Welcome to Pop Prof, a feature in which a Matinee Culture writer explores disparate but interesting aspects of pop culture. Today, Pop Prof argues why Leslie Knope’s council career was bad for Parks and Recreation.
On last week’s “Recall Vote,” the voters of Pawnee, Ind. put an end date on Leslie Knope’s city council run on Parks and Recreation, recalling her after a season and change on the job. Barring unforeseen circumstances – and let’s face it, with a month before she leaves office, such circumstances could certainly arise – the optimistic assistant parks director will be heading back to doing her day job full-time.
It can’t come a moment too soon. After three great seasons, Season Five of Parks often fell flat, and Season Six has been even worse. Leslie’s foray into city governance is at the center of dysfunction, and there are three reasons I’m glad she’s on the way out.
1. The show is inept at local government plots
This is the least of the three reasons why Leslie should leave office, and for some viewers it probably is barely noticeable. But for someone like me, whose “real job” is that of a community journalist, this was torture.
Before Season Five began, showrunner Mike Schur said in multiple interviews that he and the writing staff had done research on city governance and had concluded it was possible for Leslie to still work for the parks department while serving as a council member. This was apparently all the research they did, because virtually every other aspect of the show’s city council portrayal is lazily inaccurate.
I don’t live in Indiana, but I’m pretty sure city councils there can’t approve local sales taxes (especially not punitive ones) or call impromptu, non-emergency special sessions without the proper public notification. I’m also pretty sure than even a calorie-crazed town like Pawnee isn’t zoned to put a fast food restaurant smack dab in the middle of a residential area – particularly because April brings up the city’s perfectly reasonable zoning laws in another episode.
These may seem like nitpicks, and perhaps they are, but they’re also evidence that the show isn’t trying hard enough. A silly law here and there is fine – better than fine, in fact, because it fleshes out the strange world of Pawnee – but none of the elements I just mentioned are played up as funny contrivances, and they’re not needed to advance the episodes’ plots. In earlier episodes, the plots where the parks department organized events were fun because they were exaggerated versions of true-to-life ideas. The city council plots have largely been afterthoughts to setting up Leslie’s soapbox (more on that later).
2. The city council elements distracted from what the show is best at
Remember when this show used to be about a parks department? The first six episodes of Season Six were about Leslie winning an award in London and hurting her recall chances by trash-talking Pawnee, Leslie’s move to annex Eagleton and the subsequent fallout, Leslie defending Donna to the city council because of the impending recall and Leslie filibustering a council decision on voting rights. Seeing the parks department put on a Halloween event in “Recall Vote” was refreshing and also kind of surprising, reminding me that, yes, sometimes Leslie still does parks-related work (don’t forget, a frequent criticism of Season Four is that the second half was way too campaign-focused).
The department’s dealings with the foibles and bureaucracies of small-town life have always been, along with interpersonal humor, the show’s best asset. Not only does Leslie’s city council tenure distract from what Parks and Rec does best, it relegates all the other characters to realms of lesser importance, either supporting her council goals or in B-stories so far removed from the main action that they seem inconsequential. It was a bold and potentially fruitful choice to split time between the council chambers and parks department, but it just hasn’t worked out. It’s time to call it quits.
3. Leslie is not actually a good city council member
This is less important to the show’s success than the aforementioned point, but it’s the element that bothers me the most. I’ve covered this before in an earlier Pop Prof, but Parks and Rec has used the city council conceit as a vehicle to run a series of obvious, broad, ripped-from-the-headlines stories, and Leslie does not acquit herself well.
It’s one thing to portray all of the opponents of Leslie’s ideal as lackwits, personified in John Glaser’s despicable Councilman Jamm – I may agree with Leslie that people shouldn’t need photo IDs to vote, but the show should realize it’s a stretch to say that everyone who disagrees with her is a dishonest schmuck only trying to disenfranchise voting demographics – but it’s another thing entirely to make Leslie such a shrew about it. In her time in office, Leslie has indulged all of her worst impulses, seeking personal revenge on Jamm and frequently making decisions for political gain, only reversing her stance at the last moment when another character gives her a pep talk.
Councilwoman Knope is so frequently vindictive and smug that she’s only a competent ombudsman when compared to the likes of folks like Jamm and Dexhart. Even when she makes a wise decision, like annexing Eagleton, the show prefers to give her a vacuous speech about sticking together rather than let her focus on the real benefits of the move: preventing a local recession and absorbing a lucrative tax base.
The residents of Pawnee are frequently portrayed as not knowing what they have in Leslie, and when looking at her as a dedicated parks employee, that’s certainly true. When examining her city council career, however, perhaps voters were right to oust an overbearing councilwoman who tried to control what her constituents ate, donated taxpayer dollars to a failing business (one that she had a personal interest in saving) and publically lambasted her city on an international stage.
Stick to organizing harvest festivals, Ms. Knope. You’re a lot better at that than you are at running a town.
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