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Leslie Knope and the Future of American Government

By Alexander Joenks | TV | February 16, 2011 |

By Alexander Joenks | TV | February 16, 2011 |

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” -George Bernard Shaw

I didn’t think much of “Parks and Recreation” when it first started airing a couple of years ago. It seemed like a low rent “The Office,” with characters more or less mapping onto each other. That wasn’t too unexpected, after all the show was envisioned as an “Office” spin off early in production, centered around Jim’s ex girlfriend Karen. The actress remained, the focus shifted. The first plot arc, of a local citizen pushing the Parks Department of small town Pawnee, Indiana to renovate the pit behind her house into a neighborhood park just seemed to fall flat. It served as an introduction to those wacky Parks department employees and the hilarity that ought to ensue. It didn’t. I stopped watching.

It didn’t have a huge following, didn’t have great critical response and so I think most people forgot about it in that first season and assumed it was going to be another in the endless series of one-and-done NBC Thursday night comedies. But somewhere in the second season the show found its legs, not just by starting to be genuinely funny, but by actually starting to be about something.

At first glance the show has morphed into being the Leslie Knope show, an insane mid-level bureaucrat who runs the Parks Department with an obsessive compulsive delusion as to the importance of the department. With a picture of Hillary Clinton on her office wall, she prioritizes T-Ball leagues and harvest festivals the way NORAD prioritizes radar shadows floating over the North Pole. Every description of her would seem to imply that she’s everything bad about Michael Scott, but on the contrary, she’s everything that ever worked about that character.

Everything irritating and infuriating about Leslie is a side effect of her passion for service. She believes that government should do good, that when it’s just a place for stamping licenses or standing in line, it’s lost its purpose. This unbelievable naiveté, funny and eyerollingly unreasonable at turns, is a potent source of good. The show is not so absurd as to insist that mindless do gooder enthusiasm is synonymous with responsible governance. On the contrary, Leslie’s complete lack of cynicism is complimented by a deadly competence at her job. She doesn’t just care about her community, she knows her community. She brims with an encyclopedic knowledge of every business, street, and park. She can cite local history with autistic precision. One senses that she could be dropped at random into Pawnee while blindfolded and still give a perfect guided tour without peeking, just from the feel of the cobbles beneath her feet.

The non-Parks Department characters that have remained from the original season, Ann and Andy, seem almost like vestigial limbs at this point. From a certain point of view, their presence makes increasingly little sense as the series goes on. Their episodely drafting into Leslie’s plans feels less and less realistic as it goes on. But at the same time it makes perfect sense in the theme of the show. They are the community engaged. They are not served by the government, nor do they belong to part of it, they are inspired by it, by the infectious organizing of Leslie Knope.

The other complimentary view is from others in government. Take Ron, the legendary Captain Mustache and libertarian, who works in government and on principle does absolutely nothing. When gleefully attending a budget meeting to slash the city government, he grins wider and wider at every cut, right up until the proposal to lay off Leslie. Everything else can go in his view, but Leslie? Even the most extreme libertarian can see that the one thing government should have is people like Leslie Knope.

The paradox of societies is that the more people you get, the harder it is to get anything done. If it takes one person to do something that benefits everyone, then two people will easily coordinate who takes care of it, ten people will with difficulty, and once there are a hundred people, no one will do it, because with that many people everyone assumes that someone else will take care of it. What Leslie Knope gets, what she symbolizes, is the notion that local government is not about providing services per se, it’s not about telling people what to do. It’s about solving that problem of collective action, about providing a little bit of structure so that a community’s inertia doesn’t overwhelm its very real desire to act. Elections, parties, and politics all put aside, that is exactly what democracy is. It’s the people governing themselves.

“Why? Because when Leslie Knope asks for a favor, she uses it to help people.”

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.