Amy Poehler and Kathryn Hahn are standing under hot lights, dressed in power suits and discussing potential blackmail. They are shooting a scene for the upcoming season finale of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” one in which Hahn’s Jennifer Barkley — the Blackberry-addicted, ultra-savvy political consultant — attempts to bribe Poehler’s Leslie Knope, perpetual optimist, one-time deputy of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department and current city council candidate.
“How about a year’s supply of Sweetums candy?” Hahn offers, promising a 365-day sugar high courtesy of Knope’s campaign rival and heir to the Sweetums corporation, Bobby Newport.
Poehler is momentarily tempted. “Now hold on a second . . . ” she whispers to her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben Wyatt, played by Adam Scott.
It’s a funny moment and the actors nail it on multiple takes. But after huddling with two fellow producers, Michael Schur — co-creator of “Parks and Recreation” and the episode’s director — decides it needs a new bribe. (Why the bribe? That’s a spoiler that the “Parks” team has deemed classified information.)
They run the scene again, and this time, Barkley offers something really enticing. “I can give you Joe Biden’s home phone number,” she says.
It’s a ridiculous statement, a wry political reference and an inside joke that refers to the torch Knope carries for the 47th vice president of the United States. And that puts it smack in the show’s wheelhouse.
“Parks and Recreation,” in its fourth season on NBC, prides itself on being a show about quirky bureaucrats as well as, paradoxically, an apolitical enterprise. Some of its characters may espouse certain philosophies — Ron Swanson’s live-and-let-live- while-eating-bacon brand of libertarianism, or Leslie’s stereotypically liberal belief that government can solve all problems — but party affiliations have studiously been avoided.
“One of the rules we laid down early on with Leslie, I mean long before she ran for office, is that we were never going to use the words Democrat or Republican in reference to her, or anybody else,” Schur said during a phone conversation a month after shooting the bribe scene.
Schur and his fellow writers have stuck to that rule even while riffing on current events. (Previous episodes have tackled controversies involving the validity of Leslie’s birth certificate, relations between the United States and Venezuela, and gay marriage . . . between penguins.) But this season’s campaign plotline could be a turning point for both the series and the ambitious Knope, whose female-aspirational office decor features photographs of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.
Can Knope, a character who came to TV life less than three months after President Obama’s inauguration, beat one-percenter Bobby Newport (played with affable cluelessness by Paul Rudd) and score a victory for hardworking government officials with integrity? And even if she wins, can she maintain that integrity as an elected official?
“Leslie Knope is the child of ‘Yes we can,’ you know,” says Poehler. “She’s the person who believes that no matter how much power you have, you can make a difference. You can contribute. You can change things. Her kind of blind spot is how slow and hard it is, how slowly change happens.”
While that may suggest that “Parks and Recreation” is using its campaign story line to comment on the national political climate, Schur says that’s not the case.The election plot “really was more dictated by the natural progression of the characters and their lives than it was that this is an election year,” he says. “But it was a nice dovetail that we had the idea in a year when there was a national campaign.” That dovetailing has injected “Parks and Rec” with a bit of inside-the-Beltway juice.At a fundraiser last month in New York — one where Aziz Ansari, who plays Tom Haverford on “Parks and Rec,” spoke — President Obama noted that his older daughter, Malia, is a “big ‘Parks and Recreation’ fan.”
A few days after Obama’s remarks, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — a very real union that represents actual government employees like the ones in fictional Pawnee — held a pro-Knope rally outside of its D.C. headquarters in what was, admittedly, a shameless attempt to persuade Poehler to speak at its annual conference. The group also posted a YouTube video that shows its members phonebanking for Knope while eating her favorite food, waffles loaded with whipped cream.
“We love the show because too often public service workers are vilified by the media,” explained Tiffany Ricci, an AFSCME employee who helped organize the Leslie Knope advocacy.Even Vice President Biden seems to be aware of the show’s, uh, references to him. (“He’s on my celebrity sex list,” Leslie previously confessed. “He is my celebrity sex list.”)“The Vice President encourages all citizens to get involved in public service,” Biden’s press secretary, Kendra Barkoff, said in an e-mail when asked to comment on Knope’s crush. “We here in his office have followed Ms. Knope’s career with interest and wish her well on her upcoming election.”
Yet before you assume that “Parks and Recreation” is actually bluer and more pro-Obama than its stated apolitical stance indicates, consider the man who has emerged as perhaps the most beloved character on the show: the aforementioned Ron Swanson, staunch advocate for guns, manual labor and the end of taxation, with or without representation. The “Parks and Rec” personality unofficially responsible for the most Tumblrs, YouTube montages and other assorted online memes, he’s the ultimate antigovernment government employee. Proof: In the April 19 episode, he was promoted to assistant city manager even after stating, “I do not believe the position nor the entire government should exist.”
“I always like to think that [‘Parks and Rec’ co-creators] Greg Daniels and Mike Schur are to blame for coming up with the perfect piece of candy that the American psyche was kind of craving,” says Nick Offerman, the man behind Swanson. “And it happened to be just a sort of normal, blue-collar, plumber-like man who likes meat and brunettes and breakfast foods and lives by a simple code.”
Perhaps it’s that combination of viewpoints — Swanson’s open frustration with government, Knope’s warm embrace of it and, for good measure, Tom’s belief that get-rich-quick capitalism can save the day — that makes“Parks and Rec” so right for these times, like a more sarcastic, oddball, localized version of “The West Wing.” In fact, if the ethos of the show could be distilled and turned into a candidate for any political party, it seems fair to assume it would win.But despite its loyal fan base, it hasn’t been winning in the Nielsen ratings.
“Parks and Rec” began its fourth season by consistently grabbing 4 million-plus viewers each week, but in its new 9:30 p.m.Thursday time slot, immediately after “The Office,” about 3.4 million people watched last week. (ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’s “Person of Interest,” its competition in the 9 p.m. hour, snagged 9.8 and 8.8 million sets of eyeballs, respectively.) NBC has not yet announced whether it plans to renew “Parks and Rec,” although, given the media and online attention it continues to attract, that seems likely.And if Knope’s tenacity — dare we say, the audacity of Knope? — leads her to continue climbing the political ladder, it could open new story line possibilities for Poehler’s protagonist. Perhaps, even, a move to Washington?
“She’s not a complacent person,” Schur says of Knope, who will debate Rudd’s Newport in the April 26 episode, directed by Poehler. “She really loves her job and she really loves her town. But she’s antsy. She wants to move up in the world and I don’t see any reason to deny the character that pleasure.”
“The show is about the fact that there’s a lot of people who work together who have nothing in common except for the fact that they work together,” notes Poehler. “That really describes, to me, national politics.”