Who orders all the bacon and eggs in a restaurant, believes that child labor laws are ruining the country, and thinks public parks should be sold to Chuck E. Cheese? Who gives a fourth grader a land mine to protect her property? It’s the majestically mustachioed Ron Swanson, the libertarian director of the parks department of Pawnee, Indiana, played by Nick Offerman on NBC’s critically acclaimed comedy Parks and Recreation, now entering its fourth season.
Swanson’s foil is Leslie Knope, the department’s deputy director played by Amy Poehler, who finds nothing nobler than public service. She enjoys running public meetings where citizens shout at her about how she and the parks department “suck,” which she delusionally describes as “people caring loudly at me.”
Both characters are caricatures. Ron seems to have entered government service as a saboteur, and he embraces his libertarianism to a degree that would make most anarcho-capitalists quake. Leslie so enjoys her role as a bureaucratic busybody that she finds interfering in Ron’s personal life “rewarding.” Yet the show convincingly humanizes both characters, and strongly suggests that while Leslie’s heart is in the right place, Ron’s dim view of government is more realistic.
Leslie spends the bulk of the first two seasons on a crusade to fill in a government-owned pit created by a failed condominium development and turn it into a new park. This seemingly simple endeavor is stymied time and again by angry residents, endless red tape, and interagency turf wars.
In one particularly entertaining episode, the library attempts to claim the lot for a new branch. There is a longstanding feud between the library and the parks department, in part because Ron’s ex-wife Tammy runs it. Leslie meets with Tammy—an act that Ron describes as staring “into the eye of Satan’s butthole”—in an attempt to reach a compromise. Tammy agrees to relinquish the library’s claim on the lot in exchange for Leslie setting up a meeting with Ron. After some initial hostility, Tammy and Ron rekindle their relationship, but we soon learn that Tammy is manipulating Ron just for the fun of it. This kind of behavior turns out to be common among the town’s librarians, leading Leslie and Ron to conclude that though Tammy is a “grade A bitch,” the worst thing about her is that she works for the library. In the world of Parks and Recreation, even the most innocuous government agencies frequently turn out to be bastions of pure evil.
Pawnee’s government reflects Pawnee’s population. The show illustrates H.L. Mencken’s quip that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” The press and the people are frequently kooks and universally obsessed with scandals. In the middle of the second season, the town is swept up in city councilman Bill Dexhart’s multiple sexcapades, the most recent of which involves getting it on with four nurses and a woman whose husband was having a liver transplant in a hospital closet while his love child was being delivered.
After Leslie meets with the councilman for completely innocent purposes, members of Pawnee’s press, such as it is, immediately allege that the two are having an affair. Dexhart perpetuates the rumor because being connected to Leslie is far more wholesome than the true stories about him. To prove the relationship is real, Dexhart claims Leslie has a mole on her buttocks. This forces Leslie to drop her pants on live television and allow the show’s host to inspect her posterior, proving that no such mole exists. When Dexhart is revealed as a liar, he still refuses to resign.
Even with all the irrationalities and inefficiencies of democracy, the show clearly prefers it to more authoritarian forms of government. In the episode “Sister City,” representatives from the parks department of the Venezuelan city of Boraqua visit Pawnee. The Venezuelans constantly condescend to Leslie and her co-workers and treat all the women as sexual servants. When Leslie takes them to a public forum, the head Venezuelan emissary is appalled by Pawnee’s citizens exercising their right to free speech.
“Where are the armed men coming to take the protesters away?” he fumes. “This kind of behavior is never tolerated in Boraqua. You shout like that they put you in jail—right away. No trial, no nothing. Journalists, we have a special jail for journalists.…You’re driving too fast, jail. Slow, jail.…You undercook fish, believe it or not, jail. You overcook chicken, also jail—undercook, overcook. You make an appointment with a dentist, and you don’t show up, believe it or not, jail right away. We have the best patients in the world…because of jail.”
Parks and Recreation may mock the inanities of American democracy, but in a way that often celebrates the civic spirit underneath. Voluntarist solutions, the show seems to say, are the finest expression of that spirit. Near the end of the second season, Pawnee goes broke. All non-essential functions of the government are shut down indefinitely, much to Ron’s delight and Leslie’s horror. The city’s lack of funds jeopardizes a free family concert with children’s entertainer Freddy Spaghetti, so Leslie and other parks department employees take the job into their own hands. Because all the city parks are closed, they hold the event on the empty lot where the pit used to be and gather donations from businesses and individuals to pay Freddy Spaghetti and provide concessions and rides.
The event is the parks department’s greatest success, and they realize it outside the official channels of government. The people of Pawnee make the city work, and it usually works better when they go around its government instead of through it.
John Payne is the director of research at Americans for Forfeiture Reform.