It’s been three years since this superbly-written show debuted as a mid-season replacement on April 9, 2009, its initial six episodes introducing us to the perky, optimistic and ambitious Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her almost Herculean plan to turn a giant pit in Sullivan Street, Pawnee, Indiana into a community park.
Its use of a faux-documentary style, much like The Office (it was originally intended as a spin-off of this show), and Modern Family, allowed insight into what the characters were thinking, as much as what they were saying, and its this to-camera honesty that is one of the cornerstones of the show.
This was particularly beneficial for viewers in the case of Leslie, a mid level bureaucrat in the city’s Parks Department. She is one of the few people – perhaps the only one really – left among her colleagues who truly believes in the power of government to do good, and it was this passionate belief in the face of all evidence to the contrary that got me attracted to this show very quickly.
I decided to re-visit season 1 of the show and was reminded (not that I really needed reminding!) that the show is brilliantly funny, incisive, and brutally honest in its assessment of the bureaucracy, peoples’ hopes and ambitions, and life’s way of not always giving you what you think you want pretty much straight out of the gate.
The real joy of Leslie Knope, whose character was re-tooled slightly in season 2 to meet claims that she was a little too ditzy (I didn’t see her as ditzy at all; she is idealistic and naive true, but she has proved time and again, that she is an intelligent woman, both intellectually and emotionally) is that she’s honest. Delightfully, smile-inducingly honest.
“This is huge. I am barely 34 and I have already landed a Parks department exploratory sub-committee … I’m a rocket ship.” (Leslie Knope, pilot episode)
Her unedited and oft-repeated happiness at being named to head a sub-committee, which to most people would seem like an unalloyed waste of time, is contagious. She has had just as much thrown against as anyone else in the Pawnee bureaucracy but she bounces back every time, determined to fight the good fight and make a difference and isn’t embarrassed to articulate that.
She doesn’t care if other people snigger or jest – frankly I think she is probably too wrapped up in her Walter Mitty-esque world to even think that people would be cynical – she plows on, happy in her small parcel of the world, and it is this that makes her such an engaging character and one that you warm to very quickly.
“I would say I lost my optimism in about two months. Leslie has kept her’s for six years.” (Mark Brendanawicz, played by Paul Schneider, a close work colleague in the pilot episode.)
She is not even persuaded to forgo her giddily upbeat view of the possibilities of her position by her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who is the director of the department, a confirmed cynic (albeit one with a heart of gold) and a man who as a Libertarian believes strongly in the smallest governmental oversight of the populace as possible.
“There’s a new wind blowing in government and I don’t like it. All of a sudden there’s all this Federal money coming in and Paul the city manager is telling us to build parks. Start new community programs. It’s horrifying.” (Ron, episode 2, season 1)
One person who almost gleefully stands in direct contravention to Leslie’s pure belief in the goodness of government is Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) who subscribes to all the cliches about government employees.
It’s like the writers have happily tipped every last prejudice people have about people working in a bureaucracy into this one feisty on-the-take guy – he does as little as possible, he is outwardly supportive of Leslie but does as little as possible when she’s not looking, is always looking to cheat on his wife (and failing miserably), loves playing politics (going so far as to lose every Scrabble piece he plays with Ron), and can’t be trusted as far as you can thrown him (although he is a genuinely charming, and yes, witty guy making him hard not to like).
One person who isn’t fooled by Tom’s act is Ron. He knows Tom is more than able to win every Scrabble game if he wants to, and in one piece to camera sums him up like this:
“I like Tom. He doesn’t do a lot of work around here. He shows zero initiative. He’s not a team player. He’s never one to go that extra mile. Tom is exactly what I am looking for in a government employee.” (Ron, episode 3, season 1)
One of my favourite characters is Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), the every woman who is introduced in the first episode as a nurse living with her goofy musician boyfriend, Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt – he was intended as a guest character but worked so well he was made permanent in season 2) near the pit that Leslie wants to turn into a park, red tape be damned! She confronts Leslie at a town meeting demanding that something be done about the park into which Andy has tumbled and broken his legs.
Leslie, looking like a deer in headlights at Ann’s willingness to speak her mind – I don’t think she is used to someone being this direct; she may be honest about her feelings but she is used to the obtuse way things are said and done in local government so Ann’s policy of saying it as it is is a shock – decides to make Ann part of the solution. She is placed on the afore-mentioned sub-committee with Tom, Mark, and April the slacker summer intern (who is actually quite smart) so there is an outsider’s perspective on the park project.
Ann’s involvement in the sub-committee allows the laughably slow progress of the pit’s progression into a park, and the attendant wheeling and dealing, to be exposed in all its frustrating lack of glory, which is good since Leslie, as part of the system, is charmingly blind to it.
Ann is also the voice of reason when Leslie’s grand dreams tend to overtake what is humanly, or physically possible:
“Leslie Knope: Dream with me for a second, Ann: doesn’t this neighborhood deserve a first class park? Imagine a shiny new playground with a jungle gym; and swings; pool; tennis courts; volleyball courts; raquetball courts; basketball courts; regulation football field; we can put an ampitheater with ‘Shakespeare in the Park’…
Ann Perkins: It’s really not that big of a pit.
Leslie Knope: We can do some of those things.”
But in the end the show revolves around Leslie, dear sweet honest Leslie who approaches each and every moment of her working life as if it will be the best one ever. She is the emotional core of the show and the one upon whom this beautifully written and exquisitely acted show hangs.
She deserves to be President one day if only so we can have a sitcom about it.