Spoilers for last night’s Parks and Recreation below:
Last night after rewatching “Citizen Knope” (having gotten a screener earlier in the week), I tweeted half-jokingly that Parks and Recreation had become “the Friday Night Lights of comedy.” Jokingly, because the moving, optimistic ending to the episode made me mist up—not the first time this show has done that—which makes it a partial successor to FNL, which I used to refer to as “Daddy’s cry time.” But only half-jokingly because there are actually some pretty legitimate reasons to make the comparison at this point.
The superficial one was an overt reference to the football drama, as Leslie exclaimed “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” to her newly assembled PCP citizens’ action group. (The line was a late edit, appearing in the air version but not in the screener I first saw.) A less-superficial one is that, in a sitcom format, Parks and Rec creates a distinct, regionally specific world like FNL’s Dillon. But above all, as the department’s rallying around Leslie showed, it shares a theme with its NBC predecessor: the idea of interdependence and community, the sincere belief that people pulling together—whether a group of friends or a city department—make each other better.
In a show about a city bureaucracy, you could argue that this is a political statement, because Ron Swanson aside, the show does believe that government, for all its absurdities, can help people. But it’s a liberal attitude only in the small-l sense; really, like FNL, the show shares an attitude out of works of ’40s-era Americana works like It’s a Wonderful Life. Namely: we need each other. We need each other’s help, but we also need to help each other, because, as Leslie Knope much like George Bailey learns, those acts of helping in themselves make you better. That could play corny, but it’s really bold; after all, there are a million forces in contemporary life, from different political camps and nonpolitical ones, that encourage people to be cynical and dismissive. It’s easy to become bitter and sour; it’s harder to find a non-cloying way to sprinkle a little sugar. Or at least salgar.
Parks and Recreation began with Leslie committing herself to the idea of turning an abandoned pit into a park, a dream that could have lent itself to sharp-edged satire. Instead, as the show grew, the pit—and Leslie’s subsequent projects ever since—came to represent an idea: there are no small jobs. And by the same token, there are no bit players: everyone matters, a spirit that “Citizen Knope” embodied by giving all of its ensemble a chance to stand out in the gift-exchange storyline.
Another nice thing about “Citizen Knope” was that it was a Christmas episode that was only incidentally about Christmas, using the idea of giving and receiving as a way to characterize its lead character (Leslie’s history of great gifts shows both her driven nature and the fact that she really cares about understanding the people she works with) and as a way to illustrate the idea of service—namely, that’s it’s something that only really works if everyone is willing both to give and receive. That again is a very It’s a Wonderful Life idea: when Ron insists that Leslie accept the department’s help because she’s gone out of her way to help every one of them, it’s the town pitching in to save George all over again.
I could quibble with the larger story—first, I’m skeptical that so many Pawnee citizens could care so much about the Leslie-Ben “scandal,” and second, if there are policies on interoffice dating, surely there must be even stricter ones on a city department organizing in its offices to back a city council candidate? But that I’m willing to chalk up to sitcom reality, and overall, “Citizen Knope” was a shiny bow wrapping up what has been a fantastic year for this show.
There were a lot of great moments and images here—I had to pause my DVR to scan Leslie’s word cloud, which included “jeggings” and, of course, “Hogwarts”—but the one that will stick with me was that fantastic closing shot of Leslie, a look of sheer delight on her face, framed by one of the windows of the gingerbread-replica office. That’s Parks and Rec to me: a show that has clear eyes and full heart enough to look at what, to most people, would be a bland bureaucratic office, and see something sweet and delicious.