We Wouldn’t Have Leslie Knope Without Lady Gaga…Seriously

'Pawnee Zoo' is the first episode of 'Parks and Recreation' where we properly meet Leslie Knope.

Leslie Knope

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All week long, Music Junkee is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame. You’re welcome. 

There are few characters as iconic, as nuanced and as widely beloved as Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope.

She’s a dedicated civil servant and semi-workaholic, fiercely passionate about her friends and her town, and a true romantic. In her own words, she’s “fart, smunny and a prize”.

Amy Poehler’s depiction of Knope is the heart and soul of the ensemble show, and a big reason that Parks and Recreation managed to smash out seven mostly good seasons.

But the thing is, Leslie Knope as we know and love her now didn’t always exist — in fact she was almost unrecognisable in the first season of Parks and Recreation. She was a pale shadow of herself, a lump of unbaked cookie dough, and it took a scene dancing to Lady Gaga to find her.

Think this is a stretch? Bear with me.

I Guess Some People Object To Powerful Depictions of Awesome Ladies

Parks and Recreation’s first season struggled to find its own identity. Originally pitched as a spin-off of The Office, it suffered from attempting to copy too much of the already iconic show, with the most egregious error manifested through Leslie Knope’s character. Leslie is pitched as a kind of Michael Scott lite — maybe not as offensive and insecure as him, but definitely an object of pity.

In the first season, she’s a by-the-book, stick in the mud, oblivious prude, who is obsessed with the ill-fated Mark Brendanawicz (remember him? Me neither). All her colleagues spend their time roasting her — she’s done nothing to earn any of their grudging respect.

And it doesn’t work. She is not absurdly oblivious enough to earn the lampooning, like Michael Scott. At worst she’s a bit of a dork.

It’s difficult to re-watch Season 1 — it feels unbalanced, weirdly cruel at times, with none of the heart that sustains the narrative later.

Enter: Pawnee Zoo

Everything changes with the first episode of Season 2, ‘Pawnee Zoo’. This episode is the turning point for one very specific reason: it shows us the real Leslie Knope.

The episode establishes a pretty routine formula for the show: Knope does something absolutely extra as part of her job, the townspeople get incensed, hilarity ensues. It also features one of the best cold openings of the show. In this particular case, Leslie decides to marry two penguins as part of a promotional stunt for the Pawnee zoo.

However, she is unexpectedly thrown into controversy when she discovers she has unwittingly married two male penguins together, putting her at odds with the awful Marcia Langman from the Society for Family Stability Foundation. This was well before gay marriage was legalised in the US, so it was a hot-button issue.

However, Leslie spends her time firmly trying to de-escalate the situation, trying to be the model civil servant.

“Why else would you marry penguins?” asked Maria Langman, refusing to believe the stunt wasn’t an attack on outdated family values.

“Because, I firmly believed it would be cute,” answers Knope.

I Am Big Enough To Admit I Am Often Inspired By Myself

Doing something elaborately cute and dorky, only to have it blow up in her face, is quintessential Knope. This trait defines and propels not only her, but the entire arc of the show, as everyone is dragged along in her wake like flotsam and jetsam in a powerful hurricane.

Knope receives an official censure from the mayor’s office about the gay penguin wedding, while the local Pawnee gays start treating Leslie as a queer icon, choosing to believe she is fighting for their rights. It’s this split that also defines Leslie — she wants to be the impartial government employee, flawlessly good at her job. But she is also fiercely passionate about equal rights and liberty, and ethically she wants to stand behind the cause of gay marriage.

It could be argued that equal parts narcissism and vanity power her motivation here, as she does seem to enjoy the attention from Pawnee’s gay community.

“Oh, it’s a long story. I’m the guest of honour at this gay bar tonight. I guess gay men are starting to like me. I dunno, I guess they think I’m fabulous or something,” she says.

We’ll see this come up time and time again in later seasons, with her job conflicting with her morality, such as when Leslie clashes with Pawnee’s abstinence-only sex-ed policy, when she tries to cut down on the amount of Gonorrhoea spread between Pawnee’s senior citizens. Or even in her entire combative run as City Councillor, where she had to juggle her political popularity with her unpopular policies, such as her anti-sugar campaign.

This episode is the first time we see this battle played out in Leslie’s soul.

P-P-P-Poker Face

But, as important as all of this is, by far the most definitive Leslie Knope moment in this episode (read: the entire series) is a quick musical scene. After accidentally becoming a queer icon, Leslie agrees to go along to Pawnee’s gay club ‘The Bulge’ to a party held in her honour. Here, she gets drunk and loose, and is shown dancing and singing to ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga.

This moment is important because we get to see how silly and funny Leslie Knope can be — and it’s such a big part of her. It’s heartwarming and endearing and funny, and it’s the first time we see her categorically separated from her pseudo-Michael Scott persona. He wouldn’t have been able to pull this off — he’s a ham. Leslie Knope is a force of nature.

And ‘Poker Face’ is the perfect song for this — it’s gay, it’s boppy, it’s full of unrecognisable gibberish. It allows Amy Poehler to really explode into Leslie’s goofy persona, and showcase us Leslie at her most loveable.

It’s the episode in which we fall for Leslie, rather than judging or criticising or pitying her. And this only grows — Parks and Recreation is such a positive show because we’re allowed to breathlessly be in love with her, in a way that few shows allow.

And, it’s all because of a beautifully chosen Lady Gaga scene where she dances like a dang dork.

Patrick Lenton is Entertainment Writer for Junkee, and an author. Follow him on Twitter