Most TV shows make people from small towns look either stupid or saintly. Parks and Rec lets them be normal.
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.
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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.
That's radically different from, oh, pretty much every other sitcom ever made, where being from a little town, from rural or Middle America, is a near-universal shorthand for stupid—even on Parks and Rec's NBC parents. On The Office, Scranton, Pennsylvania, is benighted at best. On 30 Rock, the character Kenneth personifies how sitcoms usually treat characters from rural America: hopelessly naïve and massively weird, complete with farm animal jokes and speaking in tongues, just like Woody Boyd on Cheers, who hailed from surrealistically provincial Hanover, Indiana. The Simpsons do the same with Cleutus and family—even if they did love Spy magazine. Sitcom history is littered, in fact, with whole shows with humor entirely based on the premise that rural is a synonym for stupid. Examples include the Beverly Hillbillies, of course, and the residents of Hooterville on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. On My Name is Earl, everyone in Camden County is dumb. The great Bob Newhart is guilty, too. All of Stratford, Vermont, is dopey, and the more countrified the character, the dumber they are—witness Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
There are exceptions to prove this rule, of course, the archetype being Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show—a small town where the city slickers are mocked and the townsfolk are all preternaturally tranquil. The Dukes of Hazzard mined this same vein. So did Northern Exposure, where nearly everyone in Cicely, Alaska, is wise beyond words, and spends lots of time chuckling at the foolishly angst-y New Yorker, Joel Fleishman. Idealized though these towns may be, they are still wild oversimplifications—representing the urbanite's "noble savage" fantasy of pure, uncorrupted small-town life, with no more fundamental truth than all the shows that bash Red States.
Parks and Rec is extraordinarily rare for its respectful treatment of small town life - neither mocking nor glorifying it. Rosanne, generally, didn't treat the residents of Landford, Illinois, as anything but residents, and the same is true for That '70s Show and Point Place, Wisconsin. After that, the pickings get pretty slim.
For all of Ron Swanson's meme-worthy one-liners, all the raillery between Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio, and the surprisingly charming love story between April and Andy, Parks and Rec succeeds because the show exudes affection for the townspeople without idealizing them. It's a show where being from a small town, the South, or a Red State doesn't necessarily make you dumb, any more than it inevitably makes you magically more in tune with nature. On Parks and Rec , living in a place like Pawnee doesn't make you anything necessarily, except an American. Even if, like Leslie Knope, you come from a family with two dads.
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