The Politics Of Positivity: How Being Good Makes Parks And Rec Great
September 8, 2016
This article originally appeared in I Love You And I Like You: A Parks And Rec Zine. Available here.
Let's face it, negativity is the basis of a lot of humor. From the Three Stooges beating the crap out of each other to Jim's pranks on The Office, being horrible to others does something to tickle the funny bone. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but it works. There's a reason why Chandler was the funniest Friend. Barbs and potshots make up a vast quantity of TV comedy. As a species, we seemed inclined to take joy in misery and it's not hard to see why. It's fun and easy to indulge in.
And then there's Parks and Recreation.
Parks and Recreation is built on the rarest TV quality: positivity. Not the schmaltzy sitcom sort of positivity where families are awful to each other for half an hour and then hug before the credits roll, but real positivity. Characters grow and change. They push each other to do better, to improve. They encourage each other. This is a program that recognizes how vital positivity is to developing as a person, to changing yourself and the world around you for the better.
And it's funny not despite this, but because of it.
The main force behind this is Leslie Knope. We see overachievers all the time on TV, bossy know-it-alls with their noses to grindstone. They're pushy, obnoxious, desperately trying to make it to the top no matter what and at first glance, it's easy to mistake Leslie for one of these kinds of characters. She has a lot of the same attributes, to be sure, but what's different about Leslie is that she believes in people, really believes in them. She wants to be the best, sure, but it's because she wants everyone to be their best. She works hard not to show off or to prove herself, but because she genuinely wants to make things better and she pushes the people around her to do the same. That desire drives her, but it also inspires those around her. Over the course of the show, we start to see the people in Leslie's life benefit from her influence.
One of the amazing things about the show is that it portrays a fairly real world. It doesn't ignore the power of negativity. This isn't a world where a positive attitude is all you need to succeed, where goodness is immediately rewarded and badness is punished. Leslie fails. She fails a lot. There are people who have clawed their way to the top through negativity and they use that negativity to tear Leslie down. It's easier to get people to hate something than to like it. Negative reviews are more fun to read than positive, starting a fight is much simpler than stopping one, and nothing unites a group like a good enemy. People don't always want to be helped and doing the right thing can sometimes turn around and bite you right in the ass. Leslie's attempts to make Pawnee a better town end up losing her her city council seat. She doesn't roll over and take it. Goodness is often synonymous with being passive: a lot of media falls into the villain or victim dichotomy. Not Parks and Rec. Leslie doesn't let her failures stop her. Sometimes things suck no matter what you do, but that's no reason to stop doing the right thing.
Interestingly, this show is one of the few places where negativity is shown as immature. Often times being dismissive and sarcastic is seen as signs of adulthood. Enthusiasm is portrayed as being childish and dumb. Being into things is what you do when you're young and naïve before you become wise and jaded. Wisdom is so often tied to apathy that passion has become a sign of ignorance. Parks and Rec flips this. Leslie loves her job. Leslie is driven and filled with the sort of furious joy you see in people doing what they really love. Throughout the show the forces that oppose Leslie seem to be far more childish than our ebullient protagonist. From the Sweetums Corporation
and the babyish Bobby Newport to the juvenile antics of Councilman Jamm, villainy in Parks and Rec is far more rooted in immaturity than actual malice. The town itself shows this when it fights every attempt Leslie makes to improve things better. Selfishness. Short sightedness. Lack of empathy. These are the forces that get in our protagonists' way. April's attitude is one of the best parts of the show, but over the course of seven seasons she realizes that it's okay to be excited about things you like. That you can be an adult without giving up the things that you love. That you actually need that passion to get things done. That being sarcastic and dismissive can be fun in the short term, but to succeed you need drive, you need something you feel strongly about.
Mean-spirited humor is not going anywhere. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't enjoy the darker humor of a lot of media. But I'd also be a liar if I didn't acknowledge the breath of fresh air that is Parks and Rec's unbridled optimism. It's wonderful to have a piece of media that not only accepts the power of enthusiasm, but celebrates it. A show that doesn't take shortcuts, but finds the humor in loving what you do and helping others find things that they love too. A show that acknowledges that doing the right thing is hard and often thankless, that sometimes it can be painful and that the pay-offs can be a long time coming, but that in the end it is better to be passionate than passive. That that passion is necessary to change things for the better.
And that's the power of love.
About the author:
Max writes comics about comics at Waiting For The T.
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