It’s 2017: do you know where Leslie Knope is?
This was the question that NBC’s comedy "Parks and Recreation" (2009-2015) asked in its final season, when it pulled the bold stunt of flash-forwarding its characters three years into the future.
Show protagonist Leslie (Amy Poehler) has gone from a mid-level, small-town bureaucrat to a high-powered, federal officer and the rest of the cast had all likewise become implausibly successful: loser Andy (Chris Pratt) had his own TV show, Ben (Adam Scott) has invented a world-changing board game a la Settlers of Catan, and Tom (Aziz Ansari) had become a tech mogul.
Looking forward allowed the show’s writers to create a new dynamic for "Parks and Rec’s" final outing and to tell some clever jokes: yes, the Cubs did win the World Series, no, Shia LaBeouf did not become a wedding-dress designer. Pop culture website Mashable made a point-by-point analysis of the show’s predictions but now that we’re actually in 2017, the show bears a detailed look-back.
No park too small
When it started in 2009, "Parks and Rec" promised to mix the chocolate of Poehler’s "Saturday Night Live" success with the peanut butter of "The Office"-style mockumentary. Poehler’s Hillary Clinton parody had brought her in front of plenty of eyeballs during the 2008 election while producer Greg Daniels has one of the best comedy resumes in Hollywood ("SNL," "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and of course "The Office").
"Parks and Rec's" first season feels a lot like a bad copy of its big brother show: Knope’s incompetent bungling felt far too much like "The Office's" Michael Scott, but the show quickly corrected and made her the anti-Michael. Whereas the comedy with Michael was watching an incompetent person struggle in a position of authority, Leslie was a hyper-competent person overblowing a very tiny job (ie no park was too small for her).
This would be underscored every week by the show’s excellent intro, with a perky theme song that sounded like a tune tailor-made for a toy dog parade.
One key to the show’s quirky success was its clever use of the small-town environment. "Parks and Rec" populated the fictional Pawnee with a host of oddball supporting characters as did the "The Simpsons." The break-through episode for this was Season 2’s Telethon (written by Poehler herself) where a host of weirdos are paraded out to raise money to fight diabetes.
The show had an explicit, yet non-dogmatic, feminist bent: its two stars were females (Poehler along with Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins), and the focus of the show would be their friendship more than any romantic entanglements. Ironically, the two actors who got the biggest bump from the show were its male co-stars: Nick Offerman and Chris Pratt, even if the latter’s success might have cost him his marriage.
Rise and fall
The show’s highpoint, however, became its eventual downfall: Leslie’s hyper-competence. This started with the seminal 2011 episode Harvest Festival, where Leslie satisfyingly leads her team to host a successful event of the same name. And it just kept going, with Leslie’s political journey feeling less like comedy and more like narcissism.
The longer the show went on, the more the writers raised the stakes. By the time the show flashed to 2017, Leslie was leading an army rather than a tiny department. She went from a lovable overachiever to basically some kind of superhero. "Parks and Rec" became less an ensemble comedy and more a vehicle for Poehler’s ego.
In the seventh season of "The Office," we saw Michael Scott finally grow up, but then he left. Just as an emotionally mature Michael wasn't funny, seeing Leslie Knope make a mountain out of a mole hill was far more funny than her actually being in charge of a mountain.
This problem was underscored by the slow burn of losing actors. When Jones’ Anne Perkins left halfway through Season 6, the show lost its emotional core.
However, most of the series is still very good, and if you haven’t watched it, I suggest you do. Given the sad state of modern TV comedy, you’ll find more laughs in an old episode of "Parks and Rec" than anything in the upcoming fall shows.
Jared Whitley is an award-winning writer who comments on the intersections of politics and culture. Reach him on Twitter @whitleypedia — or don't, since Twitter is stupid.