In your lifetime, there are going to be about fifteen Presidents of the United States. There will be around 78 Oscar winners for Best Director released in theaters. Approximately the same number of Pulitzer Prizes will be given out to fiction authors. Odds are, you won’t be any of those people.
The television show Parks & Recreation on NBC follows the lives of characters that will never be among the ranks of those described in the first paragraph. This, however, does not mean their aspirations are not astronomical. Tom, played by Aziz Ansari, hopes to be rich and successful, and anything less will fail to satiate him (though more on this later). Chris Pratt’s Andy hopes to be a rock star with his Dave Matthews Band-esque group Mouse Rat. Our hero Leslie Knope, brought to life by Amy Poehler, aspires to follow in the footsteps of her heroes such as Madeleine Albright and Hilary Clinton.
Unfortunately, they all find themselves in Pawnee, Indiana, a town that is fictional in name, but very real in the hearts of anyone who grew up in a small town. Pawnee is not a place where one goes to flourish. However, unlike the cubicles of The Office, the show that most closely resembles this one, or at least what this show began as, this is not where dreams go to die. Tom’s company recently went bankrupt, Andy is taking community college classes, and Leslie is about to spoil her shot at being mayor, let alone the Secretary of State. Yet, these are the cheeriest characters on television, and this is the show I turn to most when I am in a grumpy mood. How does a show present a number of dreams constantly being deferred, and yet maintain a positive attitude?
There is the basic answer of course. These characters love each other and have built a community in this small town. They help each other with font problems, aid their friends’ college funds, and are considered a dream team of sorts. This itself provides a beautiful little message, something about relationships and all that, but this is nothing revolutionary. The idea that misfits find hope in one another is basically the thesis of sitcoms. No, there is a richer, more texted answer to the question embedded in the show, that certainly has something to do with this principle, but is presented in an interesting way. The answer is resident punching bag, Jerry.
In order to fully argue for Jerry’s importance on P&R, let’s compare him to his closest analogue on The Office, Toby. These characters are punching bags, Toby by his former boss Michael, and Jerry by his entire office. The major differences between these characters are their home lives, and in this difference we find one of the major reasons that P&R is considered one of the finest sitcoms on television. Toby is a divorced sad sack who leaves his job to go home to a sad home. Though he is repulsed at the office, it is heaven compared to lonely life that awaits him at home. Jerry, however, has a wife that he loves, and three children. Jerry’s work comes second to his family.
As he admitted in the most recent episode, Jerry does exactly what he is asked to do at work, and doesn’t push the limits. The important detail here is that this isn’t delivered as a punch line. Jerry is fine if work isn’t that exciting, it doesn’t need to be. Work isn’t where he finds his happiness or his worth. The other vital detail regarding Jerry is his eye roll, which rivals that of April’s, the show’s youngest, most “hip” character. Jerry takes the insults thrown his way in stride, because they don’t take place at the most important place in his world. This isn’t to say one can’t find fulfillment in work, simply that the most functional character in the world of P&R doesn’t need to. We never see Jerry’s home life because it’s probably without much incident. He loves his wife and he loves his daughters and that’s enough. That’s what the rest of the characters want, isn’t it? Not even Ron Swanson is innocent of this desire. Why else would he fall victim to the women in his life in the yearly “Ron & Tammy” episodes? The Tammys in his life only exert a power over him because he knows that meat and libertarianism isn’t actually enough in the world.
Now, I don’t mean to say the show is saying the only way to find happiness is through marriage, though that case would be easy to make. Rather, I believe the show uses marriage as an example of limited dreaming, and how it differs from settling. The show draws a very bold line between these. Jerry enjoys painting, we’ve seen, but he’s fine not being a famous painter. This isn’t because he’s lazy, or because he’s given up, or simply settled for a lesser life. Jerry has found a different avenue for his dreams, a simpler avenue sure, but since when is simplicity such a bad thing?
I think Leslie may end up becoming mayor of Pawnee. Perhaps she will become governor or a state senator as well. I do not think she will ever be in the United States Congress or the White House however. She doesn’t need to. She’s finding her dream in Adam Scott’s Ben, and in the possibility of the position of mayor of Pawnee. Tom won’t ever own a media conglomerate again, but as he makes achingly clear in one segment of the show’s most recent episode, all he really wants is a wife and kids. All he really wants is to be like Jerry. Who wouldn’t?
Jerry is made fun of for being boring and lame. Perhaps though, the bullying of Jerry is also fueled by jealousy. Perhaps all of the characters that push Jerry around simply want the contentment that he’s found. It is noble to never be content, to always push forward. But is that lifestyle ever truly fulfilling? Is there happiness in always striving for the best when it is LITERALLY unachievable? Of course you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, but maybe curbing them isn’t the worst idea.
There are currently upwards of one thousand mayors in the United States. In 2010, 754 films were produced. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Parks & Recreation reminds us, through the character of Jerry Gergich, that striving for the impossible is beautiful and important, but it isn’t for everyone. Happiness is.