Leslie Knope would have had a banner made for the occasion, but my survival pack was simply a plate of waffles covered in whipped cream and a box of tissues. After seven years, I was shedding a lot of tears saying goodbye to the enchanting experience I’ve had with Parks and Recreation.
It was a rocky start, Parks and Rec and me. I don’t watch a lot of television and hadn’t owned a TV in years. I turned on a couple of episodes from the first season on an airplane, based entirely on the massive girl-crush I’d been harboring for Amy Poehler ever since the weird and wonderful Upright Citizen’s Brigade TV show, which I’d loved in that proud way that you only can with cultural piece that hardly anyone else seems to get. So, I had high hopes for her post-Saturday Night Live endeavor. The first few episodes were shaky, they hadn’t found their voice or internal logic, and I wrote it off until, probably, my next flight when I saw some episodes from the vastly more confident second season. I was in with fervor, and it became the only show I waited every week to watch.
There are so many things that make this show special, but the heart is Leslie Knope. She begins the series as an Assistant Director of the Parks Department in a Southern Indiana town, bursting with ambition and bravado – not for herself, though she is confident, but rather because she believes wholly in the transforming power of good government and the worth of good people. She is full of big dreams which seem entirely accomplishable to her (building a neighborhood park, becoming President of the United States, that kind of thing), yet there is no job too small for her to do – and do perfectly (someone should do a count of the number of “planning binders” Leslie Knope has created during the series run). Her trajectory has been upward, with some notable bumps along the way, but her overriding characteristic has never wavered – optimism. One person can make the world a nicer place without ever compromising her ideals, and she can do it while forever boosting up her loved ones, her beloved (though you sometimes wonder why) hometown, and eating a never-ending supply of waffles along the way.
The most important relationship in the series, even more than the adorable romantic relationship between Leslie and Ben, is the one between Leslie and her Parks boss, Ron Swanson. Ron is Leslie’s opposite in every way, particularly politically, in that he is a staunch Libertarian who thinks nothing good comes from government and prefers solitude. Yet, he and Leslie love and respect each other, despite philosophical differences, something we I wish we could see exemplified more.
This all may sound saccharine, but it’s not. Leslie Knope lives in the real world, and the writers take every opportunity to make social commentary with the steady stream of obstacles she runs into. Pawnee is rarely so besotted with Leslie as we are, and her attempts to do things like build her little park, get the town’s population of obese residents to eat just a tiny bit better, get rid of the racoon population, or get anything done on city council are forever thwarted by forces of political opposition, personal egos, fad mentality, or just plain apathy. Yet, the rule of Parks and Rec is that Leslie Knope always wins the war, even if she loses a fair number of battles along the way.
Over the years, Parks and Rec has grown immensely as an ensemble piece. When Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones left in the middle of last season, taking with them Leslie’s adorable best friend Ann and Chris Traeger’s ever enthusiastic “LIT-e-rally,” I worried the show would suffer, but to the contrary, some of the secondary characters have been given the opportunity to shine and show off their individual talents. The beauty of the final season has been that everyone has had the chance to follow a dream or achieve something that reflects the best part of them. Everyone gets a happy ending on Parks and Rec. Leslie Knope would settle for nothing less for her team.
Leslie Knope’s idealism, optimism, and heart make us love her unabashedly because she is the best of us on our least jaded, most energetic and open-hearted days. Thank you, Parks and Recreation, for being your shining, wonderful self, you beautiful tropical fish. I love you and I like you.