'Parks and Recreation': Finally, a Sitcom That Loves Middle America

Most TV shows make people from small towns look either stupid or saintly. Parks and Rec lets them be normal.

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NBC

Parks and Recreation doesn't have cliffhangers.  Built around Amy Poehler's character, Leslie Knope, deputy director of for a parks department in fictional Pawnee, Indiana, the show's storylines seem intentionally pedestrian. Most weeks, nothing too dramatic happens. A prized horse goes missing, for instance, or a few friends take a hunting trip. The show's entire first season centered on Leslie's attempt to turn the abandoned construction of Pawnee's Lot 48 (Pynchon reference, anyone?) into a new city park. Certainly, the romance between Leslie and Ben, played by dreamy Adam Scott, isn't terribly compelling—not in the traditional mold of a long-term, will-they-won't-they sitcom romance, like Jim and Pam, Ross and Rachel, or Sam and Diane.

But who cares? There's only one romance on the show that matters. No man—not Ben, or Mark, a small-town Lothario who left after the second season—will ever wrest Leslie's heart from her one true love. That would be the city of Pawnee itself. To understand her passion for Pawnee, and so understand what makes Parks and Rec so quietly appealing, it's important to learn a  little about Leslie's parents. Superficially, at least, she looks the offspring of two characters that preceded her on NBC's Thursday nights: Steve Carrell as Michael Scott on The Office, and Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on 30 Rock.

Leslie's mom is clearly Liz. Both are single women, over 30 with no kids—following the time-worn template created by the matriarch of their subgenre, Mary Tyler Moore. There's no way Poehler could have gotten her own show were it not for the success of Fey—her old partner even before they co-anchored Saturday Night Live's fake news.

Leslie's paternal line, though, is more complicated. Fictional characters can have multiple fathers, after all, and Leslie has a pair. The first father is unmistakable. Parks and Rec co-creator Michael Schur was a writer and producer on The Office, and he took more from Dunder-Mifflin than a mock vérité, single-camera format and the wondrous Rashida Jones. Schur also made Leslie Knope into a sort of bizarro-world version of Michael Scott: a hyper-competent, oversensitive woman in government as compared to Scott's incompetent, insensitive man in the private sector.

Leslie's other dad, though, isn't as obvious. Not unless you consider that Schur's Parks and Rec co-creator is writer and producer Greg Daniels, and the last TV character to love a small town as much as Leslie loves Pawnee was on another show that Daniels helped  create. That would be Hank Hill, forever in love with Arlen, Texas, on FOX's long-running animated sitcom King of the Hill. Narrow urethra or not, there's a lot of Hank in Leslie, just as there's a lot of Arlen in Pawnee. Namely, both cities have citizens that aren't treated like either idiot savants or just idiots because they happen to be from small towns.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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