Near the end of Parks and Recreation’s fourth season, Leslie Knope — the show’s tireless public servant hero played with dizzying energy by Amy Poehler — sits with her boyfriend Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and waits for a recount to confirm that she has just lost a hard-fought city council election. It’s a moment of rare calm on a show best known for big characters and outrageous plots centered around the various quirks of small-town government, and the stillness of it is made all the more palpable by the whirlwind of events that got us there. In that moment, Leslie has just come to the end of a months-long road of personal and professional trials that she hoped would culminate in a lifelong dream come true, only to find that the journey may be cut short. That’s when her best friend, Ann (Rashida Jones), comes in and tells her that the recount margin is still the same (just 21 votes), but this time, Leslie is the winner.
Leslie smiles as tears fill her eyes, and Parks and Rec fans everywhere follow suit. It’s a moment that plays even now, nearly a decade after it aired, as deeply fulfilling not just because our hero gets what she always wanted, but because this remarkably warm, often ridiculous comedy really made it feel like Leslie earned it.
In the modern media landscape, politics and cynicism seem to go hand-in-hand, and they have since well before Leslie Knope and her merry band of friends ever appeared on our TV screens. No decision by a political leader, no matter how large or small, can avoid dissection from 20 different angles. No government program, no matter how benevolent, can avoid being viewed in terms of “optics” or “messaging.” No one who holds public office can just come out and say something, no matter how sincere, without being picked apart. Countless pieces of entertainment, from Scandal to The West Wing, have reflected this environment in their own ways, and Parks and Recreation is no different in that regard. But in a way that even The West Wing at its most idealistic never quite managed, Parks and Rec represents a singularly great attempt to humanize politics and politicians not by turning away from the cynicism of the modern political ecosystem, but by confronting it.
We, as Parks and Rec viewers, know that Leslie Knope is nothing if not sincere, and the show’s way of portraying its characters as outsized personalities only serves to further highlight this. Because the show is so willing to go to cartoonish lengths to give us a version of Leslie that is almost superhuman in her sense of duty and loyalty, we can tell that all those framed photos of world leaders she hopes to emulate are not just there for optics. She’s the real deal, so by the time the fourth season’s election storyline kicks off, we don’t doubt her commitment to being a great public servant.
We also don’t doubt that the city of Pawnee, Indiana is going to throw every possible curveball at Leslie as she tries to win a city council seat. Pawnee is, like Leslie, an exaggerated creation blown up to such proportions that we can’t help but see its many joys and flaws with perfect clarity, which is why it’s not surprising at all when Leslie’s opponent turns out to represent the worst instincts of the town. Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) is a likable, if dumb, heir to the fortune of the local hometown candy company. He’s easygoing and friendly and eager to please, but he’s also really just running for city council because he thinks he can win, and he’s willing to smile and shrug his way through it all just to make his father happy. He is a perfect mirror image of Leslie: selfish where she is selfless, compromising where she is principled, and entitled where she is driven, with the same cartoonish proportions that come with all Parks and Rec characters.
As the season-long story progresses — as Leslie’s underdog staff botches events, and Bobby’s family money buys him a savvy Washington insider to help him win — the sense of Leslie and Bobby as polar opposites each trying to navigate a comical small-town race is what drives the story forward, but that’s not what makes our eyes fill with tears when Leslie eventually wins. For all its exaggerations and zany world-building and silly one-liners, what makes Parks and Rec‘s major political storyline work is actually something much more human.
As her campaign fails, Leslie does not respond with chipper determination or cock-eyed optimism. She does not shrug off the careless mistakes and frustrating defeats. We get to see her superhuman facade crack as she struggles to win an election that she feels she’s tailor-made for capturing. We get to see her angry, dejected, and at times even downright petty. More importantly, we get to see her take up some of the cynicism of modern political messaging and maneuvering, as she gives in to ideas like pandering for endorsements and crafting attack ads. We get to see her despair at the idea that someone like her, who’s worked so hard and come so far, will somehow still fail anyway.
Then she wins, and we share Leslie’s tears because the cynicism was there, but it never won. Cynicism exists in Parks and Rec, and like everything else on the show, it sometimes arrives in comical quantities, but the secret to the show’s remarkably compelling political narrative is that it never lets cynicism be the final emotion. Looking back on the show now, that’s an approach that’s an increasingly important part of its legacy.