It’s pretty well-established that the best place for your dreams to shatter is bureaucracy. Endless forms to be filled out, unavailable managers, unhelpful assistants, and marathon-length chains of command. In fact, that’s the main conceit of Parks and Recreation—Leslie Knope is a genuine believer in the power of government to be a force for good (or at least keep the parks clean). Unfortunately, she has bureaucracy standing in her way, not to mention a number of dysfunctional sitcom characters.
The season premiere shows us how Leslie and Ben are dealing with their long-distance troubles. Ben is heading up a congressional campaign in Washington while Leslie begins her post-Parks Department career as a city councilwoman. Leslie visits DC, which of course is a dream come true. She sees the sights, swoons at everything, and Ben even brings her to a swanky DC cocktail party. And that’s where everything goes completely wrong.
Parks and Rec has obvious similarities to The Office, a show that used to be watchable. An important difference, though, is what exactly makes the main characters hilariously incompetent. In The Office, Michael Scott is well-meaning, but extremely misguided, stupid, misogynistic, and bumbling. In Parks and Rec, Leslie is only funny because she actually believes her job has potential. That’s a statement on her environment, not her.
So here’s this passionate little go-getter from Indiana trying to work a cocktail party in DC where everyone is tall, accomplished, tall, well-dressed, smart, tall, pretty, tall, and tall, and she eventually unravels at the pressure. Like a stoner staring in wonder at the starry night sky, Leslie feels her own insignificance to the maximum degree. Not even two women senators and getting a first-class whiff of John McCain’s old man smell could cheer her up. In DC, Leslie’s a little fish who outgrew her pond too soon. She’s a government worker, yes, but she’s in a completely different world, and she’s scared. Perhaps on some level she’s unwilling to admit to herself, she realizes she’ll never be the first woman president (at least until the show jumps the shark in season nine).
It’s simply a different environment. It doesn’t matter that Leslie obsessively worships these people and thinks she understands everything about government. There are different pressures and different thought processes when you actually get there. You can’t assume you’ll always stay the same, because that ignores the journey you took to success.
Ultimately, this episode highlighted exactly how impossible it is to realize dreams while working in government (Barack Obama winning in 2008 being the exception; Obama’s presidency since proving the rule). Washington is a horrifying place filled with people playing by a different set of rules. It doesn’t matter how much they claim to have in common with the middle class. There are too many Pawnees to keep track of, let alone too many citizens. Leslie’s fundamental misunderstanding of that fact makes cheering for her a bit like cheering for your dementia-ridden grandmother: she’s insane, but damnit, she’s trying, and that smile is so cute.
Once the shock and intimidation wears off, though, Leslie further understands her position in Pawnee. She’s got a fire lit under her ass, which is exactly what meeting people higher than you is supposed to do. Maybe it was a rude awakening for Leslie, but she renewed her commitment to Pawnee (Indiana, that is—Missouri is a craphole). Her office hours will now be 8 AM to 10 AM Saturdays cleanining up a filthy Pawnee river. She’s got her #pluck back, which is a term I’m proposing we use for people with undeniable desire but no #swagga to speak of. Therein lies what makes Parks and Rec so endearing and so tragic—Leslie’s got it, whatever it is, and she’s got it in spades. She just happens to live in Pawnee and work in local government.