This blog is all about the unexpected – I mean, no one expects an atheist professor to be politically conservative. So in that spirit I’m devoting today’s post to television comedies. Professors are supposed to be above the low art form of television, particularly the television sit-com. And conservatives aren’t supposed to praise anything out of Hollywood, unless that something is addressing an empty chair.
But after watching yet another hilarious episode of Parks and Recreation this week, and laughing particularly hard at the antics of Ron Swanson, I was determined to say what must be said – that Ron Swanson is the best character on TV. Truth be told, the show is loaded with funny, well-defined, distinctive characters; so much so that Parks and Rec could probably lay claim to 70% of my top 10 list of TV characters.
But Ron’s special: he’s a conservative.
But let’s back up a bit, because not everyone will have seen the show or will know its premise. The show is the sit-com vehicle of Amy Poehler, formerly of Saturday Night Live. Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a wide-eyed optimist oozing with community spirit who idolizes female politicians and who has devoted her life to public service. But these big dreams are played out in a small government department (the Parks department) in a small town (Pawnee, Indiana). In the current season, Knope has fulfilled a lifelong ambition, winning an election and taking her seat on the town’s city council.
As a conservative, I have my prejudices about “Hollywood” too. I’ve admired brilliant actors who got full of themselves and later turned political, spewing the most ridiculous vitriol at conservatives (Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman). I’ve watched comedians I originally thought were very funny turn acerbic and downright mean (Bill Maher, Janeane Garofalo, Al Franken). And I’ve tolerated television shows and movies turning morally sanctimonious and simultaneously shallow in their preachiness.
And so I marvel at how much I like Parks and Recreation. This isn’t just a TV show, after all. It’s a TV show in which the main character is imbued with the passionate belief that our lives can be ennobled through the works of the government. It’s set in a small, conservative, Midwestern town, ripe for every scurrilous West Coast prejudice about flyover-country bumpkins. And someone, at some point, pitched the idea – “Hey, let’s make Leslie’s boss an arch-conservative!” If that brew wasn’t a recipe for shallow characterization, chest-thumping holier-than-thou moralization, and vindictive demonization, then there’s no such recipe.
Ron could have been Major Burns from M*A*S*H. He could have been Archie Bunker. He could have been Jane Forrest of The New Normal (a show I admit I have never seen, though the ads are telling).
To be sure, Ron is outfit with conservative stereotypes, and in good comedic tradition, those personality characteristics are represented in the extreme. He despises vegetables and only eats meat. He enjoys shooting things. He despises government, even though he’s a bureaucrat who heads a government department – it is his daily ambition to get as little work done as possible and he reacts with glee whenever he is asked to reduce his budget or the size of his staff. He loves to be alone, preferably out in the woods somewhere. On the other hand, as the video below demonstrates, Ron is not the Hollywood-stereotype racist or homophobe, a favorite straw man of the left.
Conservative characters like this usually inhabit one of two arcs. Either they are always the bad guy, whose failings end up costing them dearly in some kind of karmic morality play (Major Burns or, less seriously, Homer Simpson), or they are humanized by learning their lesson and recognizing that the progressivist idea is actually correct after all (Alex P. Keaton of Family Ties or Major Houlihan of M*A*S*H).
What makes Ron special is he does neither of these things. Instead he is humanized the way real conservatives are human: he has his political beliefs, but he also has common decency. He has a moral code. He cares about his friends and never forgets their humanity even if he disagrees with them politically. And, it must be noted, the same is true for Poehler’s character Leslie Knope.
In a recent episode, Knope, in her first major legislative initiative on the City Council, proposes a soda tax. The tax faces opposition from a local restaurant association, who claim that the tax will cost the town a hundred jobs. At a town meeting, angry citizens even propose a recall election if Knope votes for the tax, just about the worst personal failure possible for that character. She is temporarily immobilized at what to do.
It’s Ron who ends up being the hero of the episode. He does so in a remarkably true to life, but subtle fashion. He doesn’t argue Leslie into voting down the tax (he’s been seen happily sucking on a 64 oz. soda earlier in the episode – sighing, and muttering how much he loves America) – and there is no doubt what he thinks of government babysitting the drink choices of its citizens. He doesn’t “see the light” and realize how beneficial it will be if Pawnee’s populace reduces its intake of soda (the town’s status as the obesity capital of the U.S. had previously been established). Instead he adopts what is, essentially, conservative advice. He reminds her that as much as he disagrees with her, what he admires about her is her integrity and her dedication to her principles. In doing so he (again, in conservative fashion) is emphasizing her individual right to express her beliefs and follow her own path. As a human being, he is putting his friend’s feelings above a trivial political issue, which is something we expect human beings to do.
The other remarkable thing about this episode – and it is hardly the only example – is that Ron was right. Conservative characters on television are hardly ever right. They’re hardly ever the character that other characters go to to get advice they can trust and act on. The moral center of a show is almost always liberal (if they are political at all), and often excessively so – think Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H, Lisa Simpson, Jack McCoy of Law & Order, Elyse Keaton of Family Ties, and anybody on Glee except the mean cheerleading coach. The only counterexample I can think of would be Hank Hill of King of The Hill.
Will Ron ever change? One of the sad things about shows we love is that characters change, and that change sometimes ruins the magic. Some characters become more shallow with time as the writers go for the easy jokes by exacerbating the funniest characteristics of the character – think George Costanza of Seinfeld. Sometimes characters lose their edge over time as the writers try to “surprise” us by showing another side of the character – think Michael Scott of The Office. Sometimes characters seem to completely change for no apparent reason, like the way Ross Geller of Friends morphed from the sweet, sensitive, science nerd to the shallow, Homer Simpsonesque boob of the later seasons. And sometimes the characters change because the writers want the character to learn their lesson and become a better person – and so Major Houlihan turns into a female Hawkeye Pierce by the end of the Korean War.
Ron doesn’t have to change, though. First, his character is pitch-perfect and hilarious. And second – he’s already a grown up. He is already comfortable with himself and comfortable with the other characters on the show. Maybe that will save him.
As long as I’m praising clever characters on TV, I can also admit I’m looking forward to the return of 30 Rock. Another vehicle for another Saturday Night Live alumna, 30 Rock also boasts another interesting TV conservative – Jack Donaghy. Like Ron, Donaghy is over the top, but also like Ron, he’s at least sometimes right in dispensing fatherly advice to his political antithesis but personal friend, Liz Lemon. That he’s played by Alec Baldwin – a famous Hollywood liberal who leaves nasty messages on his ex-wife’s machine and disrupts airline take offs in real life – makes the show all that much more fascinating. I’m not sure Bladwin’s a likeable guy, but he’s an incredible comedic actor.
I have to end with a disclaimer here – with the exception of Glee, which I can’t stand and have never gotten through more than about 8 minutes of (and The New Normal which I’ve never seen), I enjoy and admire every program I’ve mentioned, from All In The Family to M*A*S*H to Seinfeld to The Simpsons. I’m critiquing the best of the best here.