Top TV of 2012: Poehler’s Leslie Knope shines on ‘Parks and Rec’
Amy Poehler has been a comedian of note for some time now — it’s already 11 years since she joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” (and three and change since she left it), and before that there was “The Upright Citizens Brigade” on Comedy Central and appearances as Andy Richter’s little sister, in braces and pigtails, on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
But this was the year that Leslie Knope, the character Poehler plays on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” was elected to the City Council in her beloved underdog town of Pawnee, Ind.; got engaged to boyfriend Ben (Adam Scott); and found herself face to face with her crush, Vice President Joe Biden, ably played by Vice President Joe Biden. And week after week, Poehler would take Leslie (and Leslie would take Poehler) somewhere more deep and complex than the farcical nature of her irony-age sitcom would suggest was necessary, and week after week I would find myself whistling in appreciation.
In a year when an actual national election carved a hot burning trench through the media, unleashing its quadrennial storm of partisan pundits, who seem more unreliable with every news cycle, politics has been heavily present in fictional television as well: “Political Animals,” “Scandal,” “The Newsroom,” the upcoming “1600 Penn” — even Nashville has a political plotline. Armando Iannucci’s funny “Veep,” a cynical, ironic comedy about impotence-in-office, with the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the American vice president — it is not on my “top” list only because I’m mentioning it here — is “Parks & Rec” in negative.
But Leslie may be the least cynical character on television, so open and caring and full of hope that she is deaf to irony. A Frank Capra heroine set down in a Preston Sturges movie as remade by Christopher Guest, she believes in the power and necessity of government. (She worships Hillary Rodham Clinton but is herself more reminiscent of sparky former Michigan governor and current Current TV host Jennifer Granholm, whose out-of-prime-time barn-burner of a speech was a highlight of the summer’s Democratic National Convention.) She stands for anyone who believes that it is possible in this world to Get Things Done.
You see a lot of emoting on television, much more than you see emotion. It’s true that there’s no lack of excitement, frustration, rage, desire, shame and triumph on display there, but the depiction of simple, overwhelming happiness or sadness is relatively rare. (It seems unfashionable, almost, or unseemly.)
But Leslie feels everything; when it comes to raw nerves there is only Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison, on “Homeland,” to match her. When you go to Hulu to watch an episode of “Parks & Rec,” the page before the video starts shows her in tears.
Poehler’s achievement is to resolve Leslie, in all her contradictions, into a familiar person: She’s impulsive and conservative, girlish and womanly, childlike and parental. She is an improbable character living in an even less likely place, but Poehler makes you see her and care about her and care in turn about everything Leslie cares about.
We feel her deeply: Watching Leslie Knope, we are all like Leslie Knope.
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