From the Mundane to the Idyllic: The Fantasyland of Parks and Recreation—A Eulogy

One of the most interesting things about the 1992 SNL-spinoff film Wayne’s World is that it never really ends. The series of schemes and ploys concocted by Wayne and Garth to defeat Rob Lowe’s scheming, slimy manager, and gain fame and fortune for love-interest Cassandra, converge in Wayne’s basement-cum-TV studio not once, but three times. First up is the initial, linear ending, where all the threads come together but with a whimper rather than satisfying resolution. The scheme works but falls short. The businessman is impressed but decides not to sign the towering chanteuse, Wayne’s ex turns out to be pregnant, and, despite their best-laid plans, Rob Lowe’s slimy manager wins out and rides off to the tropics with Cassandra. The film halts, rewinds, and they try again. This is followed by the Scooby-doo ending, and, finally, “The Happy Ending”.

The fascinating thing here is how the multiple endings paradoxically make the film feel more inconclusive. The characters aggressively break the fourth wall, hijacking the movie, Funny Games-style, and revert the film from the bleak, logical reality of the impenetrability of the modern dream-factory/entertainment industry. Wayne and Garth’s meta-diegetic-rewind pulls a reverse-Haneke—from plausible, sobering reality to a fantasy—and, they do so through the looking-glass of popular culture, referencing a generation raised on episodic Saturday morning television where, by half-hour’s end, the central conflict will invariably be resolved and the good guys will win out. The endlessly rewatchable, perennial favorite for one of the best sitcoms of this decade, NBC comedy Parks & Recreation pulled something similar in its recent conclusion. But, rather than just commenting on a particular perspective or generation, it left us with a fun-house view of the death of the American dream.

Throughout its run, Parks & Rec spoke to an audience and a generation that is more liberal, more informed, more educated, and more skeptical. Along the way, typically liberal policies and initiatives are championed by protagonist Leslie Knope, including a tax on oversized, Big Gulp-inspired soft drinks, government support for bankrupt institutions and historical landmarks, and the necessity of regulating ever-expanding corporations. The show effectively mirrored many trending demographic shifts that have occurred from generation to generation—increasing liberalism, increasing reliance on and call for social programs, relaxed attitudes toward same sex marriage and “traditional values,” etc.—while still maintaining a connection with generations past and a moderate, idealistic sensibility.

Parks & Rec started as a show about a big-hearted but socially inept small town deputy director fighting an uphill battle against ineptitude and bureaucracy, facing a gauntlet of “red-tape” that stood between her and her modest ambitions, and ended its run by turning her into a superhero. The struggles and bureaucracy are left behind the further along she moves. The farcically imbalanced bookends signal something different at play, hidden below layers of sentiment and humor—a carnivalesque, absurd fantasyland that transposes the mundane for the idyllic. What was initially a small-stakes game gets stretched to such a degree that it becomes a parody of governance, and political ambition.

The clincher here is the jump into the future for season 7, which injected science fiction elements into the mix, placing these characters in the midst of free-flying drones, projection tablets, and smart-everything, while they continued living out their day-to-day work lives. By season’s end, everyone gets a happy ending. Donna finds love and success in real estate such that she can buy property in different regions of the country; Tom finds love, founds a successful chain of Italian restaurants, which go under, then he is even more successful as a motivational speaker; Jerry/Terry/Larry becomes mayor for decades and lives to 100; Ron finds love and gets out of government, starting a very successful construction business; April figures out her dream job and gets it without hassle; Andy has a successful children’s program with surprisingly good production values and writing, which all his friends have plenty of time to participate in; Ben becomes a congressmen; and Leslie becomes a long-serving congresswoman (and possibly the first female president, as she always dreamed). Pawnee itself is transformed from a tiny, dysfunctional town to a blossoming, beautiful, idyllic, hyper-modern small city with skyrocketing property values and free wireless internet for all. Though the show never exactly trafficked in gritty realism, the preponderance of fairy tale endings here feels pointed.

The ideological maneuvering on display here, to my mind, reflects the complicated, difficult relationship many millennials have with modern-day politics. There is a pervasive mistrust, a sense that truth is concealed, that easy answers do not exist. This is where I think Parks & Rec may have tried something different—call it an act of self-immolation—transitioning us from the more obvious Gen X meta-hijacking of Wayne’s World to a more complicated, subtle, and thorny version, upping the stakes and catering to the redoubled sensibilities of Gen Y, raised not only on television, but on the excesses, deconstructions, and fragmentations of the internet age. The looking-glass is buried deeper below the surface, but we were pulled through nonetheless.

The fantasia at the core of the show’s conclusion, and the incoherence this breeds, mirrors deeper, less relatable issues and trends endemic in the generational audience—detachment from institutions, less interest in the specifics of political affairs, less interest in meaningful, coherent philosophies on life, and less certainty about our collective capacity to solve larger societal ills. The subtext seems to be shouting that this world we are viewing is not real—it is too fun, too likeable, too clean, too idealistic. Gen Y’s development and perspective has come to be defined by economic downturn, rising unemployment, increasingly limited upward mobility, and waning idealism. Parks & Rec created a world where people can rise with absurd rapidity, jobs are plentiful and are constantly being tossed around, time is an unlimited resource, and prosperity is not only possible, but achievable again and again.

Of course, it’s always possible that I’m reading too much into all this. On one level, it’s always somewhat dubious to go searching for an alternate reading—forging a contrarian path or searching for something that isn’t there. In some ways Parks & Rec manages to have it both ways—positive, communal, and optimistic, as well as cynical, skeptical, and incoherent. It’s important to note too that the show was originally a Trojan Horse concept, born of a deep frustration with the political campaigns leading up to the 2008 presidential election, but pitched as a workplace comedy in the mold of The Office and as a vehicle for Amy Poehler. For an audience raised on a steady diet of densely-packed pop-culture-referencing and refracting texts, sifting through and searching for complexity and meaning underneath mounting confections is the name of the game.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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