The Utopian Vision of Pawnee, Indiana
Parks and Recreation, now entering its final season on NBC, has always represented a very particular, very liberal fantasy about how government should work.
Though the city of Pawnee, Indiana is broadly drawn to the point of caricature—every branch of government seems to have its own set of quirks, from the stoned dudes of Animal Control to the sleazeballs who work in Sewage—it’s also, in its way, a utopia. In the world of Parks and Recreation, government bureaucrats are all good people who passionately love their town and its citizens. They may disagree, but at the end of the day, nothing can stop them from working together to make Pawnee a better place to live.
In the show’s new season, this vision is laid out more explicitly than ever. It seems to be planning to close its run with one big, final (and weirdly anti-capitalist) statement about what government should be.
The season premiere opens with a three-year time jump. Leslie Knope, the show’s hero—and, arguably, the human embodiment of its politics—has taken her dream job as the regional director of the National Parks Service for the Midwest, now headquartered in her small city. Her husband, Ben Wyatt, is the city manager. This is the face of government in Pawnee.
Then there are government’s enemies. Tom Haverford, Pawnee’s leading proponent of swag, has become the face of a flashy tech start-up, Gryzzl. Meanwhile, the uber-libertarian Ron Swanson—who hates not only government, but paper money, the Internet, and any furniture that he has not personally made—has finally begun walking his talk, having left the public sector to run a construction company.
At the start of this season, former close friends Ron and Leslie are now enemies, squaring off over an exceptionally valuable piece of land being sold by the town’s wealthiest family. Ron wants to pay for it and turn it into a corporate campus. Leslie wants the family to give it to her for free so that she can turn it into a national park. Businesspeople Tom and Donna are on Ron’s side. Pretty much no one but Leslie’s husband is on hers.
Public Space versus Private Ownership, Big Business versus Big Government, The People versus The 1 Percent: this is not subtle stuff. “In my experience with capitalism, people would normally expect money for their goods and land,” Ron sneers at one point, villainously. Nor are the other pro-capitalist characters painted in a flattering light. Tom’s technocratic dominance comes in for round after round of ridicule, finally culminating in a Gryzzl presentation from a journalist-slash-guru who “won the Pulitzer for Best Top 10 Listicles two years in a row” and speaks exclusively in Silicon Valley catchphrases: “Fresh. Innovative. Place-making. Disposable duvets. Growth hacking. Supermoon.”
But the show is too humane to stop at pure satire. As much as Parks and Recreation cherishes the fantasy of ideal government—public service, public space, giving people what they need without trying to make a profit off those people in the process—it cherishes the fantasy of bipartisanship even more.
It makes sense for Leslie and Ron to be enemies, simply because it’s never made sense that they are friends: Ron represents an old-fashioned patriarchal individualism that would stop at nothing to destroy someone like Leslie, an unrepentant feminist who’s devoted her life to building the commons. Similarly, Tom’s flashy consumerism doesn’t seem to belong in Leslie’s earnest, un-hip orbit. Particularly in his new role with a tech start-up, Tom represents the power of capitalism to turn citizens into customers and aesthetics into brand loyalties. They’re all likable characters, but they each spend their lives trying to tear down what the others are building.
Yet the thesis of Parks and Recreation is that the calling of government is so urgent that people can lay aside their differences, whatever they might be, in order to serve the common good. Sure enough, a few episodes in, we learn that Ron isn’t opposing Leslie because of, say, a lust for profit or a simple belief that all property should be privatized—but because he has felt personally slighted by Leslie. With that put aside, they can work together again.
The funny thing about the ideal of bipartisanship is that it is, actually, extremely partisan: liberals embrace it, conservatives don’t. It’s part of why the American left wing is so notoriously ineffectual: its politics demand that it try to work with the very people who are trying to eliminate it from the process.
Parks and Recreation can show us what government would be like in an ideal world—a world where the Rons and Leslies and Toms of the world were all driven by sound ideals and willing to serve The People. I’ll miss it when the show ends this season, even (or especially) because I know that it will go out with a vision that’s more utopian than ever, and more divorced from the world I know.
[Correction: this post previously characterized Tom as the founder of tech start-up Gryzzl, but he is only a consultant/spokesman for it. We regret the error.]