For me, “Parks and Recreation” was that series. I started the first iteration of this blog in the summer of 2009, after “Parks” made its debut in April and before it aired its first full season starting in the fall. During the end of the show’s fourth season and the beginning of its fifth, while Leslie and auditor Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) were fighting for their relationship and decided to get married, I met and started dating the man who would become my fiance. And for all I admire the show’s consistent advocacy for a confident, vigorous vision of liberalism, “Parks and Recreation” has always been deeply concerned with the theme that dominated last night’s finale: the search for a good life.
“Parks and Recreation” was a deeply silly show, but it was also a forcefully optimistic one. The series’ most obvious crusade was for the dignity and value of public service, but “Parks and Recreation” wrote regular mash notes to the institution of marriage. It’s hard to think of another show that has staged so many weddings without losing character momentum or needing to become a different kind of show, and that has so optimistically embraced all the different ways in which marriage can work for couples (even the Pawnee Zoo’s gay penguins).
The dour April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and goofy man-child Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) were the show’s first couple to tie the knot, finding in marriage the mutual support that let them grow from people who ate chili off Frisbees because they didn’t want to buy plates to grown-ups with actual jobs they enjoyed and a child they love, without requiring them to become any less eccentric. Libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) may have made two disastrously ill-advised trips down the aisle with the Tammys (Offerman’s actual wife, Megan Mullally, and Patricia Clarkson), but he was as much defined by his marital optimism as his preference for silence. And Ben and Leslie married in a touching, spontaneous ceremony that cemented their quiet, lovely partnership, defined by Ben’s support and willingness to sacrifice for Leslie’s career.
You can be municipal stenographer Ethel Beavers (Helen Slayton-Hughes), carrying on the busiest social life — including a longtime affair with Pawnee’s Mayor Gunderson (who turned out to be Bill Murray) — in town even into your twilight years, or Jean-Ralphio Saperstein (Ben Schwartz), whose quest for an outrageous lifestyle disguised his yearning for Leslie. But “Parks and Recreation” built a years-long case that marriage was every bit as exciting and rewarding and strange as the dating scene.
For all “Parks and Recreation” celebrated marriage, the series never lost its focus on the joy of work. “When we worked here together, we fought, scratched and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better,” Leslie said in last night’s series finale. “That’s what public service is about: small, incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love.”
“Parks and Recreation” actually made an even more ambitious argument than the one Leslie makes in her Indiana University commencement address: that doing work you love can make your relationships with your friends and family stronger.
Leslie meets her best friend, Ann (Rashida Jones), when Ann comes to a public meeting and asks for Leslie’s help. Without her tenure at the Parks Department, Leslie would never have become friends with Ron, and the end of their time as co-workers puts an almost fatal strain on their deep and abiding bond. Ben and Leslie get to know each other when Ben comes to town to audit the city government. Initially, Leslie is furious at Ben for his role in shutting down her agency, but their antagonism gives way to their shared passion for good government and their work together on each other’s campaigns for office.
Our conversations about work-life balance are rooted in the idea that there’s an inevitable tradeoff between the two. “Parks and Recreation” has always argued instead that work can feed your life and be the shared project that defines your most intimate relationships. That doesn’t mean that problems of workaholism and child care automatically go away. But it does suggest that the battle to have it all, or at least to have a lot, can be a mutual and hugely fulfilling endeavor.
And it doesn’t just have to be your partner who does that work with you. Even before Leslie Knope was a wife or a mother, she was someone who treated friendship as a vocation. Sometimes, she could overcompensate, like when she dragged Tom to a dinosaur-themed restaurant to get over his divorce, or when she pushed Ann to apply for a government job she didn’t really want. But for every instance of Leslie’s pushiness, there was a Galentine’s Day celebration, a scavenger hunt that led Ron to the heartland of Scottish whisky, or even a grand mayoral inauguration for the oft-targeted Garry Gergich (Jim O’Heir).
I miss Leslie Knope already. But as I move forward in my own marriage, work and friendships, I’m so grateful for the lesson she leaves with me: that you learn how much you already have when you start giving to everyone else.