As the final season of "Parks and Recreation" played out, my gratitude for it has only grown. Not just because the comedy, which airs its series finale on Tuesday, has brought me a great deal of pleasure over the course of its seven seasons. Not just because the cast of "Parks and Rec" has brought a wonderfully specific and unforgettable array of characters to life. Not just because it offers sly social commentary as it generally succeeds in its mission to entertain. And not just because it is finishing as strongly as possible, with a last season that has been both moving and hilarious.
No, the main reason I'm grateful to "Parks and Rec" arises from what the show has taught my 12-year-old son. It's helped reinforce the values I believe in, and it's delivered those ideas to him in a deft and intelligent way.
As a parent, of course, it's my job to lay the foundation for my son's moral choices and to provide an example of reasonably decent and kind behavior. But as an imperfect human, parent and teacher, it can be such a relief to find books, movies, plays and television shows that help reinforce the principles I care about in a subtle and even secretive ways.
I mean, what kid doesn't hate lectures? If my son had a Boring Buzzer like the one Andy Dwyer used in "The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show," it would be worn out within a week. The chances of my kid listening to me yammer on in a didactic way about Morals and Values? Small. The chances of my kid learning something from realistic or reality-adjacent scenarios involving Amy Poehler, Star-Lord and Nick Offerman? Much higher.
So, as a parent, I thank "Parks and Recreation" for having my back. It distracted my son with awesomeness while it sneakily slipped a bunch of worthy ideas into his brain.
It's worth noting that it's not hard to find cultural commentators of all stripes railing about what they don't want the entertainment industry to teach their children. Truth be told, at certain moments, I can relate to that sentiment, given that a lot of entertainment properties out there reinforce a highly questionable assumptions and problematic paradigms. Kids' brains are amazingly absorbent, and for one or two half-hours a week, when my son and I checked in on the Pawnee weirdos, I didn't have to worry about what he was soaking up.
I'm grateful to "Parks and Recreation" because it taught my son that all kinds of people can work together on projects that benefit their communities, even if those people have different beliefs about how individuals should live and how societies should function. As co-creator Michael Schur has said in interviews, the whole point of making Ron Swanson (Offerman) and Leslie Knope (Poehler) political opposites was to demonstrate that even people who don't agree on certain core principles can do good things for their friends, their neighbors and their town. During an era in which divisiveness and partisan rancor grew by leaps and bounds in the media, in politics and in the world in general, it was an extremely welcome message. If "Parks and Rec" was naive about how civic and governmental bodies usually work, I can only hope my son is that naive if he chooses to go into public service.
I'm grateful to "Parks and Recreation" because it communicated the idea that there are all kinds of people in the world and they all have something to offer, whatever their quirks and faults. Of the many elements that make up the connective tissue of "Parks and Rec," tolerance is by far the most important. Ron could be rigid and unyielding, but his friends and co-workers put up with that because he was also loyal, kind and supportive. Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) was terrible at anything that involved adult responsibilities, but his imaginative energy and goofy positivity made him an essential part of the "Parks" team. Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) was, at times, obsessed with status, wealth and superficial concerns, but underneath the swagger was a smart, caring person willing to follow through on good ideas. Donna Meagle (Retta) often found it hard to be patient with her goofball co-workers, but she never wavered in her devotion to the projects they truly believed in. Even Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry (Jim O'Heir), the clumsy office worker responsible for a million eye rolls (Damn it, Jerry!), was rewarded by the show with a loving wife, a happy home and, eventually, installation as the town's mayor.
As a family, we don't watch a lot of complex or gritty dramas at this point: Jean-Luc Picard being tortured on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is about as dark as our viewing roster has gotten. But as is the case with "Star Trek: TNG," "Parks and Rec" allowed my son to watch characters wrestling with mistakes big and small, and to see that messing up is not just forgivable, but a normal part of becoming a better person.
Leslie Knope, of course, has always had more than her share of difficult qualities. She could be controlling and manic; there were times when she steamrolled over other people's input in order to get her own way. Her single-mindedness was both a blessing and a curse: Pawnee and the National Parks Service benefited from her ferocious dedication to her jobs with them, but her inability to take a step back and see the bigger picture could be her biggest stumbling block. Poehler made Leslie's personality warm and ultimately winning -- a huge accomplishment, that -- but the enthusiastic bureaucrat could suffocate others with caring. The people who loved most her knew she could be a lot of work.
But once it got past the initial bumpiness it displayed in its first season, "Parks and Recreation" set about turning Leslie into a hero. For ages, I've wanted to see a female superhero on the big screen, but we had one on the small screen all along. Like a superhero, Leslie experienced doubt and had flaws, but her commitment to altruistic ideas and the betterment and protection of other people was never in doubt.
And Leslie was an explicitly feminist hero. I'm most grateful for that, I think.
As I raise my son, who's generally well-adjusted (so far, fingers crossed), I still wonder if he will be thoughtless or callous about women's agendas, ideas and personalities at work or in his personal life. Having had his presumptive worldview catered to by most TV shows and movies for so long, will it be hard for him to truly consider the viewpoints of women, especially women of color, who are still criminally underrepresented all kinds of media? Having had to deal with That Guy so many times in my life, am I going to raise That Guy? I'm not even slightly kidding when I say I shudder at the thought.
I'm doing my part as a parent, to the extent of my abilities, to make him compassionate, considerate and thoughtful, but my son is a product of the culture he lives in. Frankly, there are days when I look at the media landscape and think, "Hey, I'm trying to raise Not That Guy here. Popular culture, you're not helping."
Can Leslie Knope fix all that? Nope, but thank God she and her fictional Pawnee friends exist. Here are just a few of the many ideas "Parks and Recreation" helped cement in my son's head:
- There are all kinds of women in the world who have all kinds of goals and values; there isn't one "right" way to be female.
- It's not only okay for women to be ambitious, but a strong aspiration to accomplish things in the world can be a quality others find admirable and even attractive.
- Female friends can disagree with each other and even hurt each other's feelings without destroying their friendships.
- Women can disagree with each other in the workplace and still respect each other and work together effectively.
- Women and men who work together can disagree, sometimes profoundly, and they can still respect each other and work together effectively.
- If someone tries to sell you a narrative that implies women are prone to ripping each other apart over their life choices regarding work and family, don't fall for it.
- Women face not only straight-up sexism but also more subtle forms of bias, and they can talk about it and challenge it and the world won't end.
- Tech companies don't often have your best interests at heart; they frequently use a lot of fuzzy and vaguely positive buzzwords to hide the fact that to them, you are, at best, a potential source of profit.
Hey, wait! That last one doesn't have anything to do with feminism! But I had to slip that in, not just because it's often true, but because it's typical of the "Parks and Recreation" house style. Sure, it's been fun to see the show lampoon Silicon Valley buffoonery via Gryzzl in later seasons, but there is substance underneath the jokes about privacy and data mining. The fact is, when "Parks and Rec" is gone, I truly wonder if any other mainstream comedy will dare to be as serious in pursuit of being funny, and vice versa.
One of the things that always set "Parks and Rec" apart was the fact that -- like "Star Trek," "M*A*S*H" or "Hill Street Blues" -- it's always about something. It had an agenda, and whether or not I agreed with it or thought it did a good job conveying it, I certainly got the impression that agenda mattered to the people making the show. The miracle is, most of the time, "Parks and Rec" handled that commitment to meaty ideas and cultural commentary so deftly that my son didn't even notice what it was doing.
Back when I was his age, Very Special Episodes that took on serious issues were somewhat mockable special occasions, and even now, most broadcast network comedies are so studiously bland and apolitical that a show like "Fresh Off the Boat" truly stands out. One of the triumphs of "Parks and Recreation" is that many episodes made Very Special points, but the show never collapsed under the weight of its commitment to ideas. There were marriages, slapstick high-jinks, goofy enterprises and serial misunderstandings -- all the laugh fodder you'd expect from a mainstream sitcom. But the most consequential and meaningful story lines were about about public service, community building and the costs of divisiveness and self-serving behavior. The writers and cast so expertly inserted their deeply felt values into the funhouse-mirror world of Pawnee that you barely realized what was happening until you found yourself quoting Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope and looking up to them as role models.
I don't need my son to consciously emulate Ron or Leslie. The fact is, in real life, I could not tolerate a Leslie's maniacal devotion to duty, nor could our budget sustain a Swanson-esque level of meat consumption. Whether or not he grows a full and lustrous mustache down the road, I hope "Parks and Rec" made my son want to grow up into the kind of man who truly celebrates, values and listens to women, and is at ease with the idea of them wielding authority (as was always the case with Ron, Tom, Ben and Andy). I hope the show made him think a little harder about what he can do to make his community a better place (aside from consuming his body weight in breakfast foods on a weekly basis). I am glad that when I asked my son to list three adjectives to describe Leslie, he came up with these words: "happy, supportive, adventurous."
The best thing about my son's affinity for "Parks and Recreation" is that he came to it late; he's only seen the last two or three seasons. We're starting a Netflix re-watch soon, so we'll both experience the whole Pawnee story again. Like Leslie, we find it hard to let go.
Thanks, "Parks and Recreation," for everything. From both of us.
Ryan McGee and I discussed "Peaky Blinders," "Saturday Night Live's" 40th anniversary show, "Marvel's Agent Carter," "The Last Man on Earth" and "Parks and Recreation" on the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.