The writers for “Parks and Recreation” weren’t Ray Kurzweil futurists whose jobs required them to make accurate predictions of the future. They didn’t bring crystal balls to work or hire psychics to forecast the 2016 presidential election race.
Yet it is impossible not to draw parallels between the sitcom’s storylines and the political landscape of the United States in 2016. Several of the scenes during the beloved six-season series that aired on NBC from 2009 to 2015 have foreshadowed this year’s presidential campaign.
And while Amy Poehler’s character Leslie Knope, a fast-rising small town Indiana politician with a long career in public service, was an amalgam of different female politicians, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton served as one of the character’s major inspirations.
“In the pilot, [Knope] mentions a bunch of female politicians that were role models for her,” Schur said. “Hillary was a sort of role model just for the way she gutted things out and sort of forged on in the face of adversity.”
Schur, a 41-year-old television producer and writer who follows politics closely, also noted that Knope was “far more to the left than Hillary” when the character was created. He said that Knope was “probably closer to an Elizabeth Warren” and that the writers worked in the personalities and political careers of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, among others.
In the fourth season of the show, Knope runs for a spot on the city council against Bobby Newport, a wealthy, clueless heir of a candy company who is uninterested in the actual work of being a city councilman.
Despite her qualifications and experience, Knope struggled in her campaign against Newport, whose money and fame were enough to gain supporters. Schur said he sees some similarities between Newport and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but added that none of the characters on the show were based on Trump, who officially announced his campaign in June 2015, a few months after the show had ended.
“It’s not a very good analogy, in my opinion,” Schur said. “Bobby Newport was much more benign than Trump is.”
The show also makes it clear that as a woman, Knope faced hurdles and assumptions that male politicians often do not.
Voters simply did not like Knope for her wonkish personality (“Bowling for Votes”), and she was expected to play traditional gender roles by competing in a pie-baking contest to support her husband’s congressional campaign (“Pie-Mary”). Plus, she and Rashida Jones’s character were called “pains in the ass” for being proactive (“Ann and Chris”) – a scene that recalls Trump’s “nasty woman” comment toward Clinton during the third presidential debate.
In an earlier episode (“Flu Season”), Knope catches the flu but insists on giving her public presentation – reminiscent of when Clinton continued campaigning while ill with pneumonia.
Schur said the storylines would not have been much different had the show continued into this year’s presidential election, but added that he feels somewhat glad that it concluded when it did.
“To some extent, I have certainly had the thought, as I’m sure many writers have, is that if you wrote this [election] nobody would believe it,” Schur said. “Very frequently it doesn’t feel real. You kind of can’t focus your eyes or your brain on whatever has happened before something else crazier has happened. I actually think if the show was still on the air, we might be sidestepping this stuff.
“I think it would be enormously difficult to write a show about government in the aftermath of this election because I think everybody has tremendous fatigue,” he continued with a laugh. “I don’t think anyone is going to want to think about politics for two years.”
As for the show’s finale, Schur and his writing team intentionally left in a bit of mystery.
After becoming the Midwest regional director of the National Park Service, Knope is elected the governor of Indiana in the year 2025. In one of the last scenes, Knope and her husband, Ben Wyatt, are approached by a man who appears to be a Secret Service agent. The implication is that either Knope or Wyatt have become the president of the United States, but Schur would not confirm that was the case. (“We didn’t want to say explicitly one way or another what were Leslie and Ben’s ultimate spot.”)
Schur also made sure that when the show time-jumped into the future, there was no reference to who the U.S. president will be in 2017, the year in which the majority of the final season takes place.
“The vagaries of presidential politics, as we’ve now seen, [are] impossible to predict,” he said, without any trace of irony.