The city council election in Pawnee is coming up soon, but before Election Day, the candidates will put it all on the line in a crucial debate. Thursday's terrific episode of "Parks and Recreation" (9:30 p.m. ET on NBC) features Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) publicly debating her chief rival, airhead candy heir Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), as well as a few fringe candidates who have ... let's just say non-mainstream beliefs and platforms.
"The Debate" -- which also features a fall-down funny subplot for Chris Pratt's Andy -- was written and directed by "Parks and Rec" star Poehler (it was her first time directing the show). One of her biggest scripting challenges involved a crucial piece of dialogue that is not just a mission statement for the hardworking Leslie Knope, but could also serve as distillation of the core values of the show.
"Leslie has to kind of have a moment in the debate where she has to decide if she’s going to play politics or be herself," Poehler said in a recent interview. "And it’s something she struggles with all the time on the show -- how much should she be herself, and how much should she learn how to play the game? Sometimes she’s way too much herself, and sometimes she loses herself along the way."
But one of the most enjoyable things about "Parks and Recreation" is how it uses comical events -- a debate that threatens to descend into chaos, a public forum that goes awry, a town festival that doesn't go quite right -- to celebrate the earnest desires and aspirations of its characters. Leslie may get frustrated with Bobby Newport or with the fringe candidates' attempts to hijack the debate, but the more seriously she takes the debate, the higher the stakes, comedically and dramatically.
"Passion in politics is interesting and fun to play, because you can take big swings and you can make big mistakes," Poehler noted. "People see the slow time-release of presidential politics, and it’s a lot of manufactured passion, but it’s very controlled. In small, low-level politics, people really like to talk about their feelings. [The question is,] how passionate is Leslie? Does she keep at it if things don’t go her way? Can she remain optimistic in the face of pressure, or in the face of disappointment or opportunity?"
It's hard to think of Leslie ever losing her passion for Pawnee, though executive producer Michael Schur made it clear in an interview that Leslie could lose the race (viewers will find out who won the election in the May 10 finale). Still, for Leslie and her campaign manager, boyfriend Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), one of the most galling things about the race has been the fact she has often trailed Newport in the polls, despite her frighteningly complete grasp of the issues.
"He is just a likable guy," Poehler said. "What Bobby Newport has and what is played so beautifully by Paul is an ease. Leslie’s biggest nightmare is not a tough opponent who is fierce and mean. Her biggest nightmare is a guy who doesn’t even really want the job. The guy who is going to maybe get it because his dad wants him to have a job during the day."
Taking the toxic elements out of a political situation and yet incisively commenting on the challenges of government and public service may be, aside from the creation of Ron Swanson, the show's greatest accomplishment. When I spoke to Schur, I put it to him that the show, which features one of the most detailed and specific fictional cities in popular culture, is essentially a comedic version of "The Wire."
"That's the hope," Schur replied.
Of course, "Parks and Recreation" reaches a different conclusion from "The Wire," which often made the case that individuals can occasionally change, but institutions and bureaucracies never do. Many episodes of "Parks and Rec," on the other hand, revolve around the idea that compromise between people with different beliefs is possible, and that very different individuals and factions can work together to contribute positively to their community. There's an optimism to the show -- and a collegiality among the characters -- that feels like an antidote to the often poisonous nature of our national political dialogue. That is very much by design, Schur said.
"It’s certainly not apolitical," said Schur, who noted that Leslie "believes that government can do good things, and that’s generally speaking, a Democratic idea." But as he notes, "the politics of it are lessened by the fact that what she’s doing is going to a soccer field where two youth soccer groups were accidentally scheduled to have the soccer field at the same time and trying to come up with a solution."
As Poehler says, on the local level, "like in a city council election, people’s politics don’t come into play as much as their personality. And one could certainly argue [that's the case in a] presidential race, but not as much. [On the local level,] you’re voting for the guy or the woman that you like for city council. One person wants to close the school; one person wants to open a park."
Of course the first goal of the Peabody-winning "Parks and Rec" is to be funny as it shows just how hard it can be to open a park, but the show also does a capable job of reflecting the fact that most people don't necessarily adhere to a strident or stringent party line or possess extreme beliefs. The three fringe debaters in Thursday's episode, for example, are "just straight satire of just of the extremes of our political system," Schur said. They don't represent the norm; Leslie and Ron do. Ron's go-it-alone belief system is diametrically opposed to Leslie's we're-all-in-this-together worldview, and yet they are both portrayed respectfully and clearly enjoy working together.
"I think 90 percent of people in America have, if you could get inside their brains and their souls and get them away from television and TV talk shows and speeches and Super PACs and all that sort of stuff… they would have a mix of beliefs that are traditionally Republican [and] Democratic," Schur said. But he also notes, "we have never said the words 'Democrat' or 'Republican' on the show and we never will. We are aided by the fact that many City Council elections don’t have party affiliations, so that’s one thing that’s good. We don’t try to avoid issues at all. In fact, I think we try to use them. But we use them in a way that’s hopefully equal-handed and satirical instead of preachy or soap box-y."
If there are any real-life inspirations for "Parks and Recreation," they aren't necessarily the bold-faced political names you might expect. One of Schur's personal heroes was the superintendant of schools in the town where he grew up -- a man who worked on making the schools better for 46 years.
"There’s a real nobility in that, and I think TV has, at some level, trained people to believe that the only noble choice in life is to be the biggest, best, fastest, strongest -- the most famous, the biggest deal, the 'American Idol'-winning person," Schur said. "One of the themes of this show is to kind of celebrate the nobility of working really hard for your little tiny slice of America, and doing as well as you can for that part of it in a way that tangibly helps people."
No doubt the show will continue to explore Pawnee's issues and controversies in a potential fifth season, but before then, we have to see whether all the hard work of Leslie and her campaign staff paid off. If she wins, Schur said, she can still work in the Parks department (the City Council gig is part-time), and if she loses, well, you can still expect changes among the Parks department employees. Schur likes to shake things up at the end of seasons and put the characters in different places -- but not too different.
"I want people to tune in next year and feel like, no matter what the result of the election is, that they’re watching the same show that they’ve been watching so far. So it’s tricky, but I also ... I get antsy," he said. "We have ambitious people. Ben is ambitious, Leslie’s ambitious, and when you have ambitious people, if you keep them in the same place doing the same thing for too long, you start to feel sad for them because they’re not exploring their lives. …I don’t like everyone to be the same all the time. I don’t like people hanging out in the same apartments, in the same desks and stuff for too long."
Look for more from my interview with Amy Poehler next week.
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