'Parks and Recreation': Best sci-fi on TV now?
In its final run of episodes, Parks & Recreation jumped forward three years. And you could argue that the 2017-ness of season 7 has been the least fabulous thing about a very fabulous season. Morgan Freeman feuding with Shailene Woodley; Kevin James rebooting The Bourne Identity; a Game of Thrones finale featuring Jack Sparrow; Pulitzer Prizes for Top Ten List-icle—the throwaway gags about Our Wacky Future can be funny, but they also vibe like punchlines recycled from untweeted tweets.
But then, somewhere along the way, Parks & Recreation started to take the future seriously.
Here’s a show that began in the midst of a Recession, a show that spent six seasons tracking how a passionate government employee struggled make her small town better—during a moment in American history when most people were just hoping things wouldn’t get worse. Because Parks & Recreation is a hilarious comedy set in a magical small town metropolis where librarians are evil and everyone is always getting married, it was easy to underrate the devastating portrait it was drawing of America Right Now.
But this was a show that flavored a small town City Council election with Bobby Newport, a free-floating Kennedy/Bush avatar running an aggressive campaign flush with corporate cash—a nightmare of post-Citizens United campaign finance unreformed. And this was the show that imagined the City Council as a gang of do-nothing hoodlums almost as vain and aimless as the actual U.S. Congress. Never forget that Parks & Recreation gave us Eagleton, a one-percenter utopia built on debt—and never forget that, after Leslie Knope saved Eagleton, they immediately launched a recall campaign. Parks & Rec’s characters weren’t cynical, but they lived in a cynical world.
In its seventh season, things have changed. Pawnee hasn’t just recovered; it’s thriving in the midst of a tech boom, thanks to the arrival of Google/Facebook/Amazon/Apple allegory Gryzzl. The boom has sent economic shockwaves through the town. Half the lead cast of Parks & Recreation have left the government to launch successful businesses. Ron owns a successful construction company; Donna owns a successful real estate firm; Tom owns a successful restaurant. You could argue that this is just Parks indulging its characters—like fellow smalltown epic Friday Night Lights, this is a great TV show where nobody’s in danger of an unhappy ending. But you could also argue that all these successes are indicative of a broader new reality in Pawnee: Ten years after the beginning of the Great Recession, America is back in the money. (You could even throw in Andy’s new career as a local TV celebrity; if you fudge the facts a bit, it basically sounds like Andy has become a reasonably successful YouTube personality.)
Consider that the origin story of Parks & Recreation is the story of a miserable hole in the ground: Lot 48, aka “The Pit,” a wasteland vision of an America where nobody had the money to build anything. Parks & Rec began with Leslie Knope’s dream of a beautiful park in that pit. It’s become fashionable to say that Parks only really got good when it moved past Lot 48. (It’s definitely weird to go back and rewatch early episodes, where it feels like the whole show was going to be about a hole in the ground, which is still a better idea than The Slap.) But the show never quite forgot about that empty hole on Sullivan Street. By 2017, Leslie’s ambitions have come true: Lot 48 is now Pawnee Commons.
Great success! Except that, by leaping forward in time, the final season of Parks & Recreation has given the opportunity to explore the unintended consequences of our characters’ actions. So Pawnee Commons became a modern urban planner’s dream—a wreck that became an attractive recreational facility, the Pawnee equivalent of New York’s High Line. So the area around Pawnee Commons became a hot property for developers. And so came Morning Star, a glorious new luxury apartment complex. Morning Star looks like what the bad guys are trying to build in every movie about rich developers pushing the plucky proletariat out of their community. And Morning Star was a personal affront to Leslie: The project demolished Ann Perkins’ house, which was practically Leslie’s home-away-from-home for most of the show’s run.
Leslie Saves City, City Betrays Leslie: This is a familiar Parks & Rec plotline. But in the process, season 7 also recontextualized Leslie Knope. The show has never really had to connect its characters to any specific political parties—which is partially the benefit of focusing on small-town politics, and partially a side effect of setting Parks & Recreation in a melting-pot suburbiana located at the heretofore-undiscovered borderland between Frank Capra, John Hughes, and the funny scenes in Twin Peaks.
But Leslie was always the progressive, a great believer in the power of government intervention. It would not take much magical thinking to connect Knope-ism to the specific political energy of the Democratic party circa now. Throughout Parks‘ run, Leslie was always a triumphal striver, energetically struggling against a system that seemed purposefully designed to defeat her. Compare this to the Democrats pre-Obama (during eight years of a Republican in the White House) or post-Obama (during long years of Congressional quagmire).
By 2017, Leslie’s striving has paid off…and she’s not happy about it. In a weird way, Parks reimagined Leslie as a reactionary, facing off against icons of capitalist progress. Example A: Her showdown with Gryzzl. When Parks & Recreation started, the digital era and the new start-up economy were relatively fresh concepts barely explored by Hollywood. The Social Network was still a year away—and even Social Network opted for a workaround, exploring the digital era in utero. Six years later, we’ve had Silicon Valley, and Veep went to Fake-Google, and Girls‘ Charlie launched a successful phone app, and Bravo had a Silicon Valley entrepreneur reality show that was openly despised by actual Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
In the same time period, it’s become common for cities to self-advertise themselves as incipient tech hubs, with their own
Silicon [Insert Regional-Specific Area Designation Here].” Silicon Beach! Silicon Alley! Silicon Prairie! Silicon Whatever Boston Is! By 2017, Pawnee is a tech hub unto itself, thanks to Gryzzl. And everything about the show’s presentation of Gryzzl is a note-perfect presentation of so-hot-right-now start-up aesthetics: Boardgame office breaks, the weird conflation of hippie ethics and frathouse vocabulary, the Logan’s Run-esque absence of anyone who even resembles a grown-up.
Gryzzl is a gag, but in season 7, it’s become a freaky and dystopian gag. By 2017, Gryzzl has become Pawnee’s answer to Big Brother: An all-seeing, all-knowing caretaker, able to datamine the perfect gift and fly it straight to your doorstep thanks to helpful drones. This is a hilarious hyperbolization of contemporary concerns about social media; it is also something that would probably already be happening, if the government weren’t totally salting Amazon’s game. Parks‘s vision of the future is vaguely similar to Dave Eggers’ The Circle, a dystopian riff on Silicon Valley that also featured a Rorschachian meta-corporation that could sub in for any digital company your grandparents are scared of.
But Parks specifically situates Gryzzl in political terms. Gryzzl’s mere presence is shifting the foundations of Pawnee. We tend to talk about digital companies in philosophical-utopian terms, but Parks has the David Simon instinct for following the money. Gryzzl has a lot of it—and when you have a lot of money, you really can beat city hall. In the midst of a courtroom showdown—not a real courtroom, because Judge Perd is not a real judge—Gryzzl’s Zuckerberg-ish VP of Cool New Shizz throws down the great counterargument for anyone with a bone to pick with a digital company. You don’t like our company? Then you don’t have to use our product. Which leads to Ben’s quietly-mad-as-hell response:
We kind of do. The Internet is no longer optional. It’s a necessity for everyone. And I think you do know that data mining isn’t chill. Because you snuck it into the 27th update of a 500-page user agreement. A person should not have to have an advanced law degree to avoid being taken advantage of by a multibillion-dollar company. You should be upfront about what you’re doing, and allow people the ability to opt out.
Parks has always trafficked in big ideas, but the leap forward in time has sharpened its satire. The show’s always portrayed the American political process as a maniacs-running-the-asylum cartoon, but its never painted a more explicit portrait than this season. Make no mistake: The Leslie-Gryzzl showdown was basically Hillary Clinton Vs. Facebook. (Something that might actually happen, if current trends in political demographics and encroaching digital paranoia.)
And to my eyes, the episode “Pie-Mary” is one of the show’s funniest, most devastating political statements ever. Leslie refuses to participate in a pie baking contest, and conservative groups make her a symbol of the breakdown in All-American family values. Shrugging, she agrees to bake a darn pie—and feminist groups declare her a gender traitor, and loving husband Ben pilloried as a traditionalist patriarch. The snowball rolls down the mountain, gathering identity-politics interest groups as it falls. (Men’s rights! Women Against Feminism!) At a certain point, the show just loses interest in the allegory, and lets Poehler-as-Leslie speak through the madness. It’s like one of those chapters in later Heinlein, like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, when the story just stops for awhile so the characters can just chat about what they’d look for in a libertarian utopia:
If you wanna bake a pie, that’s great. If you want to have a career, that’s great, too. Do both! Or neither! Doesn’t matter! Just don’t judge what someone else is trying to do.
I’m not sure Parks will be making any sweeping political statements in this week’s series finale. The last couple episodes have been character-centric, stuffed with fan service (Mayor Garry!) and throwaway cameos (Bill Murray!) Parks was always first and foremost a workplace comedy, fronted by one of the great all-star work families in sitcom history. But for several episodes in its final season, it became something very different: A portrait of near-future America where people finally have enough money to start screwing everything up again.