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The Gospel of Pawnee: Theology of Parks and Recreation

This past week, my favorite television concluded its run.  “Parks and Recreation” has survived for seven seasons on network television–a staggering feat in an increasingly cookie-cutter landscape of multi-camera sitcoms, crime procedurals, and shows about doctors being very bad at medicine.

In the midst of all these things, Parks and Rec managed to stake out ground all by itself–optimistic, but not delusional; romantic, but not twee; quirky, but not so meta that you felt it should have a beard and hipster glasses.  And most of all, genuinely funny.

There’s nothing overtly religious about the show.  (Well, that’s not entirely true–there is a cult called the Reasonablists, who believe the world will end when a giant lizard god named Zorp comes to eat the planet.  As you do.)  But the world and point of view of the show is incredibly strong, which is a gift when pop culture so influential on how and what we think.

I discovered the show about halfway through the second season.  I knew I was sold during the hunting trip episode, when Leslie takes the blame for accidentally shooting her boss, Ron Swanson, in the head.  She’s questioned by the local ranger, who has decided that this accident was inevitable, because of course, women are so easily distracted that they’re prone to shooting people. Leslie sort of frowns, and goes off on a spiel of sarcastic reasons why she shot Ron, all based on sexist stereotypes.  “I just get emotional when I don’t have a boyfriend and I feel like shooting something!  I think I saw some chocolate? I’m bad at math, good at tolerating pain, and bad at concentrating.”

It was hilarious, but most of all, it introduced Leslie as someone who was passionate about lots of things most people on TV aren’t passionate about:  women’s rights, the positive role of government, public policy, the minute details of pretty much everything.  And while Leslie’s passion and intensity was frequently presented as intimidating to others, it was never presented as a psychosis or something she needed to lessen.  It was the source of her strength.  In Leslie, we had a role model for how to be passionate and effective, in the middle of a system that was confused by your presence.

Meanwhile, while Leslie sees the glories of government, one of her dearest friends is an avowed libertarian, who works for the city expressly to stop its functioning.  Eventually, her team comes to include a failed teen mayor, a misanthropic intern, a possibly-brain-damaged guy who lived in a pit, and a man who’s life’s ambition is to live inside a rap video.  These people are wildly different, with little in common.  Mostly, they’re a dysfunctional hodge-podge of Fail.  But when they unite around a common goal, each finds their own way to be effective.  Turns out, the libertarian boss was also a strong feminist.  The pit-living guy performed in a half-way decent rock band.  Over the course of the series, these odd people form a tight-knit community, based on their love and support of one another.

Which is probably the biggest thing I loved about Parks and Recreation.  The show presented a world in which the characters were motivated by love.  Despite its plethora of weird inhabitants, odd customs, atrocious history, etc, Leslie loves Pawnee like she would love a child.  Her passion for the town drives her decisions–even when the citizens are yelling at her (The frequent town hall meetings are a delight, just for the problems of the townspeople.  “I found a sandwich in one of your parks and I want to know why it didn’t have mayonnaise on it.” ) even when they make incredibly dumb choices, even when they eventually turn on her entirely.  All the characters do.  The show itself treats the characters with deep affection–even the wackiest of them.  Everyone has their quirks, but Pawnee is a place where odd ducks and weirdos are celebrated.  It was such a warm and affectionate world that gloried in the weirdness of its people.

I’m sorry to say goodbye.

 

 

 

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

3 responses »

  1. Dear Megan, We of Epiphany are all so excited to hear that you are coming for Palm Sunday. We are all looking forward to seeing you and especially, hearing you preach. Judi Frerichs

    Reply
  2. Dear Megan,

    On behalf of my 14-year-old agnostic wonder-girl, I thank you for this marvelous tribute to a show and a character who have brought so much empowering entertainment to our lives. I am the leader of my daughter’s senior Girl Scout troop. In a recent meeting, we worked on our Mission Sisterhood Journey curriculum (an expanded badge program), in which we examine important bonds between females. We watched the episode about the Pawnee Goddess Scouts and their rivals-turned-converts, the Pawnee Rangers, and commented on the different kinds of relationships represented in the episode, and how the Goddesses interacted compared to the Rangers. Afterwards, we took a cue from Leslie Knopes’ Galentine’s Day festivities, and made paper “Galentine” awards for women and girls in our lives with inner qualities that we value.

    Reply

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