite Ron’s Libertarian leanings, he recognizes how essential Leslie is to the office. Although Ron would probably claims that he was motivated by selfishness – Leslie’s tireless work ethic leaves his own plate relatively clear – it is equally clear that he deeply values her work. “Every office is losing a Leslie Knope,” Ben says. “No, they’re not,” Ron retorts. “No other office has one.”
If it was not already evident, this exchange demonstrates that despite the show’s insistence on giving air time to Ron’s Libertarian perspective, its perspective is firmly rooted in the left. Let’s not forget that this is a show that dedicated an entire episode to an homage of “The West Wing,” complete with an appearance by Bradley Whitford and an opening scene walk-and-talk. It’s also telling that stars Adam Scott and Rashida Jones have been out campaigning for President Obama’s re-election.
Oh, and producer Greg Daniels has contributed the maximum amount to Obama’s campaign this cycle. Of course, it’s not unusual to see Hollywood stars campaigning for Democratic candidates – but combined with the general pro-government slant of the series, the partisan nature of the show is impossible to ignore.
And then there is the final moment of that last episode of season two. When everything goes wrong, when Freddy Spaghetti takes a better-paying job in a neighboring town just as the audience begins showing up, it is Tea Party Ben who saves the day, offering up his own money to lure the singer back. Mr. Spaghetti takes the stage, and the townspeople of Pawnee enjoy a show that, in Leslie’s words, “will not make all of the town’s problems go away, but…will make a lot of people happy.”
Leslie and Ben stand off to the side, enjoying the show. Despite his softening, Ben reminds Leslie what is coming:
BEN: Look, this is really great today, but there is going to be a lot of pain ahead. We have to cut 32 percent-
LESLIE: Can you just stop it? Can you just stop for one moment and enjoy the fact that you provided a service for people, not a cut?
A better defense of government I could not imagine. At the time of this show’s airing, Congressional Republicans were holding the debt ceiling – and the American economy – hostage in an effort to enact draconian spending cuts. Budget items that may be “non-essential” but have value to American communities – such as, say, arts funding – were on the chopping block. Two years later, “The Newsroom” would attempt to tackle this issue by talking frantically in circles around it for ten hour-long episodes. But this one episode of “Parks and Recreation” – conceived and shot when this discussion was still ongoing in Congress – dramatizes the issue far better than any television drama.
For Democrats everywhere, producers Greg Daniels and Mike Schur are offering a public service: a pro-government allegory with lots of laughs on the side. Now that Leslie is a city council member and her boyfriend is a Congressional campaign manager, it is unlikely to ever reach the heights of political satire that it achieved in season two. But if you’re liberal and you like comedy, it might still be good enough.
Don’t forget to watch the season premiere of “Parks and Rec” tonight at 9:30 on NBC. For now, here is the full season finale of season two – “Freddy Spaghetti.”