As a critic, I’ve spent years writing about the kind of world that pop culture tells us is possible, especially when it comes to visions of social change. On Wednesday, all of the stories that felt as if they were preparing for something new, all of the cultural celebrations of sincerity and dedication and people whose dedication outweighed the more difficult parts of their character, feel less like portents and a lot more like elegies.
Take “Parks and Recreation,” a show that buoyed me through any number of difficult moments in my own life but that feels painful to contemplate today. “Parks and Recreation,” which chronicled the adventures of small-town civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), traveled the same path with its main character that it sometimes seemed the country was traversing with Hillary Clinton.
“In the early years of ‘Parks and Rec,’ Leslie was less adept at her job, and almost nobody in the office except for Leslie really cared about what they were doing,” said Dan Goor, a writer and executive producer for the show, when we spoke earlier this year about the differences between that series and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” “And that was an adjustment over time to where they were all super-competent and all, even though they had their own separate agendas, wanted to support Leslie’s.”
Watching this adjustment as it happened – seeing Leslie turn from a foolish, vainglorious joke into a powerful, inspirational figure who embodied our best ideals of public service and who was loved precisely for the optimism and dedication that once made her a source of mockery – was one of the more gratifying experiences of my career as a critic and my life as a television viewer.
I won’t pretend “Parks and Recreation” wasn’t personal, for me and for the other women I know who live fully through our enthusiasms, who are incapable of ironic detachment and who have been fortunate enough to find partners who are fully invested in our success. But the show bolstered my optimism about politics, too, even if it regularly reminded viewers about the obstructionism, recalls and rejection that a person with Leslie’s temperament would inevitably face in the course of pursuing a political career.
The series’ final season, and in particular its finale, gave in to a wave of gauzy optimism that betrayed the show’s clear-eyed streak. The prospect of Leslie becoming governor of Indiana, and possibly president of the United States, was irresistible enough to cloud my critical judgment and the experience of observing politics. But in retrospect, the most fantastical elements of the series’ time jump weren’t new advancements in tablet technology or video calling: They were the dreams of a country in which a person like Leslie Knope’s rise is inevitable, and that there’s some sort of consensus that a commitment to public service is a good and admirable thing.
Maybe the moment in “Mad Men” when Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) swaggers down an ad agency hallway smoking a cigarette, carrying a piece of Japanese erotic art and feeling for a moment like she owns the world, is as good as it gets.
Maybe now when we see Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) unleash her dragons or Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) draw Needle on “Game of Thrones,” we’ll hear the scream of despair in dragonfire, in the scrape of steel. This is not to say that we should declare surrender, but merely that we should be cautious of happy endings, whether stated, implied or merely hoped for.
“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the first Treasury secretary, with an ending that acknowledges the pain and waste of Alexander Hamilton’s premature death while also expressing faith in the institutions that he helped to shape, has played a number of emotional roles in this election year.
“One Last Time,” which chronicles George Washington’s farewell address to the nation, expresses the gratitude that many Americans feel toward President Barack Obama near the end of his time in office, as well as a sense that an extraordinary time is passing away from us. Eliza and Angelica Schuyler’s arcs during the musical are a reminder that even in an era when a woman could describe herself “a girl in a world in which / My only job is to marry rich,” American women have found a way to use the energy and intellectual talents that our country has been inclined to waste. And when, during her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this summer, Clinton invoked “Hamilton” in saying “Let our legacy be about ‘planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,’ ” she offered herself as a fulfillment of that dream.
Today, it’s the next lines of the song that Clinton was quoting (“The World Was Wide Enough”) that have lingered with me: “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me / America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.” “Hamilton” shares notes of caution and joy with “Parks and Recreation,” but the realities of history always put a check on Miranda’s joyful reinterpretation of America’s founding.
I know I’ll come back to Leslie Knope’s fierce optimism someday. But it may be a long time before I can watch “Parks and Recreation” with the same lightness it gave me before. For now, and for a long time to come, it’s quiet uptown.