It’s a rare thing in television these days to see an optimistic character, whose very buoyancy is typically the stuff of mockery. Perhaps indicative of the need the audience has in the uncertain times that we live in, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope—played by Emmy nominee Amy Poehler—has been embraced by both critics and viewers.
In NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which returns Thursday for a fourth season, Poehler plays Leslie, not as a bumbling bureaucrat, but as a city employee whose zeal for improving the lives of those around her in Pawnee, Ind., is often at odds with the reality of governmental red tape. The first season followed Leslie and her cohorts at the Parks and Recreation Department—along with a hodgepodge of assorted locals, like Rashida Jones’s nurse Ann Perkins—as they attempted to transform an eyesore of a pit into a park. (The pit was filled in during Season 2, but that lot is still vacant, and that plot continues.)
The show’s third season, which was nominated for an Emmy Award for best comedy but lost to Modern Family, saw a ratings spike of nearly one million. It finally seemed that, despite early critical acclaim, the show was finally winning over viewers as well.
“People started to pay attention to the show and like it, and we got to put our heads down and do good work,” said Poehler from the set of Parks and Recreation. “This feels like a very nice Midwestern moment where hard work and public notice is intersecting.”
“Greg and I, when we were creating the show, wanted to put our main character in a very deep hole, literally and figuratively, because her project that started the show was this giant pit,” said Schur, sitting in his office in Studio City, just a few steps from the Parks and Recreation set. “We wanted to say this is a very optimistic and forward-thinking person who in her very name is being confronted with negativity and downerism all of the time, and that’s what she is struggling to overcome.”
Poehler’s Knope has managed to become a shining beacon in a sea of cynicism; she’s a can-do crusader who never manages to become as irritating as, say, The Office), because she cares too much. Surrounded by a cast of lovably oddball individuals, Leslie is just as strange as those she works alongside but there’s something magnetic about her personality—and the show as a whole, functioning in a way as an anti-depressant in television form.
“One of the themes of our show since the beginning is that optimism is better than pessimism,” said Schur. “I think that’s a message that resonates with people.”
Poehler’s co-star Nick Offerman, who plays Leslie’s libertarian boss, Ron Swanson, agreed. “It’s really optimistic,” he said, sitting in his namesake’s office and strumming a guitar between takes. “It’s a new thing: the comedy of hope.”
The cast has assembled inside the conference room set on the show’s cavernous stage to shoot the fifth episode of Season 4, which finds the Rapture coming to Pawnee in the form of the followers of “Reasonablism,” adherents of a giant lizard God named Zorp who believe the end of the world is nigh. In true Parks and Recreation fashion, such an event isn’t an excuse to shirk one’s duties, and Leslie agrees to chaperone the banquet, forcing Ann to participate as well. Chris Pratt’s Andy—City Hall’s star “shoeshinist” and would-be rock God—is excited to taste the Nectar of 1,000 Sorrows, a mixture of “root beer and red wine.”
The show has imbued the fictional town with immense possibility, similar to The Simpsons’ Springfield. Schur and Daniels, who worked on The Simpsons, had managed to bring to life the painful realism of corporate existence with The Office, and they wanted to do the same with the public sector, creating a vividly real town in Pawnee.
“That’s not something you can do in a pilot, but the idea was always, let’s investigate the media, let’s meet some of the politicians, the teachers, the morality police, the hippies, the burnouts, the cult guys, and the drug dealers,” said Schur. “Let’s try to tell a story of an entire town.”
Notable minor characters—ace newspaper reporter Shauna Malwae-Tweep (Alison Becker), adulterous city council member Bill Dexhart (Kevin Symons), perennially sunny TV anchor Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson), and bitchy talk-show host Joan Callamezzo (Mo Collins), among many others—pop up with the frequency of The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man, adding a verisimilitude to the plots. This is, after all, a small town, and there’s a joy in seeing these familiar faces. (Schur said that Joan fans need to keep an eye on the third episode, “Joan’s biggest” yet.)
“It’s this endless well of eccentric small town characters,” said Adam Scott, who—along with Rob Lowe—joined the show at the end of Season 2 as Leslie’s would-be love interest Ben Wyatt. “It’s an overused adage that the town is a character in the show…but the people that the town spits out are definitely a nice recurring character on the show.”
But if there’s one character who has broken into the public consciousness, it’s Ron Swanson, played by Offerman, who recently won the Television Critics Association’s Individual Achievement in Comedy Award for his portrayal of the fastidiously fatalistic Ron, a man who loves woodworking, bacon, and keeping the government out of his life.
“He’s not a character who is seen very much on TV these days,” said Schur. “He’s…rugged and has a big, bushy mustache that’s not an ironic hipster mustache, it’s just a mustache. He loves red meat unabashedly and he doesn’t wax his chest. He’s just a very manly guy.”
“I feel like our society longs for someone to have the simplicity of vision that Ron has,” said Offerman. “In this day and age, we’re bombarded with so much information and choice that to see this heroic edifice of a man who lives by a set of simple rules is really inspiring to me. People wish they could just say, ‘Yes, I want to eat red meat and only use tools and firearms. That sounds like a happy, simple life.’”
If Ron represents a strain of realism, Leslie represents the unfettered bounds of pure optimism. Season 4 will find the assistant parks director considering running for a seat on the city council, with an election year rapidly approaching. “If she does decide to run for office,” said Poehler, “this season will have a lot of campaign stuff, which will be really, really fun to play. Small-town campaigns are really wonky and dirty and fun, and they’re not like these big, majestic presidential machines; they’re really scrappy.”
It’s also an opportunity for Poehler’s Leslie to achieve one of her dreams: to be a member of a political dynasty with her mother, cunning politico Marlene Griggs Knope (Pamela Reed).
“The city council is just Phase 2 of a 15-phase plan that she has,” said Poehler. “By the time she’s 75, she will be cutting the ribbon of her own library as the first female president of the United States. Former president, because by 75, she’ll already be touring the Middle East, so people can thank her for creating peace there.”
While Parks and Recreation embraces political satire, Schur said he and the writers are careful not to be too partisan, even when tackling stories about culture and government. “We try to keep our own beliefs out of the stories, and we’ve done stories that are very traditionally conservative,” he said.
“We had an episode that was very anti-Venezuelan oil barons…We’ve had other episodes like the one we did about an evil corporation, Sweetums, which is peddling corn syrup. That was more liberal in terms of wanting to stop a corporation...We try not to grind any axes…we just try to make light of the dumb things in the culture.”
The show also relishes the opportunity to puncture the audience’s expectations. Last season, Andy (Pratt) and April (Aubrey Plaza) unexpectedly married after just a few episodes of dating. “The writers really challenge themselves,” said Pratt. “They paint themselves into a corner and enjoy finding the craftiest way to get out of it. Putting two people who are circling each other romantically into a marriage right away, you throw away all of those storylines that come with the courtship, most of which are pretty tired.”
“This is the way people are not going to get tired of April and Andy and the ‘will they hook up, will they not?’ [question],” he continued. “They’re f---ing married now…It seemed right for the characters too, to do something impulsive and crazy, thoughtless and stupid.”
Plaza agreed. “It’s kind of cooler the way they did it,” she said. “Instead of building up and having wedding promos and having it be this whole event, it was like ripping a Band-Aid off.”
With April and Andy married off, much of the romantic tension has been placed on Leslie and Ben, who fell into an illicit relationship last season.
“You have to replace that tension on a TV show,” Schur said. “It’s like Indiana Jones trying to take the idol off the [pedestal] and putting a sandbag on top…The baton is being passed to Leslie and that’s great. She’s the main character.”
Still, despite the show’s growing popularity, Schur said he and the writers have learned a lot from the first three seasons. But not so much that he’d necessarily do anything differently.
“The journey of a TV show is so complicated and unpredictable,” said Schur. “If we had made a perfect pilot where the entire show was 100 percent fully realized, maybe NBC would have loved the show so much they would have said, ‘We’re going to open a new night in comedy on Mondays opposite Two and a Half Men. They would have tried that, and we would have been blown away in the ratings, and then they would have canceled us. You just never know.”
Fortunately, the show has been on a roll, both creatively and in the ratings, and critics continue to rave about the off-kilter comedy. Back on the set, asked to sum up Season 4 of Parks and Recreation in just a few words, Poehler furrowed her brow, deep in thought, and began to count on her fingers.
“Season 4 is Harry Potter for your TV,” she said, before bursting into laughter.