Culture

‘Parks And Recreation’ Had The Fighting Spirit We Need On TV In 2017

Yes, fighting is hard. Not fighting is impossible.

It’s 11.34pm on a Thursday night and I am on the couch crying. But they’re happy tears, because I’ve just finished another episode of Parks and Recreation.

The beloved sitcom about the machinations of a local government department run by the bright, overachieving Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) finished up on TV two years ago. Lasting seven delightful seasons, the show is now well-known as one of the greatest feel-good TV shows of all time. But there’s more to it than just nice people loving each other (although that’s great too).

Stan recently dropped all seven seasons of Parks and Rec online (thanks Stan), and I started at the very beginning for the first time in years. And, sure, I remembered how fun, silly and romantic the show is. But Parks really grabbed me as I polished off season four, in which Leslie runs for City Council with her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben (Adam Scott) and the rest of her Parks and Rec team helping to run her campaign.

The final episode of the series is about election day, and for a long time it looks like Leslie might not win. At the start of the episode, she asks Ben, “Do you have my speeches?” and he replies, “Yes: one if you win, and one if you lose.” When it gets to the end, after Leslie wins, she tells Ben she wants to read the concession speech he wrote for her. And he says, “I never wrote it”.

It’s this small, beautiful moment of this big, special series that made me cry — not just because Ben Wyatt is the best boyfriend on TV, but also because of his optimism and certainty that there was no need to write a concession speech. Knowing that Leslie would absolutely win encapsulates the relentless fighting spirit that makes Parks and Rec so unique, and so missed in the current TV landscape.

Fighting For What’s Right

Right now, the world is not in a great place. Here in Australia, it sometimes feels like we are fighting a losing battle, one that is both tough and demoralising. I can see everyone sagging, fatiguing, and with good reason. Fighting for what’s right is very, very hard. And, sadly, it doesn’t always result in a resounding win.

So if our TV reflects our culture (and I think by now it’s indisputably clear that it does), we need a show like Parks and Rec now more than ever.

Watching Parks and Rec over the past week has given me a renewed spirit, because in every single episode the moral is, ‘Yes, life is hard, and fighting for what you think is right is messy; but damn it, it’s worth it’. It’s a place to escape that’s fictional enough to be comforting, and real enough to be invigorating. Sometimes it’s vital to be reminded that, yes, fighting is hard. But not fighting is impossible when you’re fighting for what is right.

Of course Parks and Rec isn’t the only feel-good show on TV. I recently had a conversation with a work friend where she confessed, “I weirdly love shows about communities/friends/small town vibes. That is my niche. Is that so basic?” It’s not basic, and it’s a sentiment I can absolutely empathise with.

One show on television that never fails to make me smile is the perennially charming, goofy Bob’s Burgers. Like Parks and Rec, it’s another feel-good show with small-town vibes that’s (generally) about good people being kind to each other (ok, mostly kind to each other, unless they’re this guy).

But while Bob’s Burgers serves as a reminder that family is important, and being yourself is the best way to get by in life, the lesson in Parks and Recreation is somewhat richer and more pressing for the present. Especially when a lot of TV right now is a downright bummer, as far as political commentary is concerned.

Last week the revival of Will and Grace premiered on Stan in Australia, and amid the return of the show’s characteristic zany physical japes, witty banter and droll queer-specific humour, the new series was weighted down by a feeling of deep existential dread. The characters, like many of us now in real life, have trapped themselves in an immovable panic about the current political climate — and it’s a world that appears inescapable. As more and more TV shows turn to the Trump administration for their political apery, TV’s mapping of the future feels very dark indeed.

Actually, the elevator pitch for Parks and Rec is kind of a bummer too: watch these goons working in local government’s most boring department. Most of us barely care about local government in real life, let alone on TV. But that’s the brilliance of the series; it’s precisely its focus on local government that makes Parks so important. It’s all about how the community is the foundation for change, about how grassroots activism and the coming together of local communities makes big changes happen from the bottom.

Reflections Of A Better World

It’s easy to look at scenarios like Trump’s presidency, or our abysmal asylum seeker debacle, or the marriage equality postal survey mess and feel powerless. Especially as a millennial. It can seem like the future has been predetermined for us — and that future world is dismal. It can feel like the old, the rich, the white, and the powerful run the world and they are destroying it.

On Parks and Rec, it’s a group of bright, mostly young, inventive and diverse social agitators (and Jerry) affecting the kind of community change that matters. When they lose, they only want to work harder. And when they win, the victory is sweet. That gentle reminder, cladded in brilliant pratfall gags and jokes about Ben’s butt, is exactly what we need right now.

The kind of change we need in Australia right now has to come from community-minded people with a strong sense of what’s right. Yes, it’s right to change the Marriage Act so that everyone in this country enjoys equal rights; and yes, this change will only happen with widespread community support from allies and those of us with the energy to support others who have been fighting hard for years.

Sometimes being incredibly passionate and assertive about change can feel uncool, boring or even aggressive to those who do not agitate for (or benefit from) the necessary righting of injustice. Those on the fence about marriage equality have shown this by responding with disappointing (and eye roll-inducing) disdain at the Yes campaign’s positively-geared efforts to agitate for equality. Re-watching Parks reminded me — at a time when I felt despondent about our collective ability to mobilise change for the better — that actually, fighting for what you know is right is incredibly rich and important.

All of us — especially the straight allies of marriage equality — need to be Leslie Knopes. We need to be the kind of people who epitomise her legendary season-four debate speech: “If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough.”

I, for one, would much rather epitomise that than this:

Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.