Parks & Rec Finale Proves Leslie Knope Is The Most Important Female Character On T.V.
11:10 am, May 11th | by Amy Tennery
If you’re one of the hapless souls who adores NBC’s critically acclaimed, critically underwatched Thursday night comedy lineup, the last couple of days have been crummy. First, there was the news that 30 Rock was only renewed for a truncated new season — its last, by most accounts. Then, miraculously, Community was also renewed for a new run of episodes. Parks & Rec‘s future, meanwhile, remains unclear.
And If there’s one thing last night’s season finale for Parks & Rec proved, it’s that this show deserves to be on the air. Actually, let me rephrase: So help me Gulliver, NBC, if you cancel this show I will lose it. I will lose my bananas.
I apologize for that outburst. (Quick note, although many outlets are reporting that Parks & Recreation probably renewed for a shortened season, it has not been confirmed.)
But what last night’s Parks & Rec finale (season finale, did you hear that, NBC?) showed was important: Its lead, Leslie Knope, may be the most important female character on T.V. today.
(Massive spoiler alert)
Parks & Rec, for the uninitiated, follows a motley crew of, yep, Parks & Recreation Department employees in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. And while all its characters are funny and delightful in their own ways, main character and Deputy Parks Department Director Leslie Knope (played beautifully by Amy Poehler) is the undeniable anchor of the show.
This season saw Leslie pursue a run for City Council office — and the show illustrated all the ups and downs of being A Lady Politician. She was pilloried for carrying on a romantic relationship with a coworker. She was called “mean” for pointing out her hapless opponent’s readily apparent stupidity (I think we can all gather what word would be substituted for “mean” if this were real life, unbound by the standards of the FCC). Yes, running for office was Leslie’s life goal but that didn’t mean it was going to be a walk in the… park.
Take, for instance, this clip from the episode “The Debate”:
Which brings us to last night’s episode — election day. The show opens with a recitation of Pawnee’s hilariously bizarre election laws (if there is a tie, the male candidate wins and the female candidate goes to jail, according to city bylaws). And as the day unfolds Leslie’s boyfriend, Ben Wyatt, the aforementioned coworker turned campaign manager, gets the opportunity of a lifetime: A job managing a congressional campaign in D.C.
As far as sitcom plot devices go, it’s not a novel development. Need a conflict? Send the boyfriend away! But, as it plays out here, the moment is tragic and poignant. Leslie finds out about the offer (Ben hasn’t accepted yet) as she’s about to vote — for herself!
“I’m going to go vote,” she stammers to Ben. “Just fulfill a lifelong dream of mine and achieve one of my all-time happiest moments real quick and then we’ll talk about it.”
Leslie walks into the voting booth, votes for herself, and chokes back tears. Is she crying because she’s achieved a goal she’s had since she was a little girl? Is it because her boyfriend might leave town? That much is unclear — and that’s okay. What that moment encapsulates is so much more complex that the stereotyped Power Political Woman. It destroys the notion that empowered women have to be perfect women. She’s allowed to be sad that her boyfriend is leaving, even as she’s reaching the pinnacle of her career. That’s important.
Ranking female characters based on their import in women’s culture is kind of a silly practice, I know. And I revel in fact that there are so many fantastic women characters on T.V. today — Liz Lemon, Selina Meyer and Alicia Florrick, to name just a few. My adoration for Leslie is in no way an attempt to undercut the awesomeness of the others.
But I say all this because canceling Parks & Rec would send off a character who’s not only beloved but also critically valuable to women’s notions of power and career. Leslie is imperfectly perfect. And that’s what we need.