*This article contains spoilers about specific plot points from “Parks and Recreation.”*
There is a vocal contingent of (mostly) conservative media figures who feel very, very strongly that Leslie Knope, the plucky hero of the late NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” was a terrible person and politician.
Exhibit A: Sonny Bunch, executive editor of the Washington Free Beacon, described a character who many found to be upbeat and idealistic as a “vicious little busybody.”
PARKS AND REC was the story of a vicious little busybody who deserved to have her spirit crushed for butting in where she didn’t belong. https://t.co/ugNQKqqfP3
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) August 4, 2017
one of the few sitcoms where the villain wins in the end
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) August 4, 2017
Based on the responses to this hot take, others also viewed Amy Poehler’s character in a similar light.
God yes, she was so awful. So many other characters were great, but she makes the show almost unwatchable
— Ashe Schow (@AsheSchow) August 4, 2017
— William J. Upton (@wupton) August 4, 2017
Councilman Jeremy Jam was the late-introduced hero tbh.
— William Cushing (@JusticeCushing) August 4, 2017
Bunch’s comments on Knope were a response to his earlier tweet criticizing politicians who support a soda tax, a measure Knope once proposed as a councilwoman in her fictional hometown of Pawnee, Ind.
This is why Leslie Knope deserved to be recalled from the Pawnee City Council. https://t.co/cCdPpTmJXC
— Andy Crawford (@Andy_Crawford_) August 4, 2017
Feelings about the character’s personality aside, some conservative journalists appear to genuinely feel that Knope’s political actions throughout the series’ seven-season run represent the worst kind of liberal government intrusion.
For context, it is worth noting that “Parks and Recreation” is both an effort to capture the minutiae of local government and everyday life in Middle America, the latter of which Hollywood is notoriously bad at, as summed up by Cracked’s David Wong a month before the 2016 presidential election.
“When they did make a show about us, we were jokes — either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (‘Parks And Recreation,’ and before that, ‘Newhart’) or filthy murderous mutants (‘True Detective,’ and before that, ‘Deliverance’),” he wrote. “You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away.”
Conservatives were already predisposed to be skeptical of “liberal Hollywood’s” take on those subjects, but Knope’s similarities to and reverence for Hillary Clinton and pension for skirting regular government channels to push her agenda through ruffled some conservative media feathers.
Federalist Senior Editor David Harsanyi wrote in 2016 that Knope was a “fascistic, small-town councilwoman who believes it’s a politician’s job to impose her notions of morality, safety and decency on everyone, no matter what voters want or what the system dictates.”
He said that Knope was “justifiably recalled” from her position on the Pawnee City Council after trying to regulate portion sizes at town restaurants, a sentiment echoed by a BuzzFeed community post that laid out a case for why she was “corrupt and deserved to be recalled.”
Harsanyi acknowledged that many viewers see Knope as “the sort of idealist, compassionate and principled politician Americans should love,” but explained that to conservatives, she embodies something much different.
“‘Parks and Rec’ can be fantastically funny (and it has a big heart), but as I watched I was often reminded that many people glorify ideas like ‘public service’ — a preposterous term that treats politics as if it were a sacrifice without pay, power or prestige — and ‘doing something’ as a moral imperative no matter how politicians get it done,” he wrote.
In 2011, Juliet Lapidos, then of Slate (a relatively liberal news site), took Knope to task for exemplifying both the best and worst qualities of what she viewed as Democratic stereotypes: “Democrats like helping people in the abstract but aren’t neighborly, while Republicans love their neighbors but don’t give a damn about strangers.”
“Examples abound of Leslie blithely taking her friends for granted in pursuit of the public good,” Lapidos wrote, citing a season 2 episode where Knope aggressively enlisted her friends and coworkers to help run a 24-hour “Pawnee Cares” diabetes telethon.
Lapidos used the same strategy to dissect the character of Ron Swanson, the head of Pawnee’s Parks Department and an outspoken libertarian who once said his ideal version of government would be “one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.”
“Helping the anonymous hordes of Pawnee is anathema to Ron,” she wrote. “When it comes to his friends and coworkers, however, he’s a mensch — a sweetheart, even.”
Unsurprisingly, conservative media outlets appear to love Swanson as passionately as they dislike Knope.
The Free Beacon made Swanson its 2012 Man of the Year, and the conservative Daily Caller lauded him for an episode where he illustrated “why government meddling distorts the free market and brings about other unintended consequences.”
“In a media world that can only handle a two-dimensional liberal-conservative spectrum, it’s been great to have one TV star who explains property rights and taxes … to millions of viewers,” David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, told the Daily Beast in 2015.
As for Knope, she is as much a beacon of hope for liberals as she is a symbol of derision for conservatives. A “Parks and Rec” writer even penned an op-ed in her voice shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency in November.
“I reject out of hand the notion that we have thrown up our hands and succumbed to racism, xenophobia, misogyny and crypto-fascism,” the op-ed read. “I do not accept that. I reject that. I fight that. Today, and tomorrow, and every day until the next election, I reject and fight that story.”
Knowing Leslie Knope, she would relish the idea of conservatives using her as a scapegoat for the evils of liberalism. It would probably fuel her relentless optimism even more.