I grew up in a small town. A very small town. Little League, holiday parades, community festivals, the local—and only—pizza place, riding a bike to the post office: these were routine, normal parts of a childhood spent in a town where it felt like everybody knew my name. I’m proud of that background, though admittedly it makes less-than-remarkable party conversation. Still, my rural upbringing makes me a sucker for any television show that deals with local community, and Park and Recreation perfectly fills that niche.
It was rarely easy and seldom pretty, but the show’s dynamic shaped a vision where realizing individual potential depended upon one’s community.In terms of plot, the show’s amusingly simple. Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, the show centers on a mid-level local park department worker and her team struggling against townspeople, bureaucracy, and even raccoons. Over the show’s first six years, that team’s most notable achievements have been starting a yearly harvest festival and absorbing an adjoining, bankrupt town into Pawnee.
It’s not terribly convoluted, and you’ll find more drama in one episode of Parenthood than in an entire season of Parks and Recreation. Sure, there’s political maneuvering, countless community meetings, and Rob Lowe. But the heart of the show is its consistent and hilarious engagement with the nuances of rural America.
Even so, as many of the show’s fans will tell you, that description fails to convey exactly why it’s remained on television despite extremely unfavorable ratings. At the core of Parks and Rec’s appeal, there’s an unmistakable focus on friendship that’s rarely seen on modern television. During the show’s initial episodes, Leslie Knope—played by series creator and writer Amy Poehler—mentioned what’s become her character’s pseudo-mission statement: “These people are members of the community that care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring. Loudly. At me.”
Over the first six seasons, Poehler and her cast transformed a show about communal and political minutia into a message about forging lasting relationships and friendships, creating a series where hyper-libertarians, aimless interns, and radical believers in the power of government could work in a shared space to better their town and themselves. It was rarely easy and seldom pretty, but the show’s dynamic shaped a vision where realizing individual potential depended upon one’s community.
When the sixth season ended, the loud voices of Pawnee were yelling with, and not at, Leslie. This community festival and concert seemed to complete the show’s arc. April and Andy—perpetual loafers—were madly in love and employed. Leslie and Ben chose to start a family and were working in different levels of government. Tom and Donna have finally become successful investors and private business workers. Even Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson seemed happy to have true friendships, a grand shift for a person who was quite content as a loner: “I once worked with a man for three years and never got to know his name. Best friend I ever had.”
So when the final, abbreviated seventh season began, I wondered, how would this work? NBC didn’t exactly disguise its desire to vanquish the show as soon as possible, and a brief thirteen episodes—along with a three-year jump between seasons six and seven—could seemingly only damage what Poehler and company had managed to accomplish. At a glance, the show had arrived at its long-delayed yet rushed end.
But then it didn’t.
Instead, season seven of Parks and Recreation has unabashedly focused on what’s made it wonderful: the honesty and beauty of friendship. The three-year gap has given it space to juggle storylines about contemporary issues like privacy laws, the tension between work and marriage, and the non-existent controversy regarding men’s rights. And it has emphasized these issues through the honest lens of our necessary, shared existence. Most notably, this season has challenged Leslie and Ron’s previously unassailable friendship, a connection which serves as the show’s foundation despite their radically different political agendas.
What drives this divide is the loss of shared space. We find out that during the three-year gap, Leslie and the show’s main cast have left the Pawnee Parks Department to pursue their own agendas. Yet Ron stays and inevitably moves further from the people he once took for granted.
Ever the opponent to change and progress, he begrudgingly realizes that his tolerance of government work and enjoyment of life exist only because of the people he calls friends. In his new alienation, Ron learns the wisdom Wendell Berry offers in “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground”: “It is only in these bonds that our individuality has a use and a worth; it is only to the people who know us, love us, and depend on us that we are indispensable as the persons we uniquely are.”
When he can’t recreate that experience with new employees, it drives him to sever the connection with the person he deems responsible for the change. It’s initially jarring, but Leslie and Ron’s fractured relationship, and eventual glorious and hilarious reconciliation, points to the show’s final and lasting message: we are not our own. In that way, Parks and Rec’s willingness to highlight the tension and struggle of friendship is akin to what Berry labels the inevitable “coauthorship” of humanity:
The problem, of course, is that we are not the authors of ourselves. That we are not is a religious perception, but it is also a biological and a social one. Each of us has had many authors, and each of us engaged, for better or worse, in that same authorship. We could say that the human race is a great coauthorship in which we are collaborating with God and nature in the making of ourselves and one another. From this there is no escape.
That’s what makes this final season and the three-year jump so appropriate. Few shows have given us a chance to see what happens after what we might label a perfect ending. In moving and managing the show forward three years for its last season, Parks and Recreation shows it understands how time necessarily reveals our inherent need to create meaningful relationships. Few shows could navigate the time-shift so well since, realistically, life is rarely as neat and conclusive as Parks and Recreation often made it seem. Yet those endings are achievable, and they’re what we should seek to emulate when we remember Christ’s words to love God and each other.
While many of us may never experience the rural lifestyle of Pawnee, we do share a common grace and humanity. Like Leslie Knope’s effervescent, unending attempts to better her town and those around her, we too must engage in the same making and shaping of those around us. When Parks and Recreation’s finale airs on February 24th, we’ll see the show depart as more than merely a reflection of small-town America. These characters have grown into embodied, engaged members of Pawnee, yet their greatest achievement isn’t something you’ll find on one of their fictional resumes or in one of Leslie’s unending stack of scrapbooks. It’s simply that they made each other better. And in that making, there’s a glimpse of what it might feel like if everyone knew our names.