Perhaps you’ve come across a variant of the following saying: Liberals worry about the people they don’t know; conservatives worry about the people they do know. Alternatively: Democrats like helping people in the abstract but aren’t neighborly, while Republicans love their neighbors but don’t give a damn about strangers. I’ve been turning over these pat phrases recently for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. They’ve been on my mind because I finally got around to NBC’s Parks and Recreation, catching up with the first three seasons in an embarrassingly short amount of time. The abstract vs. personal take on liberals and conservatives, it seems to me, is the show’s guiding principle, or central cliché.
Shot in a mockumentary style, the comedy follows Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), deputy director of the Parks and Recreation department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie never states her party affiliation explicitly, and she adorns her office walls with photographs of female politicians from both sides of the aisle: Nancy Pelosi and Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice. Nonetheless, it’s clear that we’re meant to think of Leslie as a liberal: She’s a dedicated bureaucrat who believes in public projects. In Season 1, Leslie tries to turn an abandoned construction pit into a park; in the third, she plans a harvest festival. And she’s relentlessly optimistic about the democratic process. She says of her experience with community forums, “These people … care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”
Leslie works tirelessly on behalf of people she doesn’t know. After the festival turns a profit, she rejects her boss’s suggestion that they distribute the money to taxpayers (it would come out to 83 cents per household before postage), and spends sleepless nights—I did mean “tirelessly”—figuring out how to use the department’s newfound wealth. It’s quite obvious that she’s motivated in part by vanity—that she doesn’t want her career to have peaked at the festival. Still, her personal stake hardly diminishes the fact that her ambition is to better Pawnee.
The real flaw in Leslie’s character is not her pride, but her offhanded, sometimes cruelly demanding treatment of the people she knows well. Because she cannot generate a post-festival idea, she requires her co-workers to accompany her on a camping trip for a brainstorming session, hardly noticing that they would rather spend their off-hours otherwise. More dramatically, when no one submits a feasible proposal, Leslie acts the tyrant: “What we need to do is just keep working and just work again more. … You’re not going anywhere. No one’s going’s anywhere; no one’s sleeping.” Leslie’s friends believe that her goals are admirable, so they don’t call her out on the fact that she’s taking advantage of their good will. But that’s exactly what she’s doing. And this is not an isolated incident. Examples abound of Leslie blithely taking her friends for granted in pursuit of the public good. In Season 2, she signs up her office-mates for an all-night diabetes telethon without first asking permission. They’re ridiculously kind Midwesterners, so they grumble but oblige, and get little thanks in return.
Leslie does not balance exactitude with solicitousness—she often has little concept of what’s happening in her friends’ lives. In the B-story of the telethon episode, Leslie’s colleague Mark (Paul Schneider) confesses that he’s thinking of asking Leslie’s best friend Ann (Rashida Jones) to marry him. Leslie immediately tells him he ought to, and even suggests that he propose on air. But it turns out that Ann is poised to break up with Mark, and Leslie has to call him off at the last minute. Leslie’s behavior ill befits an intimate friend; she’s out of touch and comes perilously close to embarrassing both Mark and Ann deeply. (Later, she goes over to Ann’s house for a chat. Then she falls asleep on Ann’s couch—for 22 hours. She’s not the most charming of house guests.) Nor is her ignorance especially surprising. What passes for a conversation between Leslie and Ann (not always, but frequently) is the former worrying about bureaucratic matters, or her dating life, with the latter listening patiently.
Leslie’s boss, Ron (Nick Offerman), is almost perfectly her opposite in terms of how he allots his social energy. A staunch libertarian, Ron’s “idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.” Accordingly, Ron tries to ensure that the Parks department does very little—NBC’s City of Pawnee website notes that he has closed many unnecessary recreational spaces during his tenure, including public drinking fountains—and he minimizes his contact with the citizenry. So, for example, when a new town policy requires public officials to deal more directly with their constituents, Ron hires the apathetic April (Aubrey Plaza) as a screen. It’s her job to make sure that no one gets through the obstacle of her terrible phone-and-scheduling skills.
Helping the anonymous hordes of Pawnee is anathema to Ron. When it comes to his friends and co-workers, however, he’s a mensch—a sweetheart, even. Down with government; up with people. Yes, he sometimes loses his patience with Jerry (Jim O’Heir), the office imbecile, and he dates Tom’s (Aziz Ansari) ex-wife, even though Tom still has feelings for her. Generally, though, he’s a more considerate person than the good-government Leslie Knope. He gives Leslie a wide berth to do what she pleases even though he disagrees with her politics, and he always supports her. When he learns that state auditors plan to fire her, for instance, he offers up his own job instead. He’s also an excellent judge of character, recognizing that Leslie’s boyfriend Justin (Justin Theroux) is a “tourist” who cares primarily about gathering outrageous stories. And he’s attuned to the emotional states of the people around him, filling the role of office parent, as when he advises April and Andy (Chris Pratt) about their relationship. (See especially the episodes “94 Meetings,” in which Ron visits April at her parents’ house and makes clear that Andy cares for her, and “Media Blitz,” in which he convinces April not to string Andy along.)
These personality sketches are rough, and so incomplete—Leslie can be nice, Ron can be mean, etc. Yet Leslie regularly forgets the maxim that charity starts at home, and just as often Ron remembers it. I contacted series co-creator Mike Schur to see if the show’s adherence to the liberal-conservative aphorism was intentional, and Schur said that it was not. He added that the most oft-cited saying in the writers’ room is “when people want a mom, they vote liberal, and when they want a dad, they vote conservative.”
Schur did say, though, that the “cracks in [Leslie and Ron’s] armor”—meaning the apparent contradiction between the characters’ political beliefs and day-to-day behavior—are deliberate. “Ron can talk all he wants about how he doesn’t care about other people, but he was instrumental in April and Andy getting back together,” Schur told me. “And Leslie can extol the virtues of government all she wants, but when she’s confronted by some rude socialists from Venezuela, she briefly becomes a neo-con.”
Whether we describe Leslie and Ron as “mom and dad” or “clueless-liberal and buddy-conservative,” Parks and Recreation does not endorse one disposition over the other. In remaining silent on which character has the right priorities, perhaps the show is arguing that our capacity to care about other people isn’t limitless. We end up rationing our reserves—some of us lavish our attention on neighbors, while others reserve their do-gooding for the faceless masses. It’s also possible that Parks and Recreation simply does not care about politics, and that the contrast in evidence here is purely a narrative contrivance. If every character espoused the same beliefs, the show would be dreadfully boring.