If you’re looking to get into the pants of a feminist, wonkish liberal, make sure to work Parks and Recreation into your sweet nothings. The hit NBC show's main character, Leslie Knope—a hyper-competent assistant parks director played by Saturday Night Live-alumna Amy Poehler—is one of those rare female comic characters who is allowed dignity along with competence. The sitcom is a love letter to the hard-working government bureaucrats who keep our streets clean and our communities safe only to find their work repeatedly bashed by pandering Republicans looking to score points against so-called big government.
Unfortunately, everything that has made the show a winner with the smart set hasn’t resulted in ratings high enough to justify keeping it on the air. Watching the fourth season, I’ve come to fear that, in a last-ditch attempt to save the show, the writers are selling out their vision of a sweet-but-subversive sitcom and saddling Leslie with romantic story lines that buy into the boring old sexism that defines many on-air relationships.
Parks and Recreation struggled in its first season to find the unique voice now beloved by devoted fans. The first incarnation of Knope was basically the female version of Michael Scott on The Office: a self-absorbed character who is unable to relate well to others. But by the beginning of season two, the writers had decided instead to write Leslie less as a nincompoop and more as a loveable, intelligent policy wonk with a deep love of the political system. The new Leslie, who, unlike Michael Scott, has healthy friendships and is respected at her office, bears a strong resemblance to Hillary Clinton. That’s probably not a coincidence, since, during her time on Saturday Night Live, Poehler frequently performed dead-on impersonations of the secretary of state.
Poehler’s girl crush on Clinton had been a matter of public record before Parks and Recreation went on air. During one memorable "Weekend Update" segment with Tina Fey, the two women defended Clinton against sexist attacks with the immortal phrase, “Bitches get stuff done.” Throughout season two and most of season three, Leslie, who keeps a framed picture of Clinton prominently displayed in her office, fully embodied one of those competent bitches.
Above all, Leslie cares about the dignity and well-being of Pawnee residents when the other characters feel apathy. Leslie rescues the parks department from cost-cutting measures by proving its worth with a successful Harvest Festival; saves her friend from trouble by taking the fall for a hunting accident; and uses her wits to prevent a painting from being destroyed by fanatical Christians. For two years, the common thread in the show was that Leslie Knope was the hero of her own story—a nice bit of feminism that didn’t detract in any way from the humor of the show.
Then the writers decided Leslie needed a boyfriend. This shouldn’t be a problem in itself; Leslie has had boyfriends before without any meaningful compromises to her character. For some reason, however, the writers decided that hooking Leslie up with Ben, a nerdy assistant city manager played by Adam Scott, meant returning to tedious Hollywood clichés about how women can’t have both their careers and their love lives. To drive the knife in, throughout season four, Leslie stops being the hero of her own story and spends much of her time being rescued by her new boyfriend.
Things started to go off the rails with an artificial obstacle thrown in the way of Ben and Leslie’s happy coupling: an arbitrary rule established by their mutual boss disallowing office romances. The only purpose for this plot contrivance was to put Leslie in the role that anti-feminists paint as the fate of all ambitious women—trying to choose between love and work, and unable to have both. The writers expected the audience to believe that Leslie’s romance with Ben would somehow sink her reputation with the voters during her run for city council, making the citizens of Pawnee vicious tyrants enforcing the mutual exclusiveness of love and work for women. For a show that used to subvert stereotypes of feminist women, it was a low blow.
Even more insulting, once Leslie found herself in this untenable situation, the formerly competent administrator needed Ben to rescue her at every turn. When Leslie, who once swiftly dumped a boyfriend to keep the job she had, finds herself unable to break up with this new boyfriend to get the job she has always wanted, Ben saves her by dumping her first. Ben also comes to the rescue when their relationship is revealed to their boss; he quits so that Leslie doesn’t lose her job. Ben immediately goes to work as Leslie’s campaign manager, because by this point in the show, it’s just assumed that he’s her natural caretaker.
Last week’s episode, “Bowling for Votes,” epitomized the worst instincts of season four. Leslie, who used to be so competent that she gave a presentation while deliriously ill and nailed it, struggles to understand Ben’s instructions to appeal to the voters en masse instead of trying to win over one guy who disliked her in a focus group. Leslie’s downward spiral of political incompetence only stops when Ben punches the gadfly after he calls Leslie a “bitch,” which causes Leslie to swoon gratefully. It’s hard to imagine season two “bitches get stuff done” Leslie condoning a white knight's violent antics, much less finding such a thing arousing. Even while rating the episode a B, the Onion AV Club described the it as “not Leslie’s finest episode by a long shot.”
It’s not hard to see why the matter-of-fact feminism of earlier seasons might be slowly squeezed out of Parks and Recreation. Community, another NBC sitcom with subversive humor and subsequently low ratings, spent its third season stubbornly refusing to give an inch to mainstream sensibilities, leading to a mid-season hiatus that will almost surely result in cancelation. By sticking to more sexist romantic comedy tropes, Parks may have saved its neck from the ax, but in doing so, it’s quickly losing the charm that once made it the best sitcom on TV.