"Bailout," this week's episode of Parks and Recreation, provided a commentary on capitalism, the free market economy, and government bailouts. The show has discussed real world political issues in the past: in fact, just a few days ago, I was having a discussion with some friends about "Born & Raised," a season four episode where Leslie discovers she was not actually born in Pawnee. That episode referred to the Birther movement, as well as to a 2011 incident in which Sarah Palin accused the "lamestream media" of using "gotcha journalism" to trick her into making questionable claims about the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
The show tends to remain fairly nonpartisan when it takes on political subject matter. Even when poking fun at a specific politically-related incident or subject, the show distances itself by creating its own version within its own world. Since all the primary characters are involved in some way with local government in Pawnee, it is easy for the writers to work in these types of conflicts without necessarily making a statement.
"I, for one, refuse to let her turn this town into a socialist hellscape"
Leslie decides she wants to help a struggling video store by having the Pawnee government declare it a historical site on the grounds that it has social and intellectual significance. The store would then be eligible for lower tax rates. Ron opposes her because he feels the store is failing because of the business practices of its owner (played by guest star Jason Schwartzman) and that government intervention in the free market is unethical. He feels that the store is failing for a reason, and that allowing it to go out of business will lead to it being replaced by a better business.
While the episode concludes that the Pawnee government should not have intervened, I feel there is a separation between this conclusion and making a statement of opposition to the real-life bailouts initiated by the United States government. This divide is fascinating to me, because on one hand the show is able to discuss real political issues, and on the other, it is able to stay away from making controversial statements and alienating parts of its audience.
I do not think a sitcom should be afraid of making comments about politics or social issues, but I also think that comedies often fail when trying to make political statements, as they come off as overly preachy. Parks and Rec is not really trying to use the show as a catalyst to determine what is right and what is wrong, though; it is just examining how these characters in this world they have created would deal with a particular issue.
This aspect of the show's DNA is particularly worth unpacking to me because it makes me reexamine the identity of the show itself. Parks and Rec started out as a clone of The Office; where Michael Scott and friends provided a satire of the day-to-day life of American white-collar workers and the mundane, semi-pointless jobs they have, Parks and Rec was a satire of small-town government and the way it operates. In the early episodes, Leslie was more incompetent and less intelligent, eager to please, and the show played on the ineffectiveness and general uselessness of local government.
But after a few episodes, the show became more positive. You started to feel like Leslie really did have the ability to help people. She loves Pawnee, and her friends love her, so they all help, albeit some more reluctantly than others. The humor still came from the more ridiculous aspects of the government, like chaotic town meetings, dysfunctional government representatives, and Ron’s reluctance to allow the government to do anything at all. But you started to feel like these characters were going somewhere together, and that they really could get something done if they worked at it.
"Bailout" wasn't about bureaucracy or even morality, it was about how even though her decision backfires, what was important was that Leslie wanted to help others and make the town a better place, not to exert her political influence. As the show has evolved, there always remains an element of how the government lacks the power to change the town for the better – that struggle is at the core of the show and is the conflict that Leslie always battles against. But like in real life, there is never an easy solution to a difficult problem.
I think that is the element of "Bailout" that rang truest in regards to the federal stimulus: whether it was the right decision or the wrong one, it was intended to recharge the economy and create jobs. Other businesses come to the town hall meeting to request their own government bailouts, and while each is more outlandish than the last, I got the feeling that Leslie would have helped all of them if she could (except for Sewage Joe. Sewage Joe is the worst). While the show is not necessarily an accurate depiction of the way that local government typically operates, it takes a step away from a cynical view and lets us see this world through a lens with a little more heart. Their government is sometimes incompetent but Leslie is sincere; because we focus on the people that are trying to make a difference rather than those who are not, we get a view that shows us it doesn't have to be one or the other.
“You cannot call the police”
Leslie is not perfect – in fact, many episodes, including this one, begin with her making a decision that is soundly reasoned and seemingly correct but then backfires and forces her to rethink the issue and solve the problem. "Bailout" used real political issues as a vehicle through which the characters could work together to solve a problem, rather than as a crutch used to inject controversy and notoriety, and the inclusion of colorful townspeople and the chaos of life in Pawnee made this episode fresh.
Ben Wachtel likes baseball, the Boston Celtics, pancakes, tacos, and swam collegiately at Purdue University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benwachtel24.