When I started watching NBC’s Parks and Recreation during the winter break of my freshman year of college, I had no idea that a little sitcom about the parks and recreation department of a fictional Midwestern town would make such an impact on my life.
It isn’t a ratings darling. Not everyone has heard of it. It isn’t as funny as 30 Rock or as gripping as Scandal. Its first season was shaky, and more like a who’s-who of the diverse characters that inhabit Pawnee, Indiana. But once it took off and came into its own – it filled a spot in the hearts of television viewers that they may not have even known they were missing.
What makes Parks special is the realness of its characters and relationships. The lessons taught, whether through words of wisdom from Ron when Leslie is having another mental breakdown, or through Chris’s eternal peppiness or April’s reluctant hope, will live on in the hearts of all of the show’s faithful followers. These characters, so fully developed and thriving in relationship with each other, even when times are hard, is what makes the show irreplaceable to its fans. Whether it’s a breakup, wedding, election, new job, baby, or any multitude of other situations addressed in its 125 episodes, the characters always come back to doing what they do best – supporting each other through it all. Even Jerry/Gary/Larry/Terry/whatever they are calling him now.
But the most important lessons I learned from Parks & Rec came from its fearless leader, Leslie Knope.
I never imagined a character would have so much of an impact on my own identity. When I first started watching the show as a little freshman, I was pretty closed off. I didn’t really do any extracurriculars at school, and was pretty shy and not all that sure of myself. Seeing a character like Leslie Knope being featured in the forefront of a television show like that was almost jarring to me at first – how could someone be so full of life all the time? I thought she was funny, but kind of annoying. As I progressed through the seasons on Netflix, I got to see Leslie come more into her own, through her relationships with her coworkers, her best friend, and her myriad of bad boyfriends. As Leslie progressed into a better version of herself, so did I.
She relentlessly fought for what she thought was right, and followed her dreams, going from a small-town bureaucrat to city councilwoman to head of the Midwest branch of the National Parks Service. Leslie taught me that it’s okay to feel too much, to care too much, to BE too much. While at first I was afraid to let my passion for the people, causes and things I love show, seeing another woman on TV do exactly that, while she didn’t execute everything perfectly, made all the difference. I was able to let this shy, quiet light inside of me grow into the absolute happiness I try to exhibit every day. I have gone from hearing “Why don’t you ever come out of your room?” to “I could never imagine that amount of joy in my body.”
So as the show comes to an end tonight, I don’t fear losing all the things I’ve learned, or the things that have helped me grow. I’ve come to see things in my own life as Leslie sees them in hers – my big is basically my Ron Swanson, I lovingly refer to my best friend from home as Ann Perkins (that beautiful tropical fish), and I have countless cheerleaders in my life like Chris or Andy or Tom. Maybe someday I’ll even find my own female Ben Wyatt-equivalent. I have a kind of ambition I didn’t before, and maybe a little too much of it. I’ve become a better problem-solver and can think on my toes. Parks has shown me the beauty of female friendships and feminism through countless scrapbooks and Galentine’s Days, and has shown how cool and rewarding working in government can be (just me? okay). But most of all, Leslie and the rest of the Parks gang have taught me that it’s okay to be exactly who you are, because the right people will love you and stick around anyway. And when things go wrong…there’s always breakfast food.
“Nobody achieves anything alone.” – Leslie Knope