Tuesday, February 24, 2015

First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity: My Love Letter to Parks & Rec

When I sailed (i.e., drove for six hours) off to Virginia back in ye olde 2008 for my first year of college at that venerable Baptist Institution, I was in a right (i.e., nightmare-ish) state of mind.  If you frequent this blog with any kind of regularity, you know this song and dance quite well.  I was super broody about not getting into the universities of my choice; I was like the Mr. Rochester of my own life, minus the club foot, or whatever, and the crazy spouse locked up in the attic. 

Professionally, I had dreams of running for office someday, and I wanted to enact positive change in the political realm.  It was appropriate, then, that at this time I was still pretty involved with The Office, a show that recognized the futility of life and suggested, rather British-ly (as it was originally intended), to deal with the matter by not dealing at all.  Life is absurd; respond accordingly.  Additionally, I was watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on the regular.  I love(d) those shows, but the problem with satire is that (if you let it) it can start giving you a certain smug sense of superiority for figuring out what's wrong with the institution you're targeting before the other guy.  My issue was that I had become that person.  The smug one.  Only, I was worse because my motivation for making "positive changes" was that I had all the answers to the world's problems.  I could do this whole world saving thing on my own. (If you're thinking, "Gee, General, you were kind of an egotistical douchebag," you--unfortunately--would not be wrong.)

So there I was, on the precipice of a new chapter of my life:  pissed off at the world and frustrated that I didn't fit in more with the other students in my government classes.  After all, weren't these the fine young men and women that would be accompanying me into Washington someday to enact positive change for real people?  Yet, it seemed all they wanted to do was debate and argue, and if I recall vividly from right after the 2008 presidential election, chalk the Communist hammer and sickle on the sidewalk in front of our dorms where the "O" in Obama should have been.  To be fair, I have no idea who did that last one, but I'm referring more to the divisive, partisan nature that had infected not just the political climate as a whole, but the meek, Baptist Institution I was attending, too. The whole thing was, to borrow a Liz Lemon saying, totally blergh!

Enter Parks and Recreation

Word got around that The Office was going to get a spin-off.  At that point, I think there was a rumor that it was going to star Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute. Everything in me hated this idea.  The Office was already having issues of its own, and to split part of its creative team seemed like sending Old Yeller into the backyard with his executioner, just minus that pesky shotgun.  But I loved Amy Poehler, and I liked Rashida Jones.  Eventually curiosity got the better of me (let's be honest, procrastination got the better of me), and I'm pretty sure I watched all six episodes of season one on Hulu about a month before season two would begin.

Turns out the show was about a public servant--one that was desperate to please (much like Michael Scott), but a public servant nonetheless. And the whole first season focused on a constituent (Rashida Jones' Ann Perkins) trying to get the giant pit in the lot next to her house filled, which is how she meets Leslie (Poehler), who works in Pawnee, Indiana's Parks and Recreation department.  There was also a staunchly Libertarian, borderline anarchist boss, Ron Swanson; the apathetic intern, April; Andy, Ann's simple, yet loveable rock star boyfriend; Tom Haverford, a guy with Diddy-sized entrepreneurial dreams; and Mark Brandanawicz, the architect who doesn't get paid enough to care.

I was merely whelmed with the show at first.  It had funny moments, and I liked how real life, small government issue "The Pit" story line was; however Leslie Knope, Poehler's character, just seemed like she was trying too hard.  But as I kept watching, that trait stopped seeming like the worst thing in the world.  In fact, because she was trying so hard when it came to filling in the pit, Leslie actually manages to get Ann to participate in local government.  And because she tries so hard consistently, Leslie actually managed to earn the respect of her boss, Ron, who has no respect for a single government employee, let alone the institution of government in its entirety.  Although, she takes a lot of flack for her enthusiasm in the beginning, too.  Tom and April poke fun of her behind her back, while Mark constantly thinks the Pit will never get filled because of all the bureaucratic red tape, regardless of Leslie's passion.

As the series progressed, so did my love for it.  As it turned out, Leslie Knope wasn't trying too hard because she wanted people to like her, much like Michael Scott had done in The Office.  She was trying really hard because she believed that, with hard work and persistence, the American governing system could work.  Surrounded by folks that were, for the most part, apathetic toward or vehemently against the system they worked within, Leslie Knope dared to be optimistic about the chances of success when you add teamwork and persistence; she truly had a servant's heart.  She got discouraged, sure--she was, after all, only human--but she was smart enough to surround herself with good people, and she stayed focused on what she was working toward in the first place.  After all, she's the one that said, "One person's 'annoying' is another person's 'inspiring and heroic.'"

In addition to the character of Leslie, the show also portrayed friendships and relationships in general well.  Even though they had polar opposite political beliefs, Ron and Leslie's relationship organically grows into a wonderful friendship and mentorship where both of them aren't afraid to call each other out when they're being boneheaded; yet on the other hand, they'll both be the first to be each other's cheerleader.  Tom and April both go from being directionless and immature to really applying themselves once they find motivation (that just happens to be outside of government).  And Ben Wyatt--dear sweet Ben and his disastrous Ice Town and his calzone hating--is a complete outcast from the group because he dares to do his job when they have to downsize the Parks department, but then everyone from the department ends up including him at the Dennis Feinstein launch party anyway.  And while the romantic relationships on the show have always been beautiful and heartfelt and a delight to watch (e.g., Leslie and Ben; April and Andy), Leslie and Ann's relationship, which I will always consider the primary one of the show, is one of the best portrayals of female friendship I've yet to see on television.  (With the sole exception of Playing House, and that takes a lot for me to even make the comparison--that's how good it is).

Leslie Knope exudes the kind of feminism that makes my heart happy, the kind that Hermione could get behind and applaud uproariously.  She wants to see women excel at whatever they do, but not at the expense of men because she clearly respects and admires the ones she works with, unless they're particular tools (here's looking at you, JAM).  Yes, Leslie can sometimes get stuck in her ways, but it's hard to get mad at a character that just wants to do the right thing so gosh darn badly.

Early on, they decided to write off the character of Mark Brandanawicz, and at the time, I remember thinking that I was just starting to enjoy the sort of sardonic, Jim Halpert attitude he brought to the whole ensemble.  In retrospect, however, it makes sense that they brought Ben and Chris in his place instead.  In the same way that satire only works in small doses before smugness sets in, I believe the same can be said of criticism in politics.  After a certain point, you're spending so much time focusing on what doesn't work in government that you're not doing anything to actively improve it.  The founder of the Baptist Institution I used to attend was fond of saying that if you're going to criticize the dark, you'd better have a light.  I always thought that was an admirable statement, an admirable way of life.  The very thing that sets Parks and Recreation apart from The Office is that there's this unwavering, underlying optimism, and I believe it's this very distinctive American trait.  That trait being that even though life deals you a certain hand, you don't have to just lie down and accept it.  If you work hard and you remain steadfast, you can enact change for the better.  You can be a voice for those who have none.

After six years, I'm being forced to say goodbye to another comedy show I accidentally fell head over heels in love with.  Leslie Knope became more than a just a character to me.  She became my role model.  You see, while I was selfishly coming up with visions of grandeur in which I single handedly saved the American governing system and humanity with it, Leslie Knope taught me that nothing of significance is accomplished with one, single person.  And while I was embittered by the entire political process and partisanship at its core, Parks and Recreation showed me what happens when a group of people with no significance whatsoever get together, work hard, and serve others.

You can call me a sap if you want.  Maybe I am.  (Actually, definitely I am.  Tears have been dripping into my comforter as I type this, and I've been listening to "Wild Horses" on repeat all day in preparation for the end because it still hasn't settled in).  All I know is that this show has made me laugh so much, I've cried.  It's made me so happy, I've cried.  It's made me so cried, I've cried.  Basically, I love all the people of Pawnee, Indiana like they were my own family, and maybe I'm not so dead set on having a political career in my future again, but this show played a small role in reminding me what the true role of a government employee--of a public servant--actually is.  By this point, I haven't had a chance to watch the finale yet because I'm still in denial, and I had to work late.  And if this post is incoherent and ramble-y it's because I just have so many feelings about this show, and it has come to mean so much to me in such a different way than The Office.  In a different life stage, I guess.  In my mind, regardless of how the show pans out, April finds her dream career; Andy keeps being wonderful; Leslie, Ben, and their triplets go on to live in the Governor's mansion of Indiana; while Ron finds peace with his wife and her kids in the middle of nowhere, Indiana; and Donna and Tom keep treating themselves.  Basically, in the perfect words of Kurt Vonnegut, everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

So, bye, bye, Li'l Sebastian.  You're five thousand candles in the wind.

Kelah Se'lai,

The General

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