How Leslie Knope Made Me a Better Person

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Neil Patrick Harris opened the 87th Academy Awards ceremony with a song called “Moving Pictures,” featuring lyrics that apply not only to film, but lyrics that can be adapted to describe television and every other medium of fictional storytelling:

“Moving pictures: millions of pixels on screens. They may not be real life, but they’ll show you what life really means. More than any one image, more than any one star–truly, moving pictures shape who we are.

The sentiment is another one of many different sayings and quotes that suggest that fiction can paradoxically be more “real” than real life. The logic, of course, is that worlds and characters created from the imagination have the capacity to penetrate and stir us by presenting certain truths about ourselves that day-to-day life manages to obscure. Whether that’s because of monotony or routine or something else will probably depend on the person, but so-called “real” life suffocates us so fully each and every day that escaping into fictions becomes a necessity for many people. That necessity is not a bad thing, either. The more people who watch television as escapist entertainment, for instance, the more creative people move to television to reach a bigger audience. Many of those people don’t settle for merely creating escapist entertainment, though, which allows for websites like this to have dedicated TV sections. At Sound On Sight and countless other online magazines and blogs, writers are responding to a huge influx of creativity in television. Now more than ever, there are products worth analyzing deeply and regularly, because their creators have put together these moving pictures that really do help show what life really means for so many people. Sometimes, that meaning comes in the form of simply having something to say. Maybe an episode of television or a whole series is designed to comment in particular on love, death, friendship or pain. The best stories, however, go beyond one-way communication and challenge the people experiencing them. It’s the difference between passively viewing a series and feeling compelled to view it actively. This week, Parks and Recreation, created by Michael Schur and Greg Daniels, will finish its seven-season, 125-episode run. With that conclusion not only comes the end of one of television’s most rewarding series in the past decade, but the end of its main character’s long, memorable arc. Leslie Knope is many things. She is a politician, a boss, a feminist, a wife, a mother, a friend, a lover of waffles, a pest, and a concerned citizen. To others, she probably represents even more. To me, she is a reflection and manifestation of the good that we all possess. No one, Leslie Knope included, is without flaws. But some special people help us work around those flaws as best as we can, pushing us to become better. That is Leslie Knope. And if we can briefly forgo cynicism and buy into the idea that television (or film or literature) can shape who we are, then I would like to freely admit that getting to know Leslie Knope over these last seven years has permanently affected me and turned me, I believe (and hope), into a better person.

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The very first thing that struck me about Leslie was her tenacity. Back in the days that were ruled by Mark Brendanawicz and Ron Swanson coasting through work with minimal effort and criticizing the government for which they worked, Leslie’s determination seemed foolish. No one would listen to her or, if they did, they would shoot down her ideas with power and amusement. She was treated like a child in many ways, her optimism confused for naivete—something she would have to grow out of at some point if she wanted to succeed in her position. Despite the resistance she received, however, Leslie kept fighting. Despite the countless losses she must have endured before the events of Parks and Recreation, Leslie kept fighting. In the faces of so many people apathetic to running a local government and improving the town of Pawnee, Leslie kept fighting. Leslie can often appear like the annoying kid at school who doesn’t understand why she got an A- instead of an A and wants to make up a test or project to get the highest score. On consideration, the impulse behind that characteristic isn’t as black-and-white as being a “do-gooder” or requiring personal validation. There is some of that, to be sure, but in Leslie’s case, the more powerful impulse is wanting to improve. At first, that improvement looked to be individual. She wanted to be the best deputy director of the parks department she could be, and that desire is hardly something worth criticizing regarding her or anyone else. But for anyone who watches Parks and Recreation beyond the first few episodes, it’s clear that the improvement that Leslie is after is something she wants to share with everyone else in her life.

Again, to challenge black-and-white notions, I don’t think people are either leaders or followers. Rather, it seems more like we all fall on a spectrum where those two classifications are on opposing sides. Someone who leans closer to being a follower can still be a leader under the right circumstances. That’s why I see Leslie Knope as such an important character. Even people who would be uncomfortable acting the way she does—putting in the extra hours and trying to motivate all her peers—can take something from the energy she brings to everything in her life, however big or small. So, while someone like April Ludgate naturally falls more on the follower side of interaction, Leslie can somehow still bring out April’s leadership qualities without changing who April is as a person. And when you have someone in your life who can do that, it makes embracing those qualities which you’re less familiar with easier in the future purely because you’ve had to use them around that other person. Think of it like playing a sport. If the sport is politics in this case and Leslie is a good enough coach, she can help April reach untapped potential that she didn’t even know she had. A better example for me would be writing. In isolation, my writing skills go down sharply over time. If I write alongside someone who is able to challenge me, then I am doing the best writing I can be doing at that point. If that person stays in my life, then I constantly improve and have a better chance of being able to access those skills on my own whenever I need to. It is, unfortunately, the reason why so many people don’t follow through with the subjects they study in college. Once you’re removed from a thriving community of people who want to improve as a group, mustering motivation is difficult and painful. As long as you’re in Leslie Knope’s orbit, though, you don’t have to worry about that.

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One of the most beautiful things about watching Parks and Recreation has been seeing how aware everyone is of Leslie’s effects on their lives and how grateful they are for knowing her. At the end of the season six premiere, “London,” April reads Leslie a letter she wrote to a committee to nominate Leslie for an award. It includes the following:

“Where I live, there are a lot of apathetic people, people who don’t care at all about what they do or how they do it. They let the world wash over them and barely notice anyone else is even there. Leslie Knope is not one of these people. She cares about everything and everyone in our town. I don’t know how she does it. People come to her with the pettiest, stupidest problems, and she cares—like, really, actually cares—what happens to them. And if you’re lucky enough to be her friend, your life gets better every day. She spends every waking moment thinking of new ways to make her friends happy.”

To trace the different ways that Leslie has changed the lives of every major character in Parks and Recreation would be a fool’s errand—there are just too many. You only have to consider two characters like April and Ron, whose cold exteriors and extreme personalities break down over the series to allow Leslie’s warmth to enter their lives. To re-iterate, Leslie doesn’t necessarily change who someone is as a person. April and Ron have remained intact and still represent much of the same two people now that they did when the series began. It’s just that they’ve become better versions of themselves by virtue of Leslie. The show also, amazingly, allows Leslie to do this without being smug. When April delivers the above speech, Leslie shows nothing but appreciation. April didn’t have to read that letter to Leslie after a demoralizing trip and rough time in office, but she does so out of love. No one feels obligated to Leslie Knope in the sense that they owe her something that can be repaid like a transaction, allowing them to move on. The only obligation is one of trying to accomplish the monumental task of giving back to Leslie what she has selflessly given to them without the expectation of recompense, just as she has meaningful gifts for every occasion. That is the same feeling that dominates season six’s “Leslie and Ben” (on my personal shortlist of best television episodes of all time). When Leslie and Ben decide to move their wedding date up, everyone comes together as a team to make it work. Even as the world keeps putting roadblocks in front of Leslie, the friends whose lives she’s changed forever stop at nothing to give her her moment of happiness. Along with the events at the end of her election campaign, it’s one of Leslie’s most triumphant points in the series, and she actually words her vows to Ben in a way that uses the first person more than the second person, yet somehow manages to highlight her caring of others:

“The things that you have done for me, to help me, support me, surprise me, to make me happy, go above and beyond what any person deserves. You’re all I need. I love you, and I like you.”

Not deviating from who she is, Leslie shows Ben his best qualities as she sees them in those vows, giving him validation for all that he’s done for her and not just saying nice things. It’s no wonder that Leslie would give “liking” someone the final thought instead of the romantic “loving” that we usually associate with marriage. To like someone for who he is is more important for Leslie, because joining with good people makes her lifelong quest for improving the world around her more rewarding and less difficult. And while Ben could have probably made many other women happy, Leslie challenged his ideals, and he could not have been this Ben for anyone else.

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To finally get back to the point of this piece, I think that we as viewers of Parks and Recreation function in the same way as the characters surrounding Leslie. We can be as impenetrable, hurtful, lazy, misguided and lost as any of the various people who populate Pawnee, Indiana. But being a part of Leslie Knope’s life makes us better. Or, at least, it has made me better. I’ve been cynical about plenty of institutions in the past, including local and national governments. Leslie’s belief that everyone can do good, though, becomes contagious after enough time. Even characters as outrageous and cartoonish in their villainy as Jeremy Jamm have it in them to do what’s right instead of what’s easy or comfortable, and if they can become better, why can’t I? Why can’t I do more? Why do I have to settle for things as they are, when—at the very least—I have it in me to try to change them? And why should I do that alone? Why can’t I try to see what’s best in everyone around me and let those things be more important than the ugly qualities that all of us have? Why can’t I try to make their lives a little better in any way I can? When I’ve been faced with genuine altruism, I’ve had different responses. Sometimes, someone will do something nice for someone else, and I’ll feel competitive and try to out-do him. Maybe whatever action I take results in someone else being happy, but that competitive impulse is not a desirable one. Other times, I’ll see an act of altruism and it will make me feel. It will make me realize that I, too, am naturally capable of that. Watching Leslie Knope reminds me of who I am or the person I want to be. I never feel competitive or guilty watching Leslie be Leslie. Instead, I aspire to be better.

Moments before beginning this piece, I messaged my brother to tell him about it and what I was hoping to be able to articulate. This was our exchange:

Him: “I can’t even think of what that must be like. I know I would not be the same if you had never shown me Parks and Rec. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Me: “No, I’m just watching clips trying to figure out what exactly to say. Not ready for it to end this week.”
Him: “It would be near impossible to say everything that can be said about her. And the only person that could honor Leslie Knope would be Leslie Knope herself. The best you can do is get close to how much she loves someone.”

There is nothing but truth in what he says. This could go on for 10,000 more words and might still be missing the mark. Honestly, I’m more worried than anything else. When someone, real or fictional, has had a constant impact on your life for so many years, what do you do when she’s gone? As Parks and Recreation has been winding down, its various characters have begun preparation for splitting up into their own stories and lives after the show. I might try, then, to take with me the same things they’ve taken from Leslie—moments that make me feel good because I did or said something that she might have done or said. Parks and Recreation will always be there to re-watch, of course, but after tomorrow, an era has ended in my life. And while I’ll have to confront that and move on without Leslie Knope, Michael Schur, Greg Daniels, the rest of the writing staff, and Amy Poehler have given me a place to start. I have known what the best version of myself is through Leslie, and if I succeed at maintaining that, it will because of her as well.

The letter, quoted above, that April reads to Leslie continues:

“There is something wonderful about seeing someone who has found her true purpose on Earth. For some people, I guess that’s being an astronaut or a hot-dog eating champion. For Leslie, her true purpose on Earth, her true meaning, is making people’s lives better. That’s what I love about her…”

That is what I love about her as well. And, more than that, it’s what I like about her. Thank you, Knope—for everything.

– Sean Colletti

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