“Leslie has a lot of qualities that I find horrifying. But the worst one is how thoughtful she can be.” [Ron Swanson]
A SHOW ABOUT SOMETHING
I recently wrote about how Seinfeld made it popular for TV characters to be absolute jerks. About how this was intentional and even philosophical, proven by the fact the show’s creators had a “No hugging, No learning” policy for each plot. Other shows have followed suit, to varying degrees.
But Parks and Rec didn’t. It had some of the sarcasm and outrageous personality of Seinfeld, but a lot of it reminded me of the wholehearted goodness and loving relationships on Andy Griffith, to be honest. It was a hybrid of elite but very distinct comedies of two very different eras, a sort of Mayberry meets Monks, and it absolutely hit it out of the park in proving you can have the best of two worlds.
ALL THE FEELS
I’ve only been through the show one time. So I’m not the most qualified to make this declaration, but at first blush I wonder if Parks and Rec would not have been much more like Seinfeld if not for one gigantic reason: the character of Leslie Knope. She was selfless. She had integrity. She was as perpendicular from any of the Seinfeld Four as she could be in how she treated people1. I honestly think left to a world without her, the rest of the characters on P&R would have given us a more typical post-Seinfeld sitcom. They had moments of caring and loving gestures, but it always seemed Leslie was the cause or in the middle of it somehow. Leslie was not my favorite character; I go back and forth between Ron and Andy. But she was the centerpiece for why it was a show that made us feel so deeply in so many ways. She connected the 21st century American sitcom edge with the 1960s American sitcom congeniality.
She was so good, she convicted me in how I live. While watching I would constantly admire her dedication to people and noble endeavors and then immediately feel bad that I often stink in comparison. Here are five ways Leslie made me want to be a better person:
1. She cared about even minor details of her friends’ lives.
I would love to be the kind of friend that can organize the perfect birthday gift or event for others, as Leslie does once for Ron when she sets up a quiet, private room with his favorite drink, a big steak and the two movies he loves. Leslie cannot be beaten for gift giving because she knows people so well. It kills me that I don’t pay attention to details in relationships like this.
2. She was willing to do dirty, menial work.
The big things–like her proving that women can be trash collectors–don’t mean quite as much to me as the more regular things she did, like being at the Pawnee River every Saturday from 8 am to 10 am to pick up trash. I used to have “work pants” I used for dirty ministry. Now I don’t. I even find myself in my white collar teaching job not wanting to get marker residue on my clothes. Leslie helps me want to take pride in getting dirty.
3. She sacrificed time and energy for people.
One of the lasting images of this series to me is when Leslie, after being awake for 48 straight hours, goes over to Ann’s and does her dead level best to listen to Ann talk through not wanting to get engaged to Mark. You can see Leslie doing everything she can to try to stay awake as she starts to nod off, to show Ann how much she matters to her (before Leslie then falls asleep on Ann’s couch for 22 hours). I am not a good enough friend to do this. I wish I were. When Ann leaves in Season 6, Leslie tears were so touching because she loved Ann so much.
4. She changed when wise counsel pointed out her flaws.
One day I’d love to write about Leslie and Ron’s relationship in and of itself, but one aspect I adore is how Leslie would listen to Ron if he spoke truth to her, most notably when Leslie nearly ruins the birthday of Garry Jerry Larry Lenny Barry Gerry by trying to do too much. Ron tells her, “Never half [do] two things. Whole [do] one thing.” And Leslie listened. She always did with Ron. I need to do the same when my friends point out my flaws or mistakes. I often don’t.
5. She put integrity ahead of her dreams and desires.
The show did a fantastic job of setting up Leslie’s hatred of Eagleton just so she could lose a dream city council job fighting for Pawnee to absorb their debt. Because it was the right thing to do. Of course, it’s too easy to say this lies in stark contrast to American politics pretty much my whole life. So I’ll say it lies in stark contrast to some of my actions.
Leslie was such a good person relationally and otherwise, I was actually glad for the moments when Ann or Ron or whoever would complain about some character flaw she had. It made me feel relief to know she was human. Yet she was an exceptional human and role model, even for this middle-aged pastor who reads the Bible every day. You can be closer to Andy than to Jerry and still make TV exceptional in 2016. With Leslie, there was a ton of hugging, and for me, quite a bit of learning.
- At first she seemed to be a female version of Michael Scott, who had his redeeming moments but drowned them in awkwardness, incompetence and self-absorption. Leslie was about the opposite. She could be annoying, even to her friends, but left her mark on TV history as one of the greatest employees, politicians and friends ever. She shed that comparison to Michael quickly. ↩