A furor went through the ranks of tasteful television-lovers earlier this week with the announcement that NBC was moving three episodes of Parks and Recreation, bringing the show back for two weeks, and then making us wait again until 2014 to spend more time in Pawnee. Star Adam Scott has pushed back against the idea that the reshuffled schedule represents some sort of demotion, but the point remains: we're being denied our fix as NBC tries to boost the audience for some of the newer shows in its flailing comedy lineup. And as much as that hurts, it's a reminder of just how tenacious Parks and Recreation--and its heroine, civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler)--have always been, and why it's been so rewarding to root for it.
This isn't the first time that Parks and Recreation's gotten less than respectful scheduling treatment from NBC. The show premiered in April of 2009, and got just six episodes for its first season, hardly a vote of confidence given how long it often takes for comedies to settle into their rhythms. For its first two seasons, the show aired on Thursdays at 8:30 PM, then moved to Thursdays at 9:30 for its third year. In its fourth season, Parks and Recreation started out at 8:30 before moving to 9:30. In its fifth, the show took a return journey, starting at 9:30 and moving back to 8:30. And the decision to bump Parks and Recreation for the rest of this year comes coupled with yet another time slot switch: the sitcom started out at 8:00 this fall, but will move to 8:30 in 2014.
A hard core of about 4 million of us has followed Parks and Recreation from time slot to time slot, and consoled ourselves during lengthy hiatuses by reading along with Retta's (who plays Donna) brilliant livetweeting of other shows and movies, or consulting the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. That number isn't good, and when the broadcast television model was healthier, it would have been an absolute disaster and a certain ticket to cancellation.
But for those of us who have stuck with Leslie Knope for five years have to take a certain satisfaction that all of NBC's shiny new toys, the ones that were meant to be more broadly appealing than Parks ' good-government message, actually look even more anemic. Two weeks ago, Parks and Recreation had a particularly bad night when just 3.2 million viewers tuned in to watch its episode live, and its rating with viewers younger than 50 fell to 1.2. But the same evening, NBC's teen pregnancy comedy Welcome To The Family scored only 2.5 million viewers and a 0.8 rating with younger viewers, and The Michael J. Fox Show, which was meant to bring NBC back to its glory days only pulled in 3.8 million viewers and matched Parks' 1.2 demo rating. Welcome To The Family met with swift cancellation shortly thereafter. The Michael J. Fox show is safe from that fate in part because it received a 22-episode order before the season began. And the reason Parks has been so unceremoniously shuffled into next year is so NBC can move its singing competition hit The Voice to Thursdays in the hopes that it'll give a lift to yet another sitcom anchored by a man whose past success gave NBC hopes of an old-school-sized hit: Sean Hayes' Sean Saves The World.
As much as I adore Parks and Recreation, it's true that the show's concept was designed more for niche genius than massive success. American viewing audiences tend to prefer that their on-screen civil servants be cops, spies, or less-frequently, members of the military, or firefighters and paramedics, all professions with action cachet that obscures that their heroes draw government paychecks. If you're just being introduced to the concept, local government, particularly the Parks Department, doesn't come close to having the same cachet--or the same bipartisan appeal. And for coastal viewers used to programming set in metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, or at the smallest, Washington, DC, Pawnee, Indiana runs the risk of sounding like Hicksville.
It's a testament to what creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels have done over Parks and Recreation's six seasons that they've been able thoroughly refute that assumption. They've managed to mine humor out of the smallest-boor Parks and Recreation Department tasks, from capturing an errant possum, to leasing a park out to a cult that believes that the world is coming to an end. And as Leslie Knope's risen from an overeager junior employee to Pawnee to a seat on City Council, the show's managed to use her fights over everything from the underemployment of women in the sanitation department to the size of giant sodas peddled by Sweetums, Pawnee's dominant corporation and destroyer of Pawnee's health, to weigh in on national concerns with a sharpness that rivals The Daily Show's and The Colbert Report's, even if Parks and Recreation can't respond as quickly as those late-night programs.
And even if viewers were on board for the concept, in its own little way, Parks and Recreation's heroine is as revolutionary a figure as Tony Soprano. Leslie Knope, brilliantly portrayed by Amy Poehler, isn't a mobster, or a meth cook. But she's another kind of figure that people have found hard to root for in the past: she's overeager, the kind of enthusiast who just can't help but show anyone else up, so dedicated to being liked that she risks smothering her friends. If Leslie were a man who accomplished everything she did with a don't-give-a-damn nonchalance, no one would be surprised that she was a hero of a television show. But instead, Leslie Knope's a bulldozer, a nerd, and a busy-body, something this season's recall election storyline and her conflicts with Donna acknowledge explicitly.
What Parks and Recreation has done is to remind us that the alternative to the valedictorian is far worse. When the alternatives to Leslie Knope are Councilman Jeremy Jamm (Jon Glaser), who's just in government to enrich himself, or Councilman Dexhart (Kevin Symons), who spends his time in office schtupping any consenting human within reach, Leslie's eagerness is less of a pain and more of a tonic. And when we see what she's been able to pull off, whether it's the entertaining insanity of a funeral for Little Sebastian, Pawnee's favorite mini-horse, or a terrific run for City Council against a Sweetums-backed candidate, it's hard not to catch some of her enthusiasm, and to wish we could sign up to fight to keep her in office or celebrate Galentine's Day together. After all, who's too cool for waffles, thoughtfully chosen presents for invented holidays, or good government?
For that reason, it's great to see Leslie hang on in NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup, just as she's risen through the ranks of Pawnee city government. Nice girls, it seems, can overcome their irritating reputations if they work hard enough and long enough. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit might not have been enough to propel her to victory in the 2008 Democratic primary. But in all the years since, Leslie Knope's kept the flame alive.