In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s stunning election, it’s understandable that some Americans might look to pop culture for glimmers of hope. If you’re looking for a jolt of optimism, the obvious choice is Parks and Recreation, NBC’s long-running sitcom about the highs and lows of local government. After all, the show created TV’s most admirable characters: Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), a can-do bureaucrat willing to work with kooks, skeptics, buffoons, and bitter rivals to serve the people of Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie’s dogged faith in public service — and the show’s willingness to challenge her — has made Parks and Rec something of a sacred text among progressives and policy wonks.
For Leslie Knope fans in need of a pick-me-up — or newbies who want to understand why devotees love the series so much — here are ten episodes that collectively express co-creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur’s vision of an America where people of diverging political perspectives and interests work together. Everyone from macho libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) to stylish materialist Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) has a place in Pawnee.
“Rock Show” (season 1, episode 6)
In the first few episodes of its abbreviated first season, Parks and Rec struggled with how best to frame Leslie Knope’s near-manic brightness. She came off as a tone-deaf misfit — unloved, overmatched, and way too pathetic. But by the end of the season, Daniels, Schur, and Poehler found a better angle on their heroine. In the raucously entertaining “Rock Show,” Leslie has a quiet moment with her ex-lover Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), alongside the gaping pit that she intends to turn into a park. As he explains all the red tape and obstacles she’s going to face, she chuckles and says, “Screw it, I’m going to try to do it anyway. I mean, Kennedy put a man on the moon. I can build one park.” For the first time, her determination was presented as wholly admirable, rather than completely delusional. And the real Leslie Knope was born.
“Christmas Scandal” (season 2, episode 12)
The show hit its stride in the second season, which started to fill out the strange world of Pawnee, a place where the populace have good hearts but base instincts. In “Christmas Scandal,” the local press turns on Leslie, using innuendo and out-of-context photos to connect her to a disgraced councilman’s sordid personal life. This wouldn’t be the last time that the town’s sensationalist media machine would try to grind her up, nor would it be the last time the Pawnee public would choose to believe the worst. Yet what makes this such a heartwarming holiday episode is that Leslie keeps facing up to a hostile crowd, believing that since she didn’t do anything wrong, she’ll eventually be vindicated. Meanwhile, back at the office, her co-workers get their first real experience of what the parks department would be like if it had to function without its inimitable deputy director. Contrary to Ron’s belief that civil service is a cushy, do-nothing gig, he and Leslie’s colleagues come to understand that she’s actually a dynamo, working overtime behind the scenes to keep the town running.
“Flu Season” (season 3, episode 2)
Poehler’s pregnancy and NBC’s hesitancy about Parks and Rec’s future made season three another short one, capped at 16 episodes. But the additions of gung-ho state auditor Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and his brainy assistant Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) led to one of the smartest, sweetest stretches of comedy in TV sitcom history — and it’s focused on the theme of what government can and can’t do. How good is this season? In just its second episode, it delivered the show’s finest half-hour, “Flu Season,” in which Leslie, Chris, and Ron’s cynical assistant April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) are felled by a virus, leaving hard-working nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) to take care for them while the other characters try to manage the preparations for an upcoming town festival. There are few greater tests of our social structures than a major public-health crisis, and in addition to some hilariously disgusting bodily fluid jokes, “Flu Season” shines in the way it stands up for the selflessness of the medical profession. Plus, it features one of Leslie’s most heroic moments, as she rallies just long enough to give an important presentation about the festival — which ultimately wins Ben’s heart.
“Time Capsule” (season 3, episode 3)
Want further evidence of the third season’s dominance? One week after “Flu Season,” Parks and Rec rolled out another all-timer, “Time Capsule,” in which Pawnee argues over what to lock away for the next half-century. They want to show the people of 2060 what life in middle America was like at the start of the 2010s, and what follows is one of the show’s funniest town meetings. The town meetings are always comedy gold, and this one stands out for representing every one of Pawnee’s political biases and pop-culture passions. In the end, after trying and failing to accommodate everyone, Leslie decides that the only thing that really belongs in the time capsule is a video of that contentious meeting. After all, it shows how a community is bound together and driven forward by its diversity of interests.
“Harvest Festival” (season 3, episode 7)
More than a third of season three is dedicated to Leslie’s attempts to bring back the Harvest Festival, a traditional Pawnee celebration that she hopes will save the parks department and remind her neighbors that a sense of community and a higher quality of life are worth paying for. The story line culminates in “Harvest Festival,” where the event is almost derailed by Native American curses, knee-jerk protesters, and — yet again — local media determined to tell a story about government waste. The fest is ultimately a success, thanks to Leslie and Ben’s resourcefulness and the inexplicable popularity of miniature horse Li’l Sebastian, proving that as much as taxpayers might complain about how their money is spent, they usually enjoy the benefits.
“Citizen Knope” (season 4, episode 10)
With everything clicking at the parks department by the end of season three, Parks and Rec introduces an ambitious story line in season four: Leslie decides to run for city council and expose herself to even more scrutiny from her town. Her campaign is self-sabotaged early on when she goes public with her relationship with Ben, raising the specter of biased treatment by the people who control Pawnee’s purse strings. She loses backers and is suspended from work, during which time she throws herself into community organizing, Obama-style. Once again, Leslie’s dedication to service impresses her friends, who rally to her cause and become her new campaign staff. “Citizen Knope” is a reminder that it’s not essential to be a paid public official to do some civic good.
“The Debate” (season 4, episode 20)
If one episode represents everything Parks and Rec believes in, it’d be “The Debate,” written and directed by Poehler herself. In the last days of Leslie’s campaign for city council, she faces her opponent, the dim-bulb Sweetums candy heir Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). After spending months warning him that he’ll have to put in some work if he wants to help run a whole city, she proceeds to pick him apart carefully on the debate stage, despite his best efforts to keep appealing to Pawnee’s vanity and fear. Given what just happened last week, “The Debate” may seem like a naïve fantasy, expressing the conviction that preparedness ultimately impresses the public more than catchphrases. Still, the real world doesn’t make this episode any less thrilling or heartening.
“Win, Lose, or Draw” (season 4, episode 22)
And if one episode can make even despondent Clinton voters find hope for the future, it’d be this season-four finale, which reveals the outcome of the council race and sets the stage for what’s ahead in the show’s final three years. Though Leslie ultimately wins a close vote — so close that it requires a recount — “Win, Lose, or Draw” takes its cues from its title, which reiterates the show’s frequent point that it doesn’t matter much what people do, so long as they do it well and for the right reasons. The episode encourages viewers not to pin all their hopes on whether or not Knope wins, reminding us that she’ll still have her ideals and her makeshift family no matter what. To that end, the most important part of “Win, Lose, or Draw” may be its subplot, where April and her lovable doofus husband Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) think they’ve erased all of the parks department’s files. In a panic, they start fantasizing new lives for themselves, but everything’s ultimately set right with the computers with help from the super-competent Donna Meagle (Retta) — and April is inspired enough by the scare to tell Andy he should follow his dream of becoming a policeman. The point is plain: Every end can be a fresh beginning.
“Ms. Knope Goes to Washington” (season 5, episode 1)
Though Pawnee was something of a fantasy land, it did exist in a world similar to ours, with the same celebrities, musicians, athletes, and politicians. Leslie leaned left politically, but she was broad-minded enough to admire politicos from across the spectrum if they were honorable and dedicated — and especially if they were female. In the season five premiere, she goes to D.C. to visit Ben and hobnobs with Barbara Boxer, Olympia Snowe, and John McCain. In other episodes, she spends time with Joe Biden and Michelle Obama. Some of Leslie’s avowed heroes include Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Madeline Albright, and Condoleeza Rice. At a time when lifelong public servants get blasted as “career politicians,” this episode treats them as some of America’s finest.
“Gryzzlbox” (season 7, episode 5)
Although Parks and Rec stayed strong throughout its run, it became somewhat tougher to watch in seasons five and six. Not because it wasn’t still funny and poignant, but because the writers leaned harder on their long-running criticism of the press and the voting public as ungrateful and easily misled. Pawnee pummeled Leslie for the better part of two years, plaguing her with venal colleagues and constituents with unreasonable expectations. Nevertheless, the seventh and final season ends the series on an upbeat note, laying out a future for Pawnee and its inhabitants by suggesting that even a flighty America has certain persistent principles. In the season’s first half, the city essentially sells itself to a tech company called Gryzzl, letting the corporation pay for community upgrades in exchange for giving up their privacy. In “Gryzzlbox,” Leslie, Ben, and Donna help raise awareness of what Pawnee’s new benefactors are really up to. The trio ultimately turns public opinion, revealing one of America’s most annoying traits to be an unrealized strength: We often get excited about something new, but only until we abruptly decide that it’s time for another change.