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What Does TV Have Against Women In Politics?

By Joanna Robinson | Think Pieces | November 26, 2013 | Comments ()


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You remember how we nearly elected a female president a few years ago? Of course you do. Your memory isn’t that short. Though it’s too early to call, I’d be surprised if we didn’t get a strong female candidate in 2016 and with the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Wendy Davis as well as Hillary Clinton herself still making headlines, it’s not like we’re exactly starving for real-life inspiration. Then what’s with the recent disturbing TV trend of ousting women from office? There was a time when women were considered viable candidates in TV politics. We can wave the We Love C.J. Cregg banner until our arms fall off and, of course, we can’t forget Battlestar Galactica’s President Roslin.

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Of course, Roslin was weak and ill for much of the show and her storyline ended in domestic bliss rather than political strength. But we’ll take what we can get. That was a few short years ago. How does the TV political landscape look now? Well when I mentioned a disturbing trend, I meant it. Oftentimes pop culture writers will try to stir up trends where there are none but in the past two weeks alone, four well-qualified female politicians lost out on major network shows. Coincidence? Most certainly. But I think it’s worth looking at why those women lost and what that means for the way pop culture views female politicians as a whole.

Josie Marcus — Scandal: A few weeks ago, Lisa Kudrow’s democratic candidate Josie Marcus let loose with this amazing speech on sexism and political coverage.

It was a remarkable TV moment and an excellent indictment of the lingering double standards in modern journalism and politics. I had such high hopes for Marcus taking on President Grant (a terrible human being) in the upcoming election only to have the character yanked away from me last week. Marcus withdrew from the campaign after her sister (her daughter!) engaged in some dirty, unforgivable tactics. Marcus bowed out rather than throw her own sister (seriously, her daughter!) under the bus. This, I suppose, could be called the moral high ground and it’s how Kudrow’s character classifies her actions. But she also tells Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope “I wasn’t cut out for this.” Which is an admission of weakness not moral fortitude. Disappointing. Now we’re left with a race between Grant and Governor Reston. Two white guys? How refreshing.
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Kristina Braverman — Parenthood: It was pretty clear from the start that Kristina was not going to win her race. She was the darkest horse imaginable. Though we saw a few triumphs from her in the race against Bob Little the overall message was twofold 1) Bob Little was willing to employ dirty tactics and Kristina wasn’t 2) the real triumph was her rebound from cancer. I appreciate the second message. It’s the sort of heart-squishiness we’ve come to expect from Parenthood. But the first message is one we’ll see again and again here. The men are willing to get their hands dirty and the women aren’t. Are we meant to see that as strength if it consistently means defeat?
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Rachel Keyser and Diane Lockhart— The Good Wife: A few weeks ago fans of The Good Wife were treated to this highly disturbing image:
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That’s Diane Lockhart, badass attorney with a heart of gold and spine of steel weeping her guts out because she discovered she wouldn’t be receiving the State Supreme Court nomination she was promised. Illinois selects their justices via a partisan election so Diane would have been nominated by Governor Peter Florrick and then voted in by the public. So we couldhave been treated to a Diane Lockhart campaign. But her political career was cut short for personal reasons (Florrick’s not her own). She was replaced in the nomination pool by Mary Stuart Masterson’s Rachel Keyser who was pushed to decline the nomination by another Florrick, Peter’s mother. In this case it was Keyser’s philandering that got her in trouble. So infidelity is not a political obstacle for Peter Florrick, but it is for Keyser? I see. In a meta-statement, Florrick’s chief-of-staff, Eli Gold, mentions how terrible it will look for two female nominees to be dropped back to back. Oh it does look terrible, show. I think it will matter very much who you throw at us next.
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Leslie Knope — Parks And Recreation: That brings us, of course, to Leslie Knope, who was a shining example for women in politics. Heck, for humans in politics. Her ability to care and her passionate virtue were always seen as strengths. Sure she went head to head with The Big Bad System at times, but the ultimate victory was hers. So why pull it away? I get the idea that even sitcoms can’t be successful without a little dramatic tension and that it wouldn’t do for Leslie to be too happy. But this recall plot is such a slap in the face of everything Knope and the show achieved. Leslie is still a phenomenal woman. She will still do great works in the Parks Dept. which, I imagine, will always have a place for her. It’s a good indictment of the system to show it as too corrupt to sustain someone as good-hearted as Leslie. But it’s a terrible message for women in politics. Once again women are seen as too pure and too fragile to survive. That’s not the Knope I know.
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Selina Meyer — Veep: Here we finally have an example of a successful female candidate. She got elected! Of course, in the context of this show, the Vice President is seen as merely a figurehead position. As for Meyer herself? Well she’s terrible at her job. Abysmal. Don’t get me wrong. The show is fantastic. It’s a razor-sharp look at the state of modern politics. But a bumbling female in office makes for fine comedy out of context but a troubling piece of a larger puzzle.
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Cersei Lannister — Game Of Thrones: Well. Spoiler.
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Daenerys Targaryen — Game Of Thrones: Ditto.
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Of course there have been a few efforts recently to show women in political power. Both the short lived Commander-In Chief

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…and the mini-series Political Animals showed two strong women at the top of Capitol Hill. Political Animals had the option to be turned into a full-fledged series but wasn’t picked up. Why did both of those shows fail? Was the material really not good enough? Or was the subject matter unpalatable?
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Disappointingly, there’s an extremely popular Danish TV show called Borgen which centers on a female Prime Minister. I say “disappointingly” because I hate it when Europe beats us to the progressive punch.
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Alas, it seems that for now in America the most powerful female players in the TV political game remains the politician’s wife. So Scandal’s Mellie Grant (better her than the mustache twirling Sally Langdon) and House Of Cards’ Claire Underwood will have to do for now. (Alicia Florrick wants no part of it.) But as for me? Well, I’d prefer to see a female with power sitting on the throne. Not behind it.
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  • bokchoi

    sooo - America is more progressive than the American popular media, because you ALMOST elected a female to run the country? That's adorable. The rest of the world is patting y'all on the head right now.

  • kirbyjay

    " So infidelity is not a political obstacle for Peter Florrick, but it is for Keyser?"
    Apples and oranges. Keyser's infidelity was not an issue in her nomination. It was an issue with Jackie, who basically blackmailed her.

  • Epic Johnson

    In fairness, Rachel Keyser philandering wasn't treated as potentially harmful to her career, just her personal life, so in that sense it was arguably less of an issue than Peter's. Clearly Eli didn't see it as an issue and if Diane marrying a secessionist named McVeigh didn't disqualify her then a decade-old affair probably wouldn't be so bad either. Though I suppose Keyser's choice of her marriage to a dying man over a supreme court seat still falls in line with the trend presented here, I feel that the situation is somewhat misrepresented in the article. And I get really defensive about The Good Wife, because it is a perfect show no matter how many ex-boyfriend/husband subplots Kalinda might get, and I will fight anyone on that point.

  • dizzylucy

    "Once again women are seen as too pure and too fragile to survive." I have to disagree with this being included in the Leslie Knope portion.
    Leslie didn't not survive on the council because of any perceived fragility - I'd argue that she was booted for being TOO strong. She tried to change things and challenge the status quo, and people reacted poorly to her attempts. It says nothing about her, and everything about the people she was trying to help, and I think the show has made that clear.

    In no way do I think that recall is the end of Knope's political career on P&R. Overall this is an uplifting, heartwarming, and proudly feminist show. Once she gets over the initial hurt, Leslie's going to come out swinging.

    I will agree with the disappointment over Lisa Kudrow's character bowing out so quickly. That speech she did was fantastic, and then next week it was like oh never mind. I suspect it has more to do with Lisa Kudrow not wanting to be a regular on the show, but overall it ended poorly.

  • I see two things. First, bad writing is bad writing. A few of these went awry through execution choices at critical points, it seems from what's included in this post. We will always be victims of shitty writing. Second, it just seems like the US will always struggle to overcome its puritanical reflexiveness. I don't know why and I wish that weren't true, but I cannot escape the belief that it is so fundamentally part of the culture that it will always be pervasive, which is why the most unsatisfying part of this is the subtle ways we reinforce our various -isms.

  • Good points. If I may add, it's the very repetition of "are we ready for..." every time progress looms that holds us back: a constant reflexive second-guessing that implies UN-readiness as opposed to un-WILLINGNESS, which is what we actually have.

  • John W

    I would definitely support an Elizabeth Warren ticket.

  • It seems to me that television has the same problem with female politicians that politics has with them: the idea that "female" and "politician" are inherently opposite terms that have to somehow be reconciled to each other, before we can all move on to the business at hand.

    Consider how ludicrous the following statements sound:

    "As a man, what message do you think your candidacy sends to the men of America?"

    "How will you balance being a Senator/Justice/Governor/President with being a father to two young children?"

    "Pat, I think the challenge for President Obama throughout these peace talks is going to be, can he make the other delegates forget he's a man and just see 'President of the United States'?"

    "That's an interesting point, Mary Beth. This is a president who has NEVER played down his masculine traits or his obvious appeal; in fact, he's been accused at times of trading ON it at times to eke out results. The question is, will being a gentleman now make people think 'classy' or just 'weak'?"

    "That IS the question, and I just have to add... I LOVE what he's wearing! Do we think that's another Tom Ford?"

    As long as we keep treating "female politician" as an implied triumph over adversity from the get-go, we're going to get shows that are content to let "can a woman....?" or "the price of power: her private pain" be the story.

  • You realize you just wrote the perfect cover letter for a job at CNN, MSNBC or any mainstream US news outlet. If you include a fetching picture, you can probably skip the interview step altogether.

  • Given what I've seen of the mainstream news outlets, I'm honestly not sure whether you're agreeing with my assessment or saying I have the IQ of a jello mold. Either way, may I list you as a reference when I call CNN?

  • Let's just say it's a complement to go with your post-modern critique. I write me some good reference letters.

  • emmalita

    I think you meant "lamestream."

  • emmalita

    One assignment I recall well from college was having to write up a televised political debate as if it were a fashion show. The professor was trying to get us to think about how the way things are presented to us impacts the way we think about them.

  • I like it. "Charity Bachelor Auction" would also be an angle.

  • I don't know, Joanna. Are you looking for compelling characters, or are you looking for positive discrimination?

    Your views on Roslin and Meyer seem a bit dismissive, considering that they did fit your stated desire of strong women in positions of power with no compromises of that power. Just because Roslin had a nice retirement package doesn't dismiss that she was the most powerful and forceful presence on BSG for the entire run, pulling a lot of dirty stuff to stay there but still amanging to hold sympathies with the audience that many others (Starbuck) had lost. And Meyer is a comedic character who's supposed to look bad, regardless of gender. And the other choices, while having their problems (P&R), are not really indicative of some sort of systemic attempt to dismiss the idea of a competent female leader.

    It seems like you want a female leader character you can root for with no caveats or issues, which isn't a bad thing. It is a reasonable desire and one many people want as well. But it is hard to do so and still make with the drama and conflict that these shows are built on. And I kinda like the fact that there are shows willing to have these characters have flaws and setbacks. If anything, it shows that these characters are indeed relatable and human and shit happens to them.

    I don't know. It just seems like you are asking for a perfect character that doesn't go through setbacks and troubles and never looks bad. And that sounds boring to me. Yeah, a lot of these could have been done better (P&R) but the way you are describing these, it sounds like you didn't want them to go through anything at all, just win the day and go home. I don't think that's really all that fair.

  • AudioSuede

    Well, look at the greatest TV president of all time: Jed Bartlet.

    The man lied to the entire country about having MS, a condition which, by the end of the series, left him nearly crippled, he led the country into multiple armed conflicts, assassinated a foreign diplomat, nearly got assassinated himself, offered to cover up his VP's sex scandals and then replaced that VP with a noted moron who would undermine his authority at every turn, and generally had more minor and major scandals than Barack Obama and George W. Bush combined.

    And yet throughout the show, he was a shining example of statesmanship, an intelligent, caring, boisterous leader that everyone agreed was a mighty president, even his political opponents. He was re-elected in a landslide, and even managed to do what no Democratic president has been able to do since FDR and leave office with approval ratings high enough that the next elected president is also a Democrat (I mean, he died, but that's still something no one else has been able to pull off).

    Laura Roslin is the closest female equivalent in television in the last ten years, and her political road was much rockier; she was actually ousted from power when she tried to rig her re-election, then only regained power after Balthar betrayed the fleet and she had him thrown in jail. She was never really in control of her people, and Adama was seen as having more authority than she did on several occasions.

    I'm not saying we need to have a lady Bartlet (if only because I don't think we'll ever see a show like The West Wing again), but it seems to me this article is saying that it shouldn't be that hard to have a strong, brilliant, politically powerful female who isn't a terrible leader that everyone hates.

  • That's my thing with this article: it doesn't seem to acknowledge that having flaws doesn't prevent a character from being considered a good leader. It is using those flaws to disqualify characters from the very standard it is asking for. And in quite a few of these cases, the character is disqualified through no fault of their own. For example, the Kristina Braverman entry. She asks if moral strength can be considered that if it means defeat, which a lot of shows do portray. But it is being treated as a setback that diminishes the character, and the only reason presented in the piece for such is that she is a female.

    It just seems like a separate standard being asked for here. It isn't simply asking for a good leader, or even a good female leader. It is asking for a good female leader who doesn't suffer any problems or setbacks. Hasn't real life and most dramatic work taught us that even the best people in the world don't get any breaks?

  • AsdffAnon

    The Leslie Knope recall plot ruined the show for me. Leslie is the nicest person in the world and in no way deserved that treatment. I really like that show too, but now I can't watch it and removed it from my Hulu queue.

  • foca9

    Borgen is great, although I’d say the sex of the PM is rather because of the trend of strong women protagonists on Danish/Scandinavian TV shows than making a point in the series itself. Other examples is Sarah Lund in Forbrydelsen (Sarah Lundin, The Killing for the U.S. version) and Saga Norén in Broen/Bron (Sonya Cross, The Bridge). Now newspapers and others are talking about TV shows moving away from this instead.

    That’s how far we’ve come in Europe, I guess… :)

  • Ben

    Did... did you just ruin what happens to cersei and danny in GOT?

    Seriously?!?

  • Maddy

    I was so disappointed with how they got rid of Josie on Scandal. Why would you get such a big name and then do this - I really wanted her to beat Fitz who is the worst, or at least be a strong contender. But no, apparently the terrible Olivia-Fitz relationship is more important.

  • mograph

    I don't think TV has problems with women in politics -- it has problems with a woman's being a leader of men, with her not *needing* men, or being seen as somehow superior to men. That kind of character is not seen as … sympathetic?

  • ladyhazard

    I suspect that the Scandal writers realized that they couldn't allow a Grant-Marcus election because the viewers would be firmly pro-Marcus, which would really screw with the Grant/Pope grand love affair storyline. Blegh.

  • Jo

    ....also, our real life prime minister here in Denmark is a lady. It's not just on TV.

  • e jerry powell

    I was seriously disappointed with the Marcus situation. and now that James has been completely pimped out in every sense of the word, Sally Langston is going to run as an independent and pull away just enough of the far right-wing vote to ensure that Reston wins.

    Damn you, Cyrus Beene.

  • jennp421

    Reston shot and killed someone in the last season - how is he even a viable option? Yes, all the voters know is that he thought he was defending his wife. But he still killed someone. How is he a candidate?

  • e jerry powell

    Reston is up on Grant by a few hundred, though granted, not very many people know about that right now. There have been presidents in the past who've fought duels back when such things were "fashionable."

    Marcus wasn't on the front lines when she was in the military, so we can't say that she was directly responsible for anyone's deaths, but politicians with military backgrounds...

    How many Democrats have we seen, other than Marcus, Reston, and Edison Davis?

  • "She was the darkest horse imaginable."

    If Christina was any more white, she'd be clear.

    I enjoyed this piece, even if I sort of disagree with the premise. Khaleesi and Cersei are certified badasses, both intellectually and politically. The former is a warrior queen while the latter out-schemes/plots (they're the same thing) her male counterparts on a regular basis. Both are incredibly successful in a world where most women are merely walking rape holes.

    Selina Meyer is a bit of an outlier example as the entire show is a satire of politics and no one, especially the men, are portrayed as anything remotely resembling competent. It's hard to imagine Marcus is gone for good from Scandal's election storyline (as much as I wish she were), and just like with Veep, it's not like Grant and his crew are shining beacons of light.

    So i'm not so sure TV has anything against women in politics as it has something against political figures in general.

  • IngridToday

    Dany absolutely deserves to be on this list. I'm so tired of her yelling about how she's the heir to Westoros. She doesn't even bother to read any books about Westoros aside from one kid's (literally) that Jorah gave her. She doesn't spend time with Jorah learning about the current lords for all the houses or current/prevoius minor/major conflicts. It's astounding how little interest she actual has beyond she feels she's entitled to the Iron Throne.

    She's ignores Jorah every time he warns that people in Westoros aren't going to just hand over the kingdom to a stranger. She ignores him because she thinks they'll be "some causalities" with taking the Iron Throne, but, then it'll be all sunshine and rainbows. She *never* acknowledges any of the mistakes she's made and blatantly ignores sound advice.

    She's the most arrogant, entitled character and "warrior queen" is not the title I would describe someone who sits around in a tent reading kid books while other people fight and generally speaking a lot (most) of her battle tactics are from her generals -not her. Every time someone betrays her, she's confused because she doesn't understand why people don't have immediate love and loyalty for her.

    Her age is irrelevant since Robb and Jon are about the same age, yet no one ever uses their age as an excuse. Neither is her brother's influence an excuse for her godlike sense of leadership and entitlement. Robb also had Ned as an influence yet he's held accountable for his actions.
    She lacks common sense and self-awareness and without her dragon she'd be nothing.

  • Maev

    I do not have words to express just how much I hate the turn Parks and Rec has taken. Leslie Knope WINS. That's the point of her - up until now the Awesomeness of Leslie has been the foundation of the show, and to be honest, I found her genuinely inspiring. You could say she's a female fantasy figure - which makes it doubly hard when she gets knocked down. (This never happens to James Bond).

  • jon29

    Domestic bliss?!?

    The Battlestar Galactica I watched ended with Roslin weakened from cancer, but respected enough to convince Admiral Adama to abandon Galactica, volunteering for a suicide mission, rescuing Hera and protecting her from cylon attack, and then dying after successfully leading humanity to its new home.

  • AudioSuede

    See, I prefer to remember the show ending with them reaching the scorched Earth, but that's mostly because I refuse to acknowledge the abomination that was the actual series finale, may it be stricken from the record for all eternity.

  • pomeroy

    Yeah. She was ill, but pretty much the opposite of weak.

  • Maev

    True. Roslin's pretty much the hero of that show, and I think that's something they were pretty damn clear about from beginning to end.

  • jon29

    And none of that "women are seen as too pure and too fragile" stuff, either. Do not frak with President Roslin.

  • THIS. Let's not forget that she weathered at least three attempts to remove her from power, including one spearheaded by the guy she ended up in "domestic bliss" with. She handled her sh*t, didn't take it personally, and and showed them that while she may have gotten the job on a technicality, she wasn't going to give it up for nobody.

  • emmalita

    Well, she did take it personally a few times, but so did everyone else. And she was willing to get her hands dirty.

  • You are right. I suppose I meant to say that she handled the problems in an efficient and concrete manner and didn't allow herself the luxury of indulging in grudges or other such pettiness for longer than necessary.

    She wasn't passive-aggressive, she was airlock-aggressive.

    EDIT: Also, she didn't retire with Adama because of any moony love crap. She retired because there were no more asses (flesh or metal) for her to kick at the time. That woman was to conflict and struggle what vampires are to blood.

  • emmalita

    Super +1 for your additional thoughts in the edit. She died because she finally could, not because the cancer won.

  • Bea Pants

    And she will airlock the shit out of a cylon.

  • Definitely. I love Roslin. She's one of my favorite characters ever.

  • katyv

    Please tell me those weren't really gigantic Game of Thrones spoilers just floating in the middle of an unrelated post, marked with tiny, tongue-in-cheek "haha spoiler" text above them? Frowny face, Pajiba. >:(

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Please. Do you really think that Cersei in her mental state and with her incompetence will be able to hold on to any kind of power she might manage to gather?

  • I just barely got past it without seeing anything. I'm only through season 2. So yeah, spoilers aren't cool for those of us who don't have HBO.

  • I'd guess that it's simply down to art waiting for life to show them how.

  • Margrete

    It's sad that the notion of a female president still seems progressive, even in a tv-show. This is part of a much larger issue of gender equality and how women's abilities and place in society are viewed. And yes, this is changing over time, just not as fast as some of us would like to.
    I feel very lucky to have had a female prime minister for much of my
    childhood. My country's leader was a woman and I didn't think a second
    about it. It was only when I grew older that I realised just how special
    that was at the time.
    I want every little girl, and boy, to see this as completely normal, as I did. Maybe then even the network executives will follow.

  • Martin Holterman

    When did Pajiba become political corectness central?

  • bastich

    Since last Friday. We all took a vote. Weren't you there?

    It was the big "Pajiba PC Referendum" Party. We voted, then had punch and pie. Then they passed out the jello shots, and things went all cray-cray.

    I woke up two days later in an Ikea in El Paso. My pants were located on the other side of the store, in the "Heminredning" department, covered in hoof prints and chocolate sprinkles.

    Good times. You missed out.

  • profession: none, or starlet

    I love Pajiba.

  • John G.

    I never got pie

  • emmalita

    Your pie rights were taken away when you started shouting something about American Pie.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Yeah, what exactly was in the punch? I don't remember much besides the pie being delicious.

  • oilybohunk7

    I think it was snake juice.

  • bastich

    Whatever it was, I recall that it was melting the cups.

    Also, I vaguely remember getting lucky with a spambot. She now buys me luxury cars by working part-time on her home PC.

  • Danar the Barbarian

    i LøV3 ¥0u toø b@By!

  • alwaysanswerb

    Interesting piece. I'm not sure if this pattern is art imitating life or simply playing into the status quo. I haven't seen enough of these shows to understand if, on the whole, they may be trying to make a statement about the conditions that female politicians operate in, or if they are just dooming those women to fail with some glib writing.

    I can say in the case of Leslie Knope that it seemed pretty clear to me that her getting dethroned was through no shortcomings of her own. She's always been a bit of an iconoclast in Pawnee. It's one of the most amusing foundations of the show, I think, that Leslie so loves the town that she's so different from in terms of ideology. Pawnee is all over her -- she shares and appreciates many of its (comedically) bizarre idols, traditions, and sensibilities -- but she's markedly progressive in a way that can't really have been influenced by the mentality of Pawnee itself, at least not from what we've seen of it. Based on all of that, I don't think it's fair to call her "fragile", or even "pure" really. To co-opt another recently political term (but apply it more appropriately, if I may say so,) she really is just too much of a maverick for Pawnee right now.

  • Stu Rat

    Women win elections in real life at the same rate men do. A woman was elected to Congress before women had the vote. In other words voters don't actually seem to care about gender as much as "the message" or whatever it is that takes the place of finding the smartest person willing to do the job. Women just don't run for office.

    As for the TV shows, i think it's silly to suggest a conspiracy or trend. I think the showrunners make the decisions they do in the interests of the show as they see it. A major character winning an election could change the show entirely. Or maybe they can only afford that guest star for six episodes or it's an issue of availability. And finally, maybe it's the fact that there's usually more drama, and comedy, in failure.

  • Naye

    Thanks for summing up my disappointment with Recall Knope. I get that she needed a foil, and got one in Pawnee's unflinchingly sexist backwater politics, but I felt for sure Leslie was going to pull this one out of the bag. Where does someone like her go next. Back to the Parks & Rec Dept? Seriously?

  • Michelle

    Mayor, maybe? I could see them actually ending the show with her being elected Mayor.

  • dizzylucy

    I agree - I don't see it ending with her back where she started. I think this is a speed bump on the way to something bigger.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    That's what I was thinking too. That she'd try for some higher office and it would be a good ending point. Though, another campaigning plot would be sort of redundant.

  • Aaron Schulz

    i feel like indiana senate is where she will end up actually, like somewhere she can make a difference, Or it will come out that Jam in some way orchestrated it and will be turned around.

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