TV Rewind: Watching Parks & Rec in 2020 Is a Relief—Until It Isn’t

At first, rewatching Parks was an escape. Then Pawnee residents started reflecting our current reality.

TV Features Parks and Recreation
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TV Rewind: Watching <i>Parks & Rec</i> in 2020 Is a Relief&#8212;Until It Isn&#8217;t

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind. As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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When I first started re-watching Parks and Recreation a few weeks into quarantine, it felt like a revelation in comfort. The laughs came easy, the heart of the show remained as earnest as I remembered, and hanging out with Ron, April, Leslie and all these other familiar characters felt like taking a walk with old friends. I thought to myself, “Why did I wait so long to re-watch this delightful gem of a show? Why have I deprived myself?!” I had spent so much of my newfound free time cramming in depressing docuseries and all the A24 films I never got around to that I nearly forgot to just watch something I really loved. Then I finally remembered that Parks & Recreation is one of my all-time favorites. It remains one of the most purely joyful sitcoms to ever flash across our screens.

This is all still true, but fellow Parks fans might join me in recognizing how our American reality is becoming more and more like the crazed Pawnee, Indiana, a fictional town filled to the brim with unreasonable, angry human beings. Throughout the NBC series, Leslie, a director at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department, who—bless her—sees the good in everyone and loves Pawnee more than anything, often hosts outlandish town hall meetings. During these public forums, citizens will frequently make ridiculous demands, yelling angrily for sugar to replace fluoride in the city’s water supply or for senior citizen sex education to be replaced with abstinence teachings (a little late for that, right?)

When I first watched the show, I loved it mostly for its quirky, warm characters, who were all just as entertaining as those in Greg Daniels’ other famous series, The Office, but a bit more redeemable. Only now, roughly seven years later, am I realizing that Parks is really at its smartest when doling out biting political satire and criticizing the frustrating processes that define bureaucracy, often using the tiny Pawnee as a microcosm for America. The actual political characters in Parks—from the sex-crazed city council members to the perverted radio deejays to the silly local news hosts—never actually seemed real. However, you may have noticed that our political landscape has become infinitely more absurd in the last seven years. I still never imagined that any scenarios in our real lives would so accurately reflect that of a Parks conundrum.

That is, until I saw the compilation (below) of Florida residents at a town hall meeting viciously protesting their county’s new mask mandate. Folks, hell hath no wrath like a Karen refusing to wear a mask. These women are all over TikTok and Twitter, but here they are especially scary in these clips, which one Twitter user hilariously captioned “turns out parks and rec was a reality show.” Palm Beach County citizens don’t want to wear masks because city leaders are trying to “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out the door.” Hmm. Doesn’t that sound like something a Pawneean would say?

As disheartening as it is to see ignorance, hate, and intolerance spread through America during one of the worst disasters we’ve faced in decades, and as eerie as it is to see echoes of a ludicrous fictional government displayed in our own, Parks can still be an escape if you let it be. If you cherish Leslie and Ben’s adorable relationship, agree that Ann is, in fact, a “beautiful tropical fish,” and the only law enforcement officer you trust is FBI agent Burt Macklin, then Parks just can’t be ruined for you. These characters are too pure and good.

In fact, Parks can even be inspiring during these trying times if you’re paying close enough attention. Not to get all cheesy-crying-during-the-Friends-finale with you, but the lessons Parks and Recreation teaches us about relationships, commitment, and hard work are actually quite lovely, even if those relationships are defined by whiskey, breakfast food, April’s own weird brand of affection, and a tiny horse. I hope to someday have enough Leslie Knope-level passion to put all my blood, sweat, and tears into a cause as worthy as the community Harvest Festival. I hope to secure the energy of Chris. I want the loyalty of Ron Swanson. I crave the innocence of Andy. I want the swagger and savvy of Donna and Tom. I don’t have anything to say about Jerry.

My point is, all the smart political commentary in the world can’t overtake the heart of Parks and Rec. As was evidenced by the delightful quarantine special earlier this year, these characters age exceptionally well, and it’s their friendships and fierce devotion to each other that I’ll remember years from now. When I inevitably return to this show again, it’ll be for the love and loyalty displayed by these goofballs—not necessarily just the oddball workplace humor and political satire. Leslie has had this figured out for way longer than I have:

“We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third.”

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Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.

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