Parks and Recreation: The Pursuit of Happiness

The secret behind one of TV’s best sitcoms is optimism.

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When Parks and Recreation premiered in the spring of 2009, I was crushed. Amy Poehler, formerly at SNL, had always been one of my heroes, but this new project of hers was the letdown of the year. When I first heard that Poehler would be portraying a woman in government power, I was thrilled, only to discover her character of Leslie Knope was be a less-loveable Michael Scott-esque woman in power. I was disappointed. I watched a second episode, hated it, and forgot Parks and Rec. Until last year.

Suddenly it was the talk of half the people I knew. I was belligerent in my disgust for all things Parks and Rec. “But have you seen it lately?” I gave it another try because I have a huge crush on Aziz Ansari, picking it up halfway through season four. Knope was in the middle of a relationship dilemma and making career decisions (both of which I didn’t understand) with a strong cast of characters behind her I had no reference for. And yet, I fell in love. Since the first season, the characters had become less dopey, more likable. Last season’s parodying of the United State’s presidential election via Knope’s quest for city council board was intelligent and delightful. When Knope won the election in the season finale, I cried. I was shocked by my own reaction. What had happened to me?

This is my fourth semester teaching college Intro to Screenwriting and my millionth time hearing students say, “I like weird endings.” When I ask them what “weird” means exactly, they usually stumble through some thoughts before coming to the conclusion that they don’t want to see justice enacted. They don’t say that, but it’s what they mean. In my MFA screenwriting and playwriting courses, my mentors are constantly reminding my peers and me to scoot away from clichéd character arcs. But what is a cliché exactly in terms of narrative? Romantic pairs that end up together? Workers getting promotions they deserve? The good getting their good and the bad getting their bad? That does sound a little too simple, doesn’t it? Even most children get to a point where they no longer believe the formulaic structures of youth media. Yet, it’s working for Parks and Rec.

Poehler’s show thrives on justice. I cried when Leslie Knope became councilwoman because she deserved it so fiercely. There was no heteroglossia about it: she would be perfect for the job, while her opposition would have been a complete disaster. There’s no complexity to the framework. For the audience, we see what should see, and the show gives it to us. Justice applies directly to every single character on the show. The construct has helped the show stand from its awkward start. The writing got better, but the characters didn’t just develop, they progressed. The gang working at the Parks and Recreation department was severely flawed from day one, but each was on a slow journey to becoming (from what it looks like) genuinely good people.

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In the past year, the once obsessed-with-men Anne Perkins has found peace with her singleness, stoic Swanson has become a man who can say “I love you” to his girlfriend without a trace of irony or bitterness, the caricature Type A Chris is on a not-even-slightly-veiled search for loosening up, irresponsible Tom is starting a successful business, and indifferent April is applying herself in her job. There’s literally not a single karmic inequality. If a character screws up (and they do less and less so as time goes on), he or she gets what he or she deserves almost immediately. Now there’s the snidely whiplash of Councilman Jamm — who is cartoonishly dastardly, but as a viewer I just don’t seem to mind. It’s in keeping with the binary of the show. The exception to all these rules had appeared to be Jerry — the office punching bag who everyone picks on despite his good nature. Then, during the mid-season finale this year it was revealed that Jerry has an incredibly lovely home, three gorgeous and talented daughters, and a smokin’ hot wife. Karma delivered.

Again, all this seems just too absolutely simple to enjoy, but Parks and Rec has one secret weapon: happiness. Every character is so happy! Sure, they get slightly stressed or need to do some soul searching, but it’s never for long. Strangely enough, happiness is a trope TV tends to avoid. As a writer I am told doesn’t create conflict and thus doesn’t create good work. Yet, one of my fellow MFA candidates told me he cried when Knope got engaged this season: “She’s so happy. She deserves to be happy.” But what produces this constant, quick return to happiness? How does Parks and Rec always regain, again and again, its cheery equilibrium?

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Returning to the comedic of television comedy, Parks knows the power of a happy ending — that is, one about justice, fairness, and balance. Even thinking back to last week: the show provided us the classic marriage ending we could hope for, regardless of how quirky or heartfelt its deployment might have seemed. I would venture most people in the United States would have to at least think for a while before answering honestly whether or not they felt their world, their country, their government, their existence was just.

Life’s not fair. It’s what we expect. To soak in complete comeuppance once a week for half an hour feels near-exotic to us. It’s not old hat. It’s basically science fiction.

There’s something in common with Parks and Rec and why we love it. As consumers of entertainment and art we believe in complexity, but Parks is simple justice, and we gobble it whole. We believe in realistic characters, but the show gives us sweet, happy ones, and still we are smitten. I don’t think we know what we want. But neither did anyone on the show at first. Five seasons later, they know much, much better. It may just be a sitcom of its time, but Parks and Rec is examining its audience’s skeptical postmodern sensibilities and making us question what we think we know or even like. In five seasons, where might we be?

Alice Stanley is an MFA candidate in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Follow her tweets or send her an email. She also has a website.