There’s no wrong time to find Parks and Rec, but I like to think I found it at the right time. I saw my first few episodes at the end of senior year of college. A month later, I left to volunteer for a year in Alaska, Parks and Rec DVDs tucked between my rain boots. I’d been told to pack lightly, but this show was already a necessity.
Within the first week, I’d introduced it to my roommates, so we knew Leslie Knope before we really even knew each other. The show was our language. We wrote Ron Swanson quotes on the bathroom mirror (“Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing”) and Tom Haverford quotes on the fridge. We said yes with “I think I will, good lady” and yelled “MAKE YOUR FACE BETTER” before every photo. Whatever we knew for sure, we attributed to “school.” Any show could have done this. Any good TV series can bring people together. But Parks and Rec also happens to be about bringing people together, and that made it kind of perfect.
Parks is about people who “like to hold hands and jump off cliffs together, into the great unknown.” I felt a bit like that’s what I had done. The image of the Parks Department forcefully pushing Leslie Knope onto her campaign platform in the middle of an ice rink defines that year for me, and not just because of the ice. These people were struggling and underfunded and determined not to let each other stay down. Leslie founded Galentine’s Day and led the Pawnee Goddesses; I worked with girls who needed to be told and told again that they were worth it, that they could make something of themselves. Andy and April drove to the Grand Canyon in the middle of the night because that’s what they’d want to do at the end of the world. We drove to the end of the road in the middle of the night to chase the northern lights (no luck, but the company was unbeatable).
The show mirrored our lives in ways I didn’t even notice at the time, because I was living it, and I’d forgotten that the whole world wasn’t an offbeat small town. Now, saying goodbye to Parks and Rec means losing the most concrete attachment I have to that place, which is Pawnee as much as it is Alaska. Pawnee gives a fence as a beauty pageant prize; a friend in Alaska once ran things through a juicer at the monthly talent show. I like to think that Ben Wyatt would make a face at the camera but secretly really love it.
Leslie made Ben want to put down roots in Pawnee. She taught him how to build something, and he wanted to build it with her, because ultimately, the place is the people. (“The town has really nice blonde hair.”) Parks and Recreation invites us to see a whole world in people and warns us against only seeing other people for what they can add to our world.
“He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, Leslie, he’s selfish. And you’re not. That’s why you don’t like him.”
Parks is not a show about passing through. It’s a show about staying a while, doing the hard work, and fighting tirelessly without applause or acclaim. But it never asks us to get so caught up on the problems that need fixing that we forget to stop and look up.
“In times of stress or in moments of transition, sometimes it can feel like the whole world is closing in on you. When that happens, you should close your eyes, take a deep breath, listen to the people that love you when they’re giving advice, and remember what really matters.”
The people are the place. As long as we know that, we don’t have to be afraid to keep moving—to new jobs, to new cities, to all of those big opportunities that would kill lesser comedies but only ever made Parks stronger. When Leslie lost her seat on City Council, Jen told her to dream bigger.
“Look, you love this town. It’s being run by monsters and morons? Get a better job! Rise above their heads! Effect change at a higher level! … Pawnee has done you a favor. You’ve outgrown them. You’ve got talent, you’ve got name recognition, which means that you have a bright, wide open future with a thousand options.”
There was always tension between Leslie’s big time dreams and her small town pride. She saw herself in the White House but couldn’t see any reason to leave Pawnee. She wanted to sit in the big leather chairs in the important halls of this country, but her best self came out when she was knee deep in dirty river water, or bent over a woman’s garden, or sitting patiently with the concerns of her fellow townspeople, or fighting to save a gazebo. But word of her hard work in Pawnee got back to people in Washington, and her work in Washington can change life in Pawnee. Her very grounded sense of loyalty doesn’t have to ground her career. Everything connects.
I’ve always loved that so many of the characters on this show were created for the actors, tailored to their specific brand of comedy. This is a show about doing what you do best—not to be selfish, but because you never know who might need it. The whole town celebrates Li’l Sebastian because “he does being a mini-horse, and he does it better than anyone.” Even April, so worried that she’s destined to hate everything she tries, took a risk this season to find a career that nurtured her talents, and the whole team supported her in that.
Losing Parks and Rec feels a bit like losing young adulthood, maybe not in terms of age, but in terms of the permission to fall hard. Fall for people, fall for the town you grew up in, fall for Paris, fall on your face, get up, keep going. Don’t settle unless you want to. Don’t be ashamed to settle when you do. Parks is the voice that tells me that this is okay. I’m afraid to lose it. It has more to tell me. I’m afraid that life without Parks and Recreation is colder and less welcoming.
I came home from work last night to a list of scattered feelings I’ve been compiling since I thought about the finale a few months ago at 2:43 am and realized I was so far from ready. I didn’t know where to start, so I picked an episode at random and went from there. Episode 4×13: “Bowling for Votes,” in which Leslie obsessively tries to be all things to everyone, until finally she lets go and lets the ones who love her fight by her side, which is all any of us can ask for when we’re losing control. That’s fitting.
But any episode would have been. I found this show at the right time, but there is no wrong time. Anyone feeling unsettled can take Parks and Rec as encouragement to go on, to dream bigger. Anyone feeling at home can learn from Leslie Knope how to dig deep and stay dedicated until the last light in City Hall goes out. The desire to love is in every stroke of that wildflower mural up on the second floor, and the willingness to bridge gaps between people lives in the doorway of Ron Swanson’s office.
“Look, I’m not crazy. I know Pawnee isn’t Paris or London or Chicago, but it’s a great place to live and work. And serving the goofballs in this town is an honor and a privilege. And yes, every town claims its diner’s waffles are the best in the world, but somewhere in some town there really are the best waffles in the world. So delicious, and rich, and golden brown that anyone who tasted them would decide never leave that town. Somewhere those waffles exist. Why can’t it be here?”
Thanks for the waffles, Parks and Rec. I love you and I like you.