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TV Tonight: What Are Parks and Rec’s Politics?

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Leslie and Bobby Newport square off tonight.

The Pawnee City Council race heats up in tonight’s Parks and Recreation with an episode written and directed by star Amy Poehler, in which Leslie Knope has a high-stakes TV debate with her main opponent, Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). Over at the Huffington Post, Maureen Ryan interviews Poehler and producer Mike Schur about the series, the election storyline and the characters’ politics.

It’s worth a read, and one thing that struck me about the interview in particular was how open Poehler and Schur were to talking about the political leanings of characters like Leslie. The distinction here is political, as opposed to partisan: as Schur notes, the show never uses the terms “Republican” and “Democrat,” a move that may be a sidestep but is plausible in this small-stakes arena, since small-town city council elections are sometimes run without party affiliation.

But as I’ve written before, there’s no getting around the fact that Leslie’s basic philosophy—that government can and should try to make life better, and that there’s nothing wrong with it widening rather than shrinking its aims—is generally Democratic, and Schur is forthright about that. There are a few reasons, I think, that the show can get away with that. (Assuming it is getting away with it—I’ve never seen a breakdown of its viewership Republican vs. Democratic, though that sort of thing is occasionally polled.)

First, since the subject is small-town government, it can realistically deal with issues that haven’t been entirely politicized—holding a harvest festival, say, vs. expanding a social-entitlement program—and on which people do not necessarily divide into predictably partisan camps. It’s easier, I think, to be dogmatic and inflexible about broad national issues, some of which only effect you indirectly; when it comes to your hometown, your parks and your neighbors, you want results more than gridlock, and people get more pragmatic in both political directions.

[Speaking of which: I’m curious what people think Leslie’s bigger-picture politics are. We know what she thinks about the issues she deals with, but if she’s a Democrat, for all I know she may be a very non-doctrinaire one. One sad thing about political discussion today is that we tend to label people “liberal” or “conservative” not on the basis of their actual beliefs on issues but in terms of their allies and enemies: if Leslie has a picture of Hillary Clinton, she must be a “liberal,” e.g., though there is much we don’t know about her actual positions. Indiana is a fairly red-to-purple state, after all, and I suspect Leslie might not fit neatly into a political category.]

Second, the show gives Leslie’s philosophical antithesis just as strong a representative in libertarian department head Ron Swanson. (About which: I grew up in Michigan, not far from fictional Pawnee, and at least from my very anecdotal experience, the idea of a conservative-libertarian public employee is not at all implausible.) In the early episodes, Ron, like Leslie, was drawn more broadly, and he could have been made into an antagonist for her. But instead, he’s become the Ron Effing Swanson we love, and we’ve seen both that he respects Leslie despite their differences, and that his own philosophy of self-reliance—as extreme as it can be—comes from a place of real decency and integrity. And he can back up his DIY ethos: have you seen the man cane a chair?

I also think it helps that the show has resisted the urge to respond too topically to current political events, instead making its comedy more timeless and human. It’s satirized the media through its local news personalities, and the general inanity of politics through its various town forums, but it doesn’t often fall into current-events parable. Even in the election storyline, Leslie faces an opponent who’s the scion of the local candy-tycoon family, but I think you’d have to squint pretty hard to see Newport as a caricature of Mitt Romney.

Another tidbit from the interview that struck me was Schur’s saying—prompted by a question from Ryan—that the show would love to be a kind of comedy version of The Wire. I don’t want to overplay that quote; he doesn’t seem to be inflating the show so much as saying that The Wire is a standard to aspire to, and maybe that Parks would like to create the same kind of broad civic world, within the context of a less realistic network comedy. And Parks, as Ryan says, has a much more optimistic outlook than The Wire.

But it’s interesting to see that in the light of our discussion yesterday of David Simon’s disappointment about The Wire’s reception since it’s gone off the air: that it seems to be remembered more as an entertainment than for its specific view of social institutions and the drug war. It’s pretty plain that The Wire did not change American drug and policing policy, but this is also a little reminder that there’s more than one way for a show to be influential. If a show like The Wire has made a little NBC sitcom slightly more thoughtful about how institutions and communities work—that’s not exactly changing the world, but it’s something to be happy about, anyway.