I wrote two weeks ago that Parks and Recreation was arguably more of a feminist show than 30 Rock, because the show is purely about Leslie and her career ambitions. That’s not entirely an accurate statement. Feminism can mean a lot. Some women want to be housewives, some women want to fight on the front lines of the military. There are a lot of women in between, and there are some women who want both of those things. All I meant by lifting Knope higher than Lemon on an arbitrary scale is this: while both shows are set in workplaces, only Parks is strictly about the workplace. Liz was always affected by her personal life. Leslie is driven by ambition, and she lucked into a fiancé who appreciates that ambition and stays out of her way. Given TV’s history of Marge Simpson/Debra Barone housewives and Ross/Rachel, Jim/Pam will-they-won’t-they’s, Leslie Knope is a refreshing female protagonist burdened only by her work. She’s like if Clair Huxtable had a spinoff focusing solely on her legal career.
However, Ann correctly points out that Leslie has struck gold with Ben. Leslie is free to focus on work because she has no worries with her home life. This is rare, even if real life, and it’s the opposite of Ann the Town Slut’s situation. Ann’s tenure on Parks has featured a slew of miserable relationships, from neglectful Andy to idiotic Tom. Now, Ann is determined to become a single mother through sperm donation.
One point people who care about women usually make is that they have the right to control their own bodies. A bunch of old men in Congress shouldn’t make laws restricting abortions, and a bunch of old men in Congress shouldn’t make laws that say rape isn’t really rape if the victim doesn’t get pregnant. With a nice dash of parallelism, this episode treats the viewer to a number of “experts” making “decisions” about issues they barely understand:
- Ann thinks she can choose a proper biological father from a list of specific criteria without actually taking the time to get to know the person.
- April thinks she can control a crowd of crazy Pawneans by dressing like Leslie and being open and conciliatory.
- Ben thinks he can properly vet caterers by having Ron, Chris, and Tom taste test three prospective vendors.
None of these decisions by committee work out, for the same reason Congress rarely makes decisions that people like.
- People are complicated: you can’t say a man would be a good father because he went to Harvard (so did the Unabomber, as Leslie points out). The best prospective Ann can muster is a guy whose radio alter ego is “The Douche.”
- April learns that sometimes the best way to control idiots is to call them on their idiocy. Acting like Leslie isn’t just out of her wheelhouse, it’s the polar opposite of her personality. When Andy forgets her “Leslie clothes” and she has to conduct a public forum in her trademark hoodie, she calms the lunacy by viciously cutting down anyone who says stupid or offensive things. Sometimes, that’s the only way.
- In the end, J.J.’s diner and their amazing waffles book the catering job. It’s the Pawnee diner that knows to send free waffles home with Ben for Leslie, so it’s pretty amazing Ben didn’t think of it before. Also, what man on this show is trustworthy? They’re all either insufferable “foodies” who Instragram meals and try to think up fancy names for calzones (Tom and Ben), hyper-masculine loners who order “a cut of dead animal, dealer’s choice” (Ron), or irritating children who can only see the lady’s hotness (The Douche and Andy).
Ultimately, it’s an episode about independence. The women of the show have to act on their own accord, because they’re simply not receiving help from anywhere else. No one shares Leslie’s drive, however naïve it may be. No one has the emotional capacity to understand Ann’s loneliness, and stupid online reviews call her the town slut. No one has ever understood April, but she’s been excellent in every role she’s been placed.
What do the men think of all this? They want to compete over who gets to donate sperm to whom. They want to see busty Jell-O wrestling. They want sex, no matter how horrible their wives feel in uncomfortable pantsuits worn to compete in the male-suit-dominated workplace.
Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago. But the worlds they both inhabit shows us how far we haven’t come.
Bonus Community thoughts:
It’s hard to say anything about Community that hasn’t already been said. It’s a show about television shows while also being about a group of misfits finding a community while also being a misfit show that can’t seem to find a dedicated ratings community. The inevitable firing of the abrasive, TV-making genius Dan Harmon casts a pall on this season—fair or not, this season will be judged differently.
The season premiere had Community up to its old tricks—Abed’s happy place is a network sitcom. Since Community has to go a level deeper, his happy place’s happy place is a Muppet Babies-centric cartoon. There’s a lot of anxiety about The End. There’s talk about possible ways to extend the show—Abed’s head version of Jeff’s Speech has Winger talking about how they’ll always be friends even if they don’t all become professors at Greendale (hey, network execs have done dumber things for syndication). It’s impossible for Community just to be Community. Harmon’s confrontational nature ghosts the entire show—even if it’s because the new staff thinks that’s what the audience wants.
That said, the character to watch this season is Winger. Jeff always seemed a Harmon stand-in. Last night, we were treated to “new Jeff”: a supposedly changed man dedicated to getting the study group into the same history class so he can graduate early (never mind his renunciation of his law career at the end of last season). How long will new Winger last? Probably not long—he seemed to regress back to his old self by the end of the episode. But his arrogance, magnetism, and charmingly horrific personality flaws always seemed to mirror the public perception of Harmon. It will be interesting to see his character changes. Maybe he softens, maybe he flattens, maybe he improbably settles down with Annie. Whatever happens, I’m guessing Jeff is the character who fluctuates the most under new management.