From Bartlet to Knope: Politics and instructional television

Curator's Note

The West Wing seems to be a unique example in recent American television. Despite its long tradition in film history since Otto Preminger's foundational Advise and Consent (1962), the combination of entertainment and politics from a didactic point of view has not suceeded on the small screen. The West Wing's pseudo-spin-off, Mister Sterling (NBC, 2003) was cancelled after ten episodes and other examples influenced by Aaron Sorkin's show, like Commander in Chief (ABC, 2005-06) or Jack & Bobby (The WB, 2004-05), softened the political content in favor of family melodrama. Recently, the miniseries Political Animals has followed this tradition.

Nevertheless, the conspirational paranoia thriller has become the main approach to political themes in American television since 9/11. Shows like 24, Battlestar Galactica or Homelandone of Obama's favourite series– have emerged as a manifestation of America's recent political agenda basing its dramatic conflict on terrorism and homeland security.
On the other hand, the discredit that some recent scandals have brought to politicians have given rise to a kind of series like The Good Wife, Scandal, Boss –or even Boardwalk Empire– which address the dark instruments of power. More than political shows, in fact, they stand for stately stories about ambition and dominance.

However, these days it is in the comedy genre where traces of The West Wing instructional spirit can be found. In recent years, political satire has produced more or less elaborate examples on American television –from That's my Bush! to Veep– but Parks & Recreation is the series that has transcended the genre with a revolutionary main character, Leslie Knope. Amid the usual cynicism characteristic of such stories, Knope is probably the only honest, committed and public service-minded politician of all the U.S. television schedule. For some viewers, the character has become an inspirational hero, in the same way that Jed Bartlet was a few years ago, and the show uses her to bring local authority service closer to the audience. Knope transforms the demands of the people of Pawnee into reality while we take part in the whole process as exceptional onlookers. Furthermore, episode after episode Leslie Knope shows us that above individual ambition, pressure groups and political parties, democracy can work properly in the hands of strong willed politicians.



This is great! I especially like the Jack & Bobby mention. (RIP.) I have a somewhat different take on Parks & Rec's politics though? While its depiction of governemnt is definitely better than a lot of shows' in its lack of cynicism, it's also so unrealistic that I worry they encourage another kind of cynicism as viewers inevitably compare them to current governmental operations and find them lacking. I really liked the first season, when Leslie's plans faced more realistic resistance, but the show's creators said they deliberately decided to stop accurately depicting the long-term process of policy development. Of course I am the only person in the world who liked that first season, so.

I agree with this. What made Leslie notable as a character in the first season was her positivity and unshakeable belief in political process in the face of very real resistance--it felt like a pretty impressive balance of cynicism and idealism. I suppose in season one I would have assumed that if Leslie ran for city council, there was a realistic chance the show might have her losing the election. But as it stands now, I had a hard time envisioning how the show would handle anything other than Leslie winning.

Hi, Carrie!

I think it would be very interesting to see how the writers deal with this new scenario –Leslie winning the elections– in the next season. It could be a good oportunity to look at how the show balances the idealism of Leslie and the reality of the City Council.

Thank you for this Rossend (was the mystery of what brother would become president ever revealed on Jack & Bobby?). I have to agree with Michael's article though. I really enjoyed the clip, especially the go to pizza ending, yet it also shows politics as a kind of low stakes game of making friends. Knope's heartwarming and dedicated character definitely puts a happy, rare face on American politics, but is too cartoonish to take seriously as representing reality.

Hi, Sudeep.

I don't think that Leslie is in politics in order to make friends. The character shows us in each episode of the show that she is deeply and truly committed to her town.

By the way, now that I remember, in Jack & Bobby the mystery was revealed at the end of the first episode.

Hi, Michael. Thank you very much for your comment.

I am also a fan of Jack & Bobby and I definitely liked the first season of Parks and Recreation. You make a good point saying that since season two the show has become more interested in personal plots involving the group than in the initial premise: Leslie Knope against bureaucracy. However, that is the natural evolution of any comedy. As the cast's comedic chemistry grows, the writers on the show tend to repeat plot structures considering not the storyline itself but the characters involved.

On the other hand I also think the comedy genre represents a key question when we analyze the realism of Parks and Recreation. So, I think that the limited time of the series (only 20 minutes per episode) and its essential comic purpose exclude the possibility of developing more complex plots.

Would you say more about this idea?  Are you referring to specifically didactically themed storylines, like the TWW "Isaac and Ishmael" 9/11 response, or maybe the overall sense that watching TWW provides the viewer with an insight into "real" politics?  Or something else?

I'm very interested but I'll admit I'm not familiar with the term. :) 

Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Rossend. I was especially intrigued by the distinction between dramatic and comedic political programming vis-a-vis politically themed television. It seems as if the light-hearted, humorous tone of Parks & Rec. "softens" the cultural pedagogy dimension of the program, similar to how the turn to family melodrama that you mentioned circumscribes the didactic character of the dramas. I'm wondering if the plausibility of Knope as an earnest politician in a cynical age is connected to her working exclusively on the local level. Perhaps a similarly earnest-and serious- portrayal of a national politician-e.g. the President-is more unrealistic in this age of "celebrity" politics, Twitter, and other features of the spectacular nature of contemporary national politics. 

Emanuelle picks up on a crucial point, I think. When considering the verisimilitude of political, or pehaps all, drama, we often discount the spatial dimension of our interpretation. I'd argue that local politics isn't just, or even necessarily, less spectacular than national politics (at least, not in my neck of the woods), but that our own power exertions tend to be localized, as are the consequences of our efforts. So, the optimism of Parks and Recreation may reflect its ability to represent the spatial construction of power with which we associate our own efforts. And this, in part, may stem from the same national alientation that others have described - if we feel alienated from national political formations, we're more likely to act locally, or believe that local acts will be impactful in a way that efforts to influence national matters won't.

That said, I think there's a structural component to this discussion, too, inasmuch as the television spectacle is recursive with regard to national politics. After all, television producers, though derided by some conservative media for being liberally biased, remain major financiers of candidates and lobbying efforts. When considering how our political system is represented mediatically, I think it's important to consider the manner in which the imag(in)ing of politics is deployed as a regulatory device that silences structural dissent. The West Wing (maybe my favorite show ever) is a prime example: In extolling President Bartlett's character, we tacitly validate the political structures that produce the ficitional conditions of possibility in which his character is expressed. In this way, even quasi-realist political narratives serve as a kind of Lacanian big Other, in which viewers affirm and ratify their political subjectivity. 

Thanks for leaving a comment!

I definitely agree with both of you. The optimistic message of Leslie Knope is mainly possible because she works in the local administration (and more importantly, because she works in her hometown, Pawnee). In this way, the show connects the wishes of a citizen who wants to make her town a better place to live in with the local administrative agencies that can make those wishes come true.

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