She’s blonde. She’s pretty. She’s upbeat. She’s sweet. And she may be the most transgressive fictional character on screen right now, big or small. Her name is Leslie Knope. And I love her.
Confession: when Parks and Recreation first hit the airwaves in 2009, I didn’t quite get the show—or its central character played by Amy Poehler. I wanted to like it more than I did. It came with great auspices (Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, both of The Office), so I watched it, but something didn’t quite work for me.
I thought Leslie was a little too broad (starting with her joke of a name) and bordered on the silly. She was so happy. She didn’t seem all that smart. She couldn’t “read a room”. It felt like the creators were making fun of her, a comic technique that always leaves me cold. (If you don’t love your protagonist, why should I?) But as the show found its footing and improved (an oft reported ascension), and as the creators and Poehler refined and deepened the character, I started to see Leslie as something utterly fresh and new on television.
Without being snarky, without trying to be the smartest person in the room, without ironic detachment, Leslie is nonetheless hilarious and, incredibly, utterly heroic. In a world that’s as fucked up as ours, where complaint takes the place of a real point of view, Leslie is, unabashedly, well, good. Without being grating, without being fake, Leslie makes goodness feel like a thoroughly uncommon, absolutely admirable virtue. I’ve come to adore her. Here are some of the reasons why:
1. She’s pretty, but doesn’t trade on her looks. Leslie doesn’t primp, for the camera or for the other characters. She wears sensible, workplace appropriate clothes (enough with the micro-minis in offices, please, TV people!). If she’s ever whined about her looks, it’s fleeting at best. She doesn’t obsess about her hair, her skin, or her weight (though, interestingly, since Poehler’s been pregnant on and off during filming, it’s fluctuated). Leslie seems comfortable in her own skin, which, for a woman in a Hollywood production—for a woman in contemporary America—feels like a striking act of rebellion.
2. She has a best girlfriend who’s worthy of her. As much as I love Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock and understand that she is intentionally the sane eye inside the hurricane of madness that are her co-workers, her friendship with Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney has always bummed me out. This shallow, self-involved, none-too-smart headcase is Liz’s best friend? So much so that they traveled from Chicago to New York together and have worked with each other for years? That’s who Liz has to confide in? Jenna is hilarious, but I don’t think anyone would want her as a best friend. In contrast, Leslie’s become best friends, over time, with Ann Perkins (played with delightful ease by Rashida Jones). While at first Leslie seemed to be pushing the friendship, they’ve truly become best gal pals. They’re both smart, accomplished, interesting, believably flawed women. They give each other good advice. They clearly enjoy each other’s company. They have each other’s backs. It’s a friendship of equals and three years in, feels real.
3. She has great taste in men. Though Paul Schneider’s Mark Brendanawicz didn’t quite gel on the show and perhaps wasn’t completely worthy of Leslie’s ardor, he certainly wasn’t an empty suit or just a handsome “McDreamy”. He was smart, wry, had a cool job (city planner). Leslie’s outsized crush on him didn’t quite do her justice though—again, in the first season of the series, the creators seemed to be mocking her—but since then Leslie has dated some pretty great guys. I mean, Louis C.K. and Adam Scott alone make me think Leslie’s got her romantic head screwed on right, even if she doesn’t always “get the guy”. (Indeed, her choice this season to break up with Scott’s charming Ben Wyatt, because she’s going to run for office, feels like a positively defiant act. A woman choosing her career over romance? When does that ever happen?)
4. She believes in mentoring. Despite the dry, deadpan snark perfected by office worker April Ludgate (the dry, deadpan Aubrey Plaza), Leslie sees herself as April’s mentor and constantly tries, both subtly and dramatically, to give her advice and provide an example. The “dedication” Leslie wrote to April in her recently published history of Pawnee was pages long. Leslie desperately—though vainly—tried to stop April from marrying Andy (probably with good reason). Leslie brazenly believes in putting her hand down the ladder to pull the next generation of women up. (She also has her own awesome role models, as evidenced by the pictures in her office of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Madeline Albright—and even Condoleezza Rice.)
5. She doesn’t give up. While Leslie’s relentlessness was played for a joke during season one–as she dedicated herself to turning the “pit” next to Ann’s house into a park–I think it’s morphed into something more interesting and frankly, unusual. Leslie fearlessly believes in things, believes in people and never gives up—even if her dedication to a cause spans a whole season’s worth of episodes. The conventional wisdom of sit-coms (and often most one hour dramas), is that each episode “resets” and we’re back where we started. Parks and Recreation’s willingness to include “long arc stories”—the pit, last season’s “harvest festival”—has allowed us to see Leslie commit to a project and stick with it, for months. And when Leslie commits, she puts everything she has into whatever she’s working on. She stays at work late. She writes reports. She lobbies. Leslie doesn’t always win (though the pit is filled in, it never did become that park) but she doesn’t give up.
Which brings me to, perhaps, Leslie’s most radical quality, particularly in the America of 2012:
6. Leslie believes in government. Without irony or tongue in cheek, Leslie loves her job, loves the town of Pawnee and loves what her job allows her to do for Pawnee. She sees government as an absolute force of good (the library notwithstanding!). Leslie believes in helping people and whole-heartedly believes that government is the best avenue to do that. Her heroines (per above) are politicians. She dreams of being President (and this season is in fact running for office). But Leslie’s political ambitions aren’t played as soulless and slick (as politicians often are in both movies and TV). Leslie isn’t in it for the power. She’s genuinely doing what she does because she believes in it. For Leslie, government isn’t some nameless, faceless, amoral force; it’s people. It’s us. It’s her friends and it’s her. It’s there to do good and enact change for the better for her community. And that, in a world where even a Democratic, supposedly liberal president has to underplay the government’s ability to alter the trajectory of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, feels like something almost brazen, even shocking. Being an unapologetic booster for good government, who through her cheer and relentlessness often actually gets things done (the harvest festival!) Leslie Knope is a truly rare thing: not only a woman to admire, but a bureaucrat who deserves our love.
Photo Credit: NBC/Mitchell Haaseth