This season of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” the first season to film in D.C., has been a parade of political cameos. Olympia Snowe and Barbara Boxer chatted with an awestruck Leslie Knope at a Hay-Adams cocktail party. Then John McCain appeared on the scene, soothing Leslie as she sulked outside a coat closet. And in the most recent episode, Leslie met Joe Biden, her long-time political celebrity crush. “My name just came out of your mouth,” she stammered upon their introduction. For Amy Poehler's Knope—the town’s golden retriever of a protagonist, a small-town city councilwoman whose relentless optimism about government gives “Parks and Rec” its huge, buoyant heart—all these small encounters have been the feverish culmination of five seasons’ worth of reveries about Washington. But while “Parks” is as sweetly funny as ever, the introduction of the nation's capital was a somewhat disappointing detour from the original spirit of the show.
Throughout the first four seasons, the charm of “Parks and Rec” has come from its total commitment to a small, hermetic world of its own creation. The fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana, may be the show’s best character, a kind of heartland Anytown, familiar enough to be broadly American but rendered in hilariously precise detail: the town seal featuring a pioneer with his foot on a dead buffalo, the often-repeated fact that corn syrup and rubber nipples are its two leading industries, the fictional media world populated by talk shows like “Ya Heard With Perd” and “Crazy Ira and the Douche,” the mural in City Hall depicting racist scenes from Pawnee history. The show's creators even published a fake book last year called “Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America.” An epigraph to the book quotes Daryl Hannah: “It’s not necessary to go far and wide. I mean, you can really find exciting and inspiring things within your hometown.” And this, however tongue-in-cheek, has long been the animating idea behind the show: that this nutty, inefficient, well-meaning place might even offer up a model of government at large, that the wider world of politics is better left to the imagination.
From the beginning, the myth of Washington loomed over Pawnee. Washington was Leslie’s inspirational “wall of women,” featuring Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. It was her pipe dream of becoming the first female president. It was a projection of all her illusions about the way government should work. “You know what, America is awesome,” Leslie said in the “Parks” pilot. “It’s so full of hope. And small towns and big cities and real people and delicious beverages and hot guys. You just never know when opportunity is gonna strike. You gotta be ready for it.” In Pawnee, this small, sealed-off version of America, the basic absurdities of government—political bluster, obstructive bureaucracy, overweening egos—are redeemed by an undercurrent of good intentions.
This had made “Parks” a rarity on television. Cynicism tends to run deep in government bureaucracy comedies. On shows like HBO’s “Veep” and the BBC comedy “Yes Minister,” government is hollow at the core. People in positions of power are running on a bureaucratic hamster wheel, obsessed with keeping up appearances. In “Veep,” D.C. is not a character but a blank backdrop for the egos of its public officials, and politics is little more than a game of optics. Armando Iannucci, the writer behind “Veep” and the similarly dark-hearted “In The Loop,” has said that “American power feels like it knows what it’s doing, and actually when you lift the lid up, it’s loads of people running around going, ‘I don’t quite know what I’m doing.’”
“Parks,” of course, does exactly the opposite. The lid is lifted and a government that seems entirely ridiculous is revealed to be underpinned by a kind of goofy nobility. When real-world politics surface in the world of the show, Pawnee reflects them back to us like a funhouse mirror, resized to the petty proportions of local government. One episode last season dealt with a small-town version of Birtherism in which Leslie was asked to prove that she was born in Pawnee. Another featured a minor scandal in which a government employee—a janitor—sent out indecent cell phone pictures a la Anthony Weiner. In another episode there was a nod to Harold Camping’s false apocalypse. But the fact that the real D.C., with all its drama and high stakes, seemed to exist only in Leslie’s imagination was key to the optimism at the core of “Parks”; it allowed Pawnee to seem at once comically small and bigger than it was.
Now that Ben has turned down a job in the District, “Parks” appears to be headed back to Pawnee for good. But Washington cast Pawnee into sharp relief. The season premiere opened with a shot of Leslie and Andy (Chris Pratt) in front of the Capitol. “You can practically smell the bills becoming laws,” Leslie breathes. “You can taste the sweet sugar of bureaucracy at work.” And then we begin to see the mechanics of the place: “Every single one of these little twerps is seriously connected,” says Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s boyfriend and a campaign advisor to a congressman, about the interns in his office. One is related to Donald Rumsfeld; another is the offspring of Ben Bernanke’s dentist. The congressman himself is essentially a well-coiffed robot who stares at his wall when not on camera and seems incapable of small talk about anything but the weather.
The characterization of Washington as vacant and vain feels like a cheaper, easier joke than the show generally delivers. And as great as some of the politico cameos have been—McCain’s was a particular gem—D.C. turned “Parks” into a more conventional political comedy. Of course, federal government is harder to romanticize in comedy than local government, where success can be as concrete as a smoothly run harvest festival or a filled-in pothole. But Pawnee, with its dog parks and town meetings and low-level bureaucratic snafus, needs D.C. as fantasy, the sense of reaching toward an imagined place. To see the myth of Washington dully incarnated in a room full of smartphones and pencil skirts feels somehow too literal, a bit of misplaced cynicism from a less generous show.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.