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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:
The Political Machine
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.
Capitalism, Branding and the Distorted American Dream
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.
Liberal Arts Education and the Student Debt Crisis
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).
The Occupy Movement
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.
The Relative and Elusive Idea of Freedom
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.
Youthful Idealism Ground Down to a Nub
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).
Rampant and Ill-Advised Consumerism
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.
Bullying, the establishment and the quiet 99%
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).