Why Parks & Recreation Is A Perfect Snapshot Of A Failing America

By Doug Norrie 2011-12-07 15:59:05 discussion comments
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When Michael Shur and Greg Daniels created Parks and Recreation, they saw an opportunity to highlight the mundanity of government, the ridiculous nature of democracy, and the “characters” who choose civic employment.  Four seasons in they’ve created the funniest show currently on television, and deftly established an expert mix of comedy, story and deeper character development.  

While Schur and Daniels are primarily concerned with making a comedy, they've also developed Parks & Recreation as a commentary on American life in general, in which each character embodies something disturbingly broken in our society.  It's probably not intentional on their part, but one needs only watch Parks and Recreation for a lesson in American civics, citizenship and the downward slope of a once great power.  Let’s look:

 
Leslie Knope
The Political Machine
Aspiring to be a politician is probably a lot like aspiring to be an apple or a carbuerator.  Sure they look shiny on the outside or are unexplainably vital to a bigger thing, but eventually, given enough time they turn out rotten on the inside, or just cost a ton of money to fix.

And while I think Leslie’s campaign for town council is genuine, it also highlights the “brokenness” of our systems. She, of the unflagging moral and ethical virtue, kowtows to big (Pawnee) business (unless you make salads for a living), combats birth certificate bombshells, hides a less-than-scandalous relationship because she thinks it will cost her votes, must defend said relationship in front of an ethics committee and begins compromising her core set of values to accomplish something “bigger”. 

Though I'm assuming her eventual victory will come on the heels of something relatively honest and good-natured, Leslie’s foray into politics is at its core gross, corrupt, and decidedly American.

 
Tom Haverford
Capitalism, Branding and the Distorted American Dream
It was no secret that Tom’s venture into business with Jean Ralphio and the concept of Entertainment 720 (financed by a run-in with a Lexus) had failure written all over it.  Paying Detleff Schrempf to shoot hoops in the office was just one of many signs things were going south.  No, what made his foray into this business so truly American was that he actually thought it would be a success.  He of no business background or real corporate knowledge believed he could take a loose conceptual “idea” and grow a business by maintaining some contrived “balla” status and hiring hot secretaries.

And while his scheme was over the top in scope and underdeveloped in plan, it highlighted a growing American sense that success is a predetermined right rather than a byproduct of ingenuity and hard work. And who, when looking at things through Tom’s baby brown eyes, could blame him?  After all, a whole generation has seen the Hiltons and Kardashians of the world garner “fame” by doing little else than being themselves while sipping champagne and riding in limos (with mommy and daddy’s bankroll).   Tom just wanted a little slice of it for his own. 

 
Andy Dwyer
Liberal Arts Education and the Student Debt Crisis
It’d probably be easier to say Andy is a perfect example of a failed secondary (or probably elementary) educational system, but having no idea what this guy was like in school, its probably best not to make assumptions (though I suspect he was the most awesome high-schooler of all time).  No, his slightly delayed decision to enroll in college without any real focus or predetermined discipline represents the flawed American ideal that college is the place kids can go to “figure it out”.

Though I’m not denying the dude’s right to an education (and I loved how he owned the beginner’s guitar class, yearned for real lasers in science and actually embraced women’s studies) his decision to enroll in college and pay the tuition (courtesy of the Ron Swanson Scholarship Fund) is a real indictment on how a great many youth view college as the next logical rung on the life ladder no matter the prohibitive cost.  And even Andy’s realization that college is expensive and wife April’s presumed understanding that it takes you nowhere you want to go fast (she got her hated Parks job through an internship) aren’t enough for to dissuade him from jumping straight into the educational shark tank, even if he doesn’t know how to swim (or have enough money to get lessons). 

 
 April Ludgate
The Occupy Movement
Disclamer: I think April would be the last person ever to actually walk down to Zuccotti Park and camp in a tent as a statement (unless that statement was to make fun of it) but it’s also not that much of a stretch.  After all, she’s a dissenter at her core, snarky enough to piss everyone off, smart enough to recognize when she’s getting screwed, confused enough to not understand how to constructively battle a system.  Yet she’s motivated enough to drive to the Grand Canyon on a whim and creative enough to represent the Moon at a Model U.N. summit.

April understands her world probably better than any other character on the show (except maybe Ron, and she’s his protégé) and is just the kind of person who’d use the “let’s completely piss them off” means to justify the “until sh#$ changes” ends. 

   
 Ron Swanson
The Relative and Elusive Idea of Freedom
Ron Swanson would probably claim to be the most free man in America.  He’d point to his cabin in the woods, Libertarian mindset, the fact that he buries his gold in secretive places, eats copious amounts of red meat with little concern for the coronary consequences and generally refuses to acquiesce to societal conventions at every turn (see: the mustache).  Ron Swanson would most definitely claim he is a free man. 

Yet he’s bogged down by the machine as much as anyone.  His two ex-wives scare the crap out of him: Tammy Two with her Siren-like power over his libido and Tammy One with her puppet-master-as-dictator control over his every nuance.  He lives in a litigious world where ex-wives stick around forever.  And though he bemoans the sorry state of government and does his best to slow down the gears that turn it, he is nevertheless stuck behind a desk from 9-5 each day like everyone else.  His case is true irony and evidence that we’ll never be completely free.

 
 Ben Wyatt
Youthful Idealism Ground Down to a Nub
When an 18 year old kid gets elected the mayor of his small town it’s only logical to believe he’s begun the first step on the meteoric rise to political stardom.  And why not elect the kid?  Youthful idealism and “I can change the world just through my energy” mentality is a hallmark of the young and motivated (as evidenced by the positivity and promises of Senior Class President speeches).  But getting impeached after two months in office because of some major screw ups and taking a lowly job in a lowly government system working for people you only respect on a superficial level is really how the world works.  Just ask Ben.

Ben’s reserved innocence, coupled with his fall from early political grace (and aided by his fanboy love of all things Star Wars and DC Comics) make him the perfect symbol of American idealism gone awry.  Hell, the dude probably believes more in the structure of Middle Earth than how our current government has taken shape. He has to quit a job he's great at, and by all accounts loves doing because of archaic rules and the corruptive nature of government. Unfortunately for him, chucking a ring into a volcano won’t solve this country’s problems and Ben is doomed to a life working for the man (even if Chris Traeger is a slightly more appealing, yet no less scary than say, Sauron).

   
 Donna Meagle
Rampant and Ill-Advised Consumerism
She drives a pimped out Mercedes.  Enjoys “treat-yo-self” days that include expensive spa treatments, designer clothes and fancy food.  She’s unapologetic about her materialistic vices.  And she’s most likely got a maxed out Visa, faulty credit and mountain of debt.  Her salary is government public record (which is never much) and I’m sure she’s operating at a level well above her pay grade.

And though it’s not an indictment of her character, by all accounts she’s a terrific friend and confidant, her “diva” to Tom’s “balla” is a snapshot of how our spending habits have spiraled out of control. 

  
 Jerry (Garry) Gergich
Bullying, the establishment and the quiet 99%
And then there’s Jerry.  Poor, miserable, picked-on, antagonized, laughed at, forgotten, ridiculed, over-looked, fat, kind, beaten down Jerry. Jerry is everyone else in America besides you. 

See one thing we’re good at is passing the buck.  It’s never our fault.  It’s Jerry’s.  We didn’t mess up the presentation. Jerry did.  We didn’t lose the account.  Jerry did.  We’re not fat.  Jerry is.  We’re not lazy.  Jerry is.  I didn’t fart.  Jerry did.  And when we need a pick me up, it’s time to rip on the guy. 

And here’s the thing about Jerry and about America.  Jerry gets it.  He knows that putting his head down and staying quiet is the best way to get through Monday and make it to Tuesday.  The condemnation he receives, in his eyes,  is a small price to pay for the other things he thinks are important (family, painting, etc).  Isn’t that the true America?  We put up with all the b#$%shit because its just a small tax to pay (just one more, we swear).
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