Chitchat: Does Parks and Recreation have a Leslie Knope problem?
I talk television with a lot of people. Friends, family, other critics on Twitter, vagrants on the street. I just love talking about TV. Because I don’t have the time and resources to do a podcast like I used to in college, I’m going to sort of replicate that experience in textual form in a new recurring feature. Basically, I’ll just exchange a few emails with someone on a particular topic. You’ve seen this kind of thing done tons of other places, but it’s something I enjoy doing so expect more of it here on TVS.
Hiya, folks! As you may or may not know, I am current in the midst of a period that necessitates I keep my television criticism to a minimum. But although I do not really have the time to fit much in, I cannot stay away. There are too many interesting things to discuss. That is where a feature like Chitchat comes in handy. After his minor Twitter rant about Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope over the weekend (and a few negative pieces from other folks), I had to contact Les Chappell and pick his brain on all things Citizen Knope.
Cory: Les, if Twitter is to believed, something is bothering you. Well, many things might be bothering you, but one thing in particular sticks out to me. You seem frustrated with the way Parks and Recreation is currently handling its beloved lead character, Leslie Knope. In fact, on the Twitters, you called her “insufferable.” I know there’s been some discussion about the shift in Leslie’s character here in season four, most notably an American Prospect piece that caused a sizable amount of hubbub in criticism circles at the tail-end of last week. My hope is that we’ll get into that piece as we move along here, but tell me Les, what’s bugging you in regard to Leslie? Are you, like Amanda Marcotte, concerned that Leslie’s shifted from feminist superstar to a cliché representative of her gender? Or is it something else?
Les: The particular issue I have with Leslie’s character isn’t that she’s been sabotaged as a feminist icon – one of many complaints I have about the American Prospect article, which I’m sure we’ll get to – but rather, I feel the show has been leaning too heavily on the negative side of Leslie’s focus. When I was getting caught up on the show last night I watched the episode “Bowling for Votes,” and not for the first time this season I found myself irritated at the way Leslie was going about her affairs. As opposed to trying to win over everyone and do the best thing for her town, she fixated obsessively on winning over one guy who made a comment anyone else would dismiss. She didn’t listen to a thing Ben said to her and essentially marginalized him to get the voter’s attention, and when she couldn’t get him on her side she turned ultra-competitive and set out to bully him into submission. She says at one point in the episode “I’ve never been very good at letting things go,” and while that’s led to some great moments for the character (i.e. chaining herself to a mansion gate to save a gazebo) it’s starting to feel petty as opposed to endearing. Am I alone in this?
Cory: I don’t mean to over-analyze your prose, but your word choice interests me: You note that Leslie’s obsessive stubbornness is “starting” to feel petty. I’m curious if you think that Leslie has somehow changed this season or if you’re just personally reached a point where that behavior grates on you. As I see it, Leslie’s always been obsessive, stubborn and obsessively stubborn. Chaining herself to the mansion gate is a great example, but you could point to countless others, from refusing to acknowledge the government shut-down and the cancellation of Freddy Spaghetti to disregarding medical care while substantially sick so she could pitch local businesses on the benefits of the Harvest Festival. Leslie has, and I think always be, obsessive and stubborn. Right?
Les: Certainly that’s always been part of who she is – as she herself said in season two “I care a lot. it’s kind of my thing.” But I think there is a core difference here, and it’s one that finally distills some of the lingering concerns I’ve had over this campaign story arc. All of those other examples you mentioned, when Leslie went crazy she was doing it for her coworkers, her boyfriend or for Pawnee; now, she’s doing it for herself. She wasn’t thinking about helping anyone when she tried to win Derrick over, or even if she could help him by getting his vote, she was thinking about her wounded pride.
And there’s been a lot of moments like that this season: she essentially declared war on Peru when Ben tried to move on from her, exaggerated the smallest park project to purposely stretch out their time together, and basically tuned out Ann every time she tried to express concerns about being the campaign manager. She is, as you mention, a passionate and driven person, but I think it’s easier to accept when she’s working for a good cause. And regardless of how you personally feel about Knope 2012, it hasn’t felt like as much of a good cause as when she’s building a time capsule or community garden.
Also, as some evidence for this theory (and to reassure people I do still love Parks) I watched the “Operation Ann” episode right after “Bowling for Votes,” and I thought it was a much stronger outing – possibly because it was virtually free of campaign talk. Leslie still had her schemes – finding Ann a boyfriend, giving Ben a scavenger hunt – but were much more endearing in their obsessive attention to detail, because it was about making them feel happy. (And possibly to make them appreciate having Leslie in their lives more, but that’s usually goal #2 or #3 when she does things like this.)
Cory: You make some really interesting points about the series’ shift amid the campaign story. As a whole, I think that arc has been more challenging than say something like the Harvest Festival because it puts Leslie into positions and roles that she isn’t used to. Planning the Harvest Festival is the perfect arena for Ms. Knope. There, her obsessiveness becomes dedication (again, as you mention, for a larger cause) and she can motivate her team, local business owners and basically the whole town on sheer force of personality alone. But the underlying point of all that hard work for the Harvest Festival is that Leslie is good at this. She knows how to plan events. She knows how to present ideas to those business owners. She can cash in favors with the police department because she’s so damn likable. When Leslie is in her element, she’s unbelievably charming, but also intelligent and effective. She’s great at her job.
But Leslie isn’t a great politician, at least in the traditional, admittedly-flawed contemporary idea of what a “politician” is. Ideology aside, she’s not the prototypical candidate (especially in an insane town like Pawnee). She’s seemingly not self-interested, she’s seemingly idealistic in a good way, etc. However, no matter if Leslie would make a great city councilwoman (and there’s no doubt that she would and I’m guessing the series will ultimately argue that her difference is what will make her great, just as does in her current position), she’s not experienced or really fit to run a campaign. I think the season has done a very nice job of showing us this, as most of the campaign-related stories have been full of temporary failure and schadenfreude. This is clearly part of crafting this underdog narrative built around Leslie. Yet, it does present its challenges in the interim. We’ve grown accustom to seeing Leslie succeed because of her stubbornness and her idealism, but perhaps those things don’t mix well when she’s already out of her element in the first place.
I think there is a lot of value in showing Leslie struggle with this campaign and perhaps struggle with some truths about her personality tics that could hold her back. But, with that comes a slight re-calibration in the character that could be problematic. You’re right, when she’s more overtly self-interested, she’s less like the Leslie we’ve come to love in seasons two and three and more like the short-sighted Leslie we disliked in season one. You mentioned “lingering concerns” over the campaign arc. Are there other things with this story that you think negatively impact Leslie?
Les: To touch on some of your points above, I do agree that as a whole the show has done a good job of showing how this challenges some of Leslie’s worldviews and idealized versions of running a campaign, and I’m sure we’ll see more of that as it gets more into the swing of things and we get to see her debate Bobby Newport. (Bobby Newport. Bobby… Newport.) And I do agree that it’s not a bad thing to try to break Leslie out of her comfort zone, my issue is more that when they do they make me wish at least one person would shake her for a few minutes until she starts being reasonable. I’d rather see a frazzled, distracted to incoherent Leslie than a borderline selfish one, because a) incoherent Leslie is the most hilarious Leslie, and b) we know Leslie’s a fundamentally good person. When it moves away from that, it raises the specter of that painful first season, and I want to shake my head and go “No. That’s not our Leslie Knope.” (Hmm… maybe my concern over the show this season is more possessive than anything else.)
In terms of other parts of the story impacting Leslie, I think the main one is tied to something ThinkProgress‘s Alyssa Rosenberg wrote earlier this year when she asked the question “Is Leslie Knope Corrupt?” There were a few small issues early on related to Leslie having an assistant on both office and campaign work, but it’s really come into the forefront now when you see the entire department is willing to volunteer every free moment they have to assist on her campaign. Again, Leslie is awesome enough that I completely buy they’d all be willing to help, and they’ve inserted details that they can’t talk about campaign work in the office, but for an entire government agency to volunteer for this and no one to raise an eyebrow seems a little outside of even the heightened reality that is Pawnee. It’s certainly great for comedy when we see how disastrous their first efforts are, but you have to ask how long they can keep this going or when the lines are going to get crossed.
Again, it hasn’t yet bothered me seriously, but I can easily see them get to a point where it would. Does it bother you?
Cory: I see your point, I guess I just think it’s really compelling (not to mention, funny) to see Leslie struggle. She cannot be the best all the time and putting her into circumstances where she implicitly has to face that causes the slightly unlikable Leslie to come out. Having Ben around to be the voice of reason supports that, because there’s someone around to guide her away from the selfish qualities. But I agree, “Bowling for Votes” stumbled a bit because Leslie was so stubborn and Ben eventually gave in instead of holding his ground like he should have. I think the series wanted to play the punch for laughs and as a slightly romantic moment, but you’re right, that at least moderately undercuts both characters.
As for Leslie and corruption, I think the series is in an interesting place. While I don’t necessarily think Leslie is corrupt (as both you and Alyssa point out, there are little notes here and there that have allowed the series “outs” if you will), I think Parks has shifted away from Parks Department-related stories in such a way that suggests Leslie isn’t paying attention to her current job. Clearly, the campaign is the dominant story arc of the season and therefore deserves a substantial amount of time in most episodes. However, it is curious that there have been few stories this season about Leslie doing something primarily because it’s her job. “Smallest Park” comes to mind, but even then, that was a story more about her relationship with Ben. So with the campaign story and the similar attention devoted to their courtship, the Parks Department appears to be far from Leslie’s mind. In that regard, I guess you could say she is being a bit selfish, but I don’t know if we can blame her for what the series chooses to show or not show us, story-wise.
On that note, how do you feel about Leslie and Ben? I return now to the American Prospect piece. Has Leslie lost her spark and feminine power because of her relationship with Ben?
Les: I said at the start of our chat I had a lot of problems with the American Prospect piece (not least of which its statement that Community is going to die on the bench, but we talked about that at length already), and the biggest is that I consider its thesis fundamentally flawed. Saying Leslie’s lost her feminist spark and power this season? She wrote a book about her town’s history, spearheaded an all-female scouting group and became the head of a citizen action committee. Leslie Knope gets shit done.
Regarding her relationship, Amanda’s statement that Parks and Recreation is sticking to “sexist romantic comedy tropes” sets my teeth on edge the most, because this show has so much heart and affection for its characters I can never assign it that category. And more to the point, I don’t think it applies here. Leslie’s circumstances weren’t a woman having to choose between being a housewife or a spinster, it was a case where she knew that this specific relationship was going against her beloved rules and political ambitions. Not only that, she knew this when she was first going into the relationship.
I certainly indicated that I’ve had problems with some of Leslie’s choices this season, but I don’t for a second call it a “downward spiral of political incompetence” as Amanda wrote. As we’ve both discussed already, this is something that’s always been part of Leslie, and her darker competitive tunnel-vision side tends to come out more in the pressures of campaigning and relationships. I don’t see Ben’s decisions as campaign manager making him her “white knight” or “natural caretaker,” he’s just doing the same thing Ann and Ron have done at various points of the series by giving her a much-needed anchor. He didn’t save her by ending the relationship or quitting his job, he did that because he didn’t want her to make that choice – I think it was as much about protecting himself as it was about protecting her. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is something that happens a lot with real, adult relationships.
I think a large part of this is that I never had the problem several critics did in how the writers kept Ben and Leslie apart, because I believed Chris’s rationale (and by extension Mike Schur’s) that this is a real rule that exists in government for very valid reasons, and both Leslie and Ben cared enough about their commitment to public service that they’d have to deal with it. As far as contrived reasons to keep couples apart, I had more problem with Ann kissing Andy at the end of season two.
Cory: I think we’re on the same wave-length here. Leslie and Ben’s relationship is obviously a more traditional “will they or won’t they” type that the series avoided with April and Andy and I think that relationship construction comes with its own baggage that can’t always been grafted onto a series’ typical rhythms. I do think there is some validity to the frustrations over Ben being the one to initially break it off and to take the bullet once Chris found out. Perhaps that does suggest that Leslie’s a typical girl, being saved by a typical guy. I get that, and you could make a compelling argument by noting that making Ben the “White Knight” romantic hero does limit Leslie’s self-reliance and strength.
However, I can’t help but return to some of the things I’ve said previously. Just like the campaign, this long-term, lovey-dovey-type or relationship is a brand-new experience for Leslie. She’s not been too successful in the dating game over the years and so it’s hard to fault her for getting swept up in this moderately epic romance with Ben. I think the series has done a solid enough job of suggesting that both she and Ben are competent enough people that any sort of irrational behavior they do in the name of love only proves how much they care about one another, not how incompetent they are becoming. Perhaps all the issues we’ve discussed related to Leslie are purposeful and part of a larger story about how she reacts to lots of new life experiences all at once.
One more thing: It’s interesting to me that both your issues and Amanda’s issues with Leslie stem from this glorious view of Leslie Knope. I’m not saying that Leslie doesn’t deserve it. She is, without a doubt, one of the best characters on television and the series has done a tremendous job of making her skilled and likable. But is it possible that we’ve displaced too much expectations onto her? She’s a burgeoning feminist icon and she’s beloved by millions (OK, like 4 million). I’d guess that a lot of people had really high hopes for this campaign story and perhaps thought it would continue proving how novel of a character Leslie can be at times. And while I think Parks eventually gets there, I’m much more interested in a story that features more bumps in the road than just straight-up Leslie Knope victories. Not only does the former approach lead to the cultivation of this underdog status, but it (again) forces Leslie to face some of her biggest issues. Many people thought Parks was a series about an intelligent woman having it all and they’re right, but there have to be challenges on the path to glory.
Les: I didn’t even realize that when I first picked the article apart, but now that you say it it makes perfect sense. I completely agree that we’ve put her on the pedestal – partially because Amy Poehler’s so terrific in the role, partly because Parks and Rec‘s low-rated status inspires an obsessive devotion, and partly because Leslie is one of the most fundamentally decent people on television today. In this era of cynical characters on our sitcoms and disillusionment with the political process, to see a devoted public servant who not only believes that government should help people but practices what she preaches, it’s something unique and almost inspiring. And when that’s jeopardized, we get agitated – Meredith Blake asked in her A.V. Club review of “The Treaty” if success could spoil Leslie, and I think that’s a more legitimate concern than her suddenly becoming a charmless anti-feminist.
I’m in agreement with you though that the show is much better when it challenges characters – Schur’s made the point on at least one occasion that if people like Leslie or Tom keep dreaming big but don’t act on it, it starts to make the show sadder. This show should absolutely be about her growth and development as a person, and as much of a whipped cream-powered perpetual motion machine as she is, even she can’t do it all right the first time. And would we honestly expect her to, even in the heightened reality that is Pawnee? This show needs its dramatic stakes as much as it does the punchlines.
And if one thing does comfort me going forward into the season, I have faith that the writers will find some better ways to harness that as opposed to playing with “dark side” Leslie. Going back to our discussion of juggling the Parks department with running a campaign, Schur’s given an interview where he said as the episodes progress, it’ll start to show that Leslie’s doing her job far past the point where she should have resigned to focus on campaigning, and eventually it wears even her past the breaking point. I have faith that journey will produce some better results, if only because Poehler plays exhaustion to the point of mania better than anyone else on TV.
And on the topic of bumps in the road, there’s one more question that’s been discussed quite a bit on Twitter as we analyze the campaign story arc. We all assume the season finale is going to close with Election Day: do you want Leslie to win? Should she win? And what do you think it means for the character and the story, either way it turns out?
Cory: Parks and Recreation is such a positive series that I struggle to picture a world where Leslie doesn’t win that City Council seat. And in a lot of ways, that’s probably the right move, story-wise. As you mention, Leslie’s big dreams need to materialize in some way and while I think most viewers would likely be fine with 100 more episodes of Leslie doing fun Parks Department-related things, this is a series (and a showrunner) with real ambition. Putting Leslie in a City Council seat should open up the writers to explore Pawnee, its government and its various other institutions in all sorts of new ways. I’m already picturing a bottle episode where Leslie basically forces all the City Council members to sit in a room for 24 hours to figure out how to fix some community-related problem. I know that Schur loves The Wire and I think he wants to explore some of those government-related stories on a slightly larger scale. And watching Leslie’s optimistic attitude clash with a governing body full of about as much ambition as Ron would be tremendous. In theory, winning not only changes the series’ status quo, but it also teaches Leslie something about herself, how she treats people and what she has to do be successful moving forward.
However, I have to admit that I’d also really, really love to see how the series would deal with Leslie losing. Not only would it be a bit of a shock amid the series’ disposition, but it would reflect a Wire-esque view of the failure of society’s institutions and force Leslie to do some real soul searching. In that case, she’s acted on her dreams, she’s put herself out there and now she’s failed. What does that mean? Is she OK with being #2 for a department that’s literally the lowest on the local government food chain? Is that enough? Or does she try again? As I’m typing this, I’m growing ever connected to this second option, but I have no doubt the series could make the first work just fine. What about you, is Leslie a winner?
Les: I still haven’t chosen my answer, to tell you the truth. On one hand, I agree with you that the show’s positivity and Leslie’s general awesomeness add up to a win, plus I’m pretty sure Paul Rudd’s not ready to stop doing movies and move to Pawnee. I think it would make for a terrific season if Leslie got elected and started trying to check off her ridiculously long list of issues, almost turning it into a local government procedural – off the top of my head I can see her recruiting Andy to apprehend Gabe the toucan for the Pawnee Zoo, going to war with Ron over the abolishment of underground shooting ranges and spearheading the city-wide effort to relocate all of Pawnee’s raccoons to Eagleton. On the other hand, a season premiere where Leslie’s completely shattered by her loss and becomes even more apathetic than Ron and April about her job would be quite hilarious (I could see her reducing Chris to tears, or becoming friends with Orrin) and her trying to put herself back together and realize how much she loves running a parks department could also drive the season.
And the fact that I can’t decide which of the two would be better and can sell both easily gets to why despite some little concerns about Leslie, I really find it hard to worry about the show itself as a whole. Parks and Recreation has had so many wins in its lifetime that it’s earned a lot of my good will, and my concerns about some episodes have been offset by how many unequivocally solid ones it’s had. The show’s already proven it can have characters follow their dreams and fail without being ruined – Entertainment 720 being the obvious example – and I don’t think a Knope 2012 win or loss would seal the show’s fate in either direction. I’d obviously feel good about a win, but that’s because of affection for the character more than wanting to steer the story.
To go back to where we started this discussion: we have ten episodes left in the season, and I’m sure that after at least one I’ll still be saying that she can be insufferable. I’m sure she’ll have a plot is such that I’d rather they shift focus to Ron or April, because (as we’ve said) she’s such an extreme character and one who’s being put in unfamiliar situations. But at the end of the day, I think it’ll be okay, because for all her flaws? She’s still Leslie Effing Knope.