NBC’s Parks and Recreation launches audiences into a world where a low-status governmental department struggles to overcome underhanded bureaucracy and red tape. The Parks & Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana consists of an eclectic selection of employees, ranging from the ignorant yet good-spirited Andy Dwyer to the sassy, but sage, Donna Meagle. Yet the zeitgeist of the department is found within the unique personalities of Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, and April Ludgate. These three characters, although having wildly varying interests and views, share certain attributes characteristic of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras.
The beliefs of the Enlightenment thinker and the Romantic figure are clearly conveyed by the actions and dialogue of Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope, respectively, whereas April Ludgate serves as a medium between the two ideals. The show is rather Realistic when looking at its satiric and comical attitude, but it does exaggerate certain circumstances. Head of the Parks Department, Ron Swanson is typified by his desire for free will, evaluation through reason, and resentment towards large governments, making him a modern-day Enlightenment libertarian. His stubbornness often finds him in conflicts with Leslie, as seen in the “Sweetums” episode.
When Leslie protests the selling of unhealthy “Nutriyum” bars and meddles with Ron’s drinking patterns, he thinks she is stifling his personal freedoms. He strongly believes that “the… point of [America] is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to 600 pounds, and die of a heart attack at 43, you can. ” Ron often associates freedom with America, especially when he proclaims, “History began on July 4, 1776. Everything that happened before that was a mistake” (“London, Part 1”), emphasizing his progressiveness as an Enlightenment thinker.
Freedom is very mportant to Ron, as he often justifies his actions with a simple “I can do what I want. ” His logic might be obscure to most of his co-workers, but Leslie understands him and often looks to him for guidance. When running for city council, Leslie is swamped with work, working for 100 hours a week. Ron admires her determination, but reasons that it is simply illogical for her to tackle two major tasks at once, ultimately frowning upon her Pangloss-like optimism. Encouraging her to take a sabbatical, Ron provides Leslie with effective advice: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing” (“Sweet Sixteen”).
Ron is able to guide Leslie by looking at life through a practical lens and not letting formalities or emotions overcomplicate his decisions. Ron’s vision of government is also heavily based off of the Enlightenment. He is a huge proponent of capitalism and hates having the state be in control of his personal property. To fulfill his dreams of ruining City Hall, he promotes laziness and unproductivity in the office. Deputy Director Leslie Knope’s explicit love towards all forms of nature, interest in human rights, and heavy reliance on sensibility make her a quintessential Romantic.
From the show’s first episode it is blatantly evident that Leslie has a true passion for nature and helping others. Her public forums show her at her prime as she advocates for all types of public opinion and voice. She is very outspoken about her feminist rights as well. Her individualism also emphasizes her love of nature. She takes matters into her own hands when things aren’t going her way, which is what made events such as the children’s concert in Lot 48 and the Harvest Festival largely successful.
Without this determination and passion for transforming Lot 48 into a park, the lot may have been given to a Paunch Burger, or even worse, the library. Leslie’s decisions are largely driven by emotions, a key component of Romanticism. Her interactions with the rival Eagletonians stress this point. When Ben mentions to the designer of Lot 48, Wreston St. James, that Leslie was born in Eagleton, Leslie fires back: “do not blame me for the sins of my mother! ” (“Pawnee Commons”). Her mistrust towards Wreston makes her spray shaving cream all over his face when she falsely believes that he sent two Eagletonians to her office to mock Pawnee.
Her overwhelming emotions kept her from having an open and logical mindset, which led to a poor decision. Leslie also possesses a fervent interest in the past. She writes “The First Historical Guide to Pawnee,” idolizes past political figures, and latches on to many ‘firsts,’ such as Waffle Day, the first time her and Ann had waffles together at J. J’s Diner. April Ludgate uses her Enlightenment value of unrestraint to exemplify her Romantic interests in art and animal life, making her a strong mix of the two philosophies. Much like Ron, April refuses to have new ideas being forced onto her, and instead plays by her own rules.
When the departments at City Hall are asked to create a mural, April creates a multimedia project that includes rat-shaped garbage, a TV looping a video of knee surgeries, and a human-sized hamster wheel with “a fat guy in it all the time like screaming and like eating raw beef and like bleeding” (“The Camel”). Her Enlightenment belief of free will encourages her Romantic enthusiasm for wild, grotesque art. She also has a strong passion for animals and becomes the Deputy Director of Pawnee Animal Control because of her practical thinking. Animal Control was faltering under a tiny budget and inefficient employees.
By using reason, April suggests merging Animal Control with Parks and Recreation, which rang positively among the city council. Her emotional passion for the job drove her to think deeply and come to an intelligent decision. Parks and Recreation reflects the qualities of Realism fairly well. Because the series revolves around the problems of the government, it is not very relatable for most members of the middle-class; yet the interactions that are found within the common workplace are displayed when the Parks Department employees discuss their work, co-workers, and personal lives.
The fact that the show even delves into the characters’ personal matters shows that a connection is trying to be established between the viewers and the characters. Breakups, family, and new friendships are things that most people experience and can easily relate to. Knowing this, it can be said that the writers of the show are very aware of their audience and how they will react to the show’s plot, another element of Realism. Parks and Recreation inserts many current issues such as gay marriage, gotcha journalism, political affair scandals, sex education, obesity, and the role of women in politics into controversial circumstances.
These topics are included in the show to spark conversation and interest on the subject. These issues, along with other events in the show, are conveyed in a highly comical manner. Councilman Dexhart’s sex scandal is completely shocking, as “when [the babysitter] was in the delivery room, [he] had sex with not one, but four nurses in a supply office… as well as a woman whose husband was getting a liver transplant” (“Christmas Scandal”). Although this is a satiric play on political scandals, something as extreme as this is highly improbable in real life.
For that reason, this exaggeration goes against Realism, which addresses more average events in life. The show also places an emphasis on past events, contrasting with Realistic philosophy. Ben’s blunders as an 18-year-old mayor are a heavy burden that people continually characterize him by, and Pawnee’s complex history is the foundation of many of Leslie’s ideals. The native Wamapoke Indians, the enemy town of Eagleton, and Pawnee’s Bread Factory Fire are all recurring motifs in the series.
Although the Enlightenment, Romantic, and Realist eras all contain distinguished elements, each philosophy has found its place in Parks and Recreation. The show’s droll attitude towards everyday situations makes it relatively Realistic, despite some Enlightenment ideology with his progressiveness, and April Ludgate does so with her freedom of expression. Leslie Knope’s zeal for nature and equality reveals Romanticism, as does April’s love for animals. Parks and Recreation offers viewers a rather unique and multi-perspective insight into local government, but above all, it reminds viewers to “Treat yo self! ” (“Pawnee Rangers”).