Last May, NBC’s Parks and Recreation ended its second season with a cliffhanger: Would the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana fall victim to draconian budget cuts administered by state auditors Adam Scott (Party Down’s Ben Wyatt) and Chris Trager (Rob Lowe, in the sharpest ‘80s-icon stunt casting this side of Wynona Ryder’s turn in The Black Swan)? The device was as timely as a episodic comedy written and shot weeks or months before broadcast can manage to be. As this recent piece from The Atlantic online notes, the fallout from national financial chaos has made towns like Anderson, Indiana and Hamilton, Ohio real-world Pawnees where “inessential” municipal services are concerned.
This story arc promised to bring to a head what can only be called the ideological struggle between the show’s two central characters. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the department’s bureaucratic workshorse, embodies the best intentions of social-contract liberalism: she’s at once annoyingly managerial, with her multiple shelves of color-coded “idea binders,” and genuinely civic-minded, despite the venal idiocy on display at every town meeting. Her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is a starve-the-beast, anti-regulation libertarian out of Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew. (In a nice touch, Swanson moonlights around town as lounge musician “Duke Silver,” a possible allusion to Reagan-era strategist/”bluesman” Lee Atwater.)
For Knope, the state auditors are horsemen of the apocalypse, while for Swanson, they’re the cavalry, riding in to implement his no-government dreams. In Season Two’s final episodes, his poorly-disguised joy at hearing that the department is to be put on probationary “maintenance” mode, with a threat of complete elimination, was more eloquent than any of his dialogue. The current season, which debuted in January after a longer-than-espected break, backs away from showing us the consequences. Swanson, despite himself, fights for Knope’s job, and the budget shortfall is neatly averted by Knope’s plan to revive the town’s once-profitable Harvest Festival, bankrolled by donations from local businesses. (If the schools and fire department have similar plans, we haven’t heard them.) The auditors themselves, pegged as “black hats” in the season opener’s when-we-last-left-Pawnee recap, have been softened. Wyatt/Scott’s fiscal frugality is an overreaction to his failed stint as “America’s youngest mayor,” impeached after a few free-spending months on the job, while Trager, played at first by Lowe with the megavitamin-gulping unctuousness of a Forum graduate, turns out to be a survivor of a childhood blood disease: he’s “positive” because he has to be.
P&R is still well-acted – I haven’t said a word here about its strong supporting cast – and wittily detailed in its exaggeration of corn-belt norms. (A recent breakfast special at JJ’s Café: “The Fourhorsemeals of the Eggporkalypse.”) But I shouldn’t have spent the summer expecting a micro-symposium on political philosophy; this is, after all, Must-See TV, not a serialized Brechtian lehrstück: there’s no mouthpiece for a Marxist viewpoint, for one thing, and no Hans Eisler tunes. Still, one could easily imagine an alternate-universe (or fan-fiction?) Season Three set in a dystopic Pawnee rife with darkened traffic lights, uncollected garbage, and armed militias operating out of disused libraries and senior centers. Or, one could just follow the local news.