At midnight the United States’ federal government shut down. Polls across the media show support for the President, the Senate and Congress dwindling across the board and support for the government as a whole at abyssal levels. It’s a bleak and frustrating and wholly disconcerting time in America.
But if nothing else I can take solace in knowing that the citizenry of Pawnee, Indiana are in good hands.
Parks and Recreation returned last week with the premiere of its sixth season and Leslie Knope and company knocked it out of the park. The Office, something of an older sister show to Parks, began to dwindle in its fifth and sixth seasons, a fear I had for Parks this year, but “London,” the aforementioned premiere has renewed my faith in the series’ longevity with great character moments and more laughs than I could have asked for.
Parks and Recreation is hilarious and is probably the best sitcom on television today. But it’s more than that. Parks and Recreation is a painting of an American fantasy, a snow globe of America and Americans being the best they can be. And in that sense it is one of the most important shows on television today.
Throwing the word “important” into a discussion on television is like throwing around the word “buoyant” in a discussion on cannonballs, but with that in mind I stand by my statement.
The America of Parks and Recreation is an America that works. It’s a 21st century Norman Rockwell painting without all the imposing conformist 1950s overtones. One where friends are family. One where the individual, dumb or whacky as they come, seeks to improve themselves and their lives, be it personally or professionally, and isn’t stopped dead in their tracks by the first dozen failures.
Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford makes a great clown, but he makes an even better embodiment of the classic American entrepreneurial spirit. Baby tuxedos, Tommy Fresh cologne, Sparkle Suds, Snake Juice, Entertainment 720, all ridiculous mighty failures that have done nothing to stop Tom Haverford’s drive to not on be successful, but to earn that success by making something, by contributing something. Tom Haverford is the American small business owner at their best, an indomitable innovator that holds no one accountable for their own success or failure but themselves.
But Parks and Recreation, as the title would suggest, is at its core about local government. There’s never any doubt that the cast of government employees in Pawnee Indiana are characters on a sitcom, they’re preposterous individuals that, while often times very real, more often than not are displays of absurdity turned up to 11. But while Leslie Knope or Ron Swanson or Chris Traeger are all hilarious and entertaining, at the end of the day they are all government employees who act specifically in service to their citizenries. In a time in American where it’s hard not to feel as though politicians wield their power and influence above us Leslie Knope presents an ideal to aspire to, a politician who understands power and influence are derived from the people and used to serve them. A novel idea, no doubt.
The dichotomy between Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson is the best intentions of the American democracy brought to life. There is no doubt that Leslie Knope voted for Barack Obama and simultaneously there is no doubt that Ron Swanson voted for an obscure third party candidate that you or I have never heard of. Leslie Knope looks to the government to lift up its citizenry and provide any aid it can to anyone who needs it. Ron Swanson looks to the government, scoffs and calmly demands it go far, far away and leave the American people be.
In reality, these two individuals would probably come into contact by accident at the water cooler every other month, explode into an argument about Obamacare and then storm off in separate directions to explain to their coworkers how willfully ignorant the other was. In Parks and Rec two individuals from polar opposite ends of the political spectrum have one of the most heartwarming relationships on television.
But Parks and Rec isn’t the only show on television painting a portrait in response to modern America and much as the heartwarming relationship between Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson stands in bright contrast to the gut-wrenching relationship between Carrie Mathison and Nick Brody, Homeland stands as the polar opposite of Parks and Rec: a television show built on the worst characteristics of America.
Where Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson are both strong-willed political leaders Carrie Mathison and Nick Brody are both mentally-ill and misunderstood. Where Knope and Swanson have a personal and profession respect for one another that defies political ideology, Mathison and Brody share a perverse antagonistic fear of one another despite the fact that on paper they are on the same team.
Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison is a kickass female protagonist on par with Leslie Knope. They are both strong women in roles that are traditionally inhabited by both male characters and actors, be it the brilliant but troubled government agent or the brilliant but whacky political maverick. They’re both blonde ladies. They’re both patriots who put their all into serving their country. But Leslie Knope inhabits an America wherein sooner or later everyone has their victory while Carrie Mathison is trapped in an America wherein eventually everyone will lose.
In Homeland there is never any doubt that Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson takes his duty to protect the American people seriously. His work ethic is on par with any of the cast of Parks and Rec. But unlike the government workers of Pawnee, Indiana, Saul’s exemplary work doesn’t bring him contentment or admiration so much as it momentarily delays the next crisis and takes away his personal life and marriage.
Homeland highlights the aspects of America today that are so easily ignored; the social isolation of the mentally ill, the decompression of a returning soldier, the struggles of military spouses, the overworked and underappreciated bureaucratic cog, unending ulterior political motives, political extremism, religious intolerance, general cultural ignorance – it’s a long ass list – and showcases the effects of keeping them under the rug. Those who are misunderstood and suffer in Homeland are going to stay that way because Homeland’s America is America at its worst.
Remarkably different as they may be, Parks and Recreation and Homeland provide nearly identical insights into ‘10s America: things are not as they could be and things are not as they should be. Be it Homeland urging viewers to run away from its America at fast as humanly possible or Parks and Rec beckoning viewers over to its America, both shows are using their platforms to showcase American rights and wrongs, and so far as American television is concerned, I’d say that makes them pretty important.