Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass Part 1 – Leslie Knope

Parks and Recreation is the show I watch when I’m having a lousy day…or week. It never fails to cheer me up, especially from season three onward. I think this is due to a number of reasons – a cast of well-rounded characters, witty scripts, a cheery theme song and brilliant character actors.


The show follows Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the deputy head of Parks and Recreation, a mid-level government department in the city council of her home town, Pawnee Indiana. Her relatively low-level job belies her ambition; it’s clear from the outset that she wants to rise high in politics. Unlike a lot of ambitious people, however, Leslie genuinely wants make the world a better place. She cares deeply about her town and is hugely enthusiastic about her job. She is a fantastic example of a strong female character – she’s not necessarily physically strong, and she has some definite character flaws, but her strength comes from her determination and from how much she cares about the people around her.


Leslie’s character transformation is subtle but immense. She remains ambitious, generous and kind, as well as obsessive, but she learns to focus that obsessive positivity into more productive areas.

The first series involves Leslie fighting tooth and nail to achieve something that should be relatively simple – to turn a dangerous pit into a park. The pit is brought to her attention by Ann Perkins (Radisha Jones), a local nurse whose house is right in front of the pit. Ann’s boyfriend, Andy (Chris Pratt), fell into the pit and broke both of his legs. Leslie and Ann work together to make the park a reality, and while they don’t succeed for several seasons they do become firm friends. Leslie also has a huge crush on Mark, the city planner.


Season one is relatively short, and is really like one long pilot episode. Season two moves things along by having Leslie move on from Mark and start dating other people, but her love life takes more of a back seat. Instead, the show focuses on her new friendship with Ann, who acts as a support and also helps to keep Leslie grounded and focused. Leslie becomes closer to her co-workers as the show progresses, but Ann is her one real confidant. This close friendship between two women is relatively rare to see on TV – even rarer that they spend plenty of time talking about issues other than men (although they do discuss the men in their lives). Parks and Rec manages to tread the very fine line between “too much” and “not enough” romantic intrigue, and focusing on other interpersonal relationships is a huge part of this dynamic, as is the focus on Leslie’s career.


In the very first episode of season two she holds a wedding for two penguins at the zoo, who turn out to be male penguins, and has to fight against a right-wing Christian group who demand her head on a platter. She says in this episode that as a government worker she doesn’t want to take sides on any issues, but by the end Leslie learns that people will make their minds up about you anyway. In the episode Beauty Pageant, Leslie is a judge for Miss Pawnee, and is determined that the award go to the contestant who is smart and dedicated as well as pretty, firmly taking a pro-feminist stand. Unfortunately, the prize goes to the contestant that the other judges dub “the hot one.”

Having characters who don’t always get what they want is crucial to their growth; later in season two Leslie tries to prevent a historical monument from being torn down and ultimately fails. Leslie doesn’t let these moments of defeat define who she is; she picks herself up with the help of her friends, eats some waffles, then goes back to tilting at windmills. She teaches us that you can only win if you get back in the game, something that so many of us forget – myself included.


At the end of season two, we learn that the city budget has been massively mismanaged and we are introduced to two government auditors, Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) who are there to slash and burn. Leslie tries desperately to save the jobs of everyone in her department and comes up with a viable plan…until Ben and Chris inform her that the entire government needs to be shut down while the mess is sorted out. Leslie is deemed “non-essential staff,” but that doesn’t stop her from trying to do her job. She manages to gather several volunteers to put on a kids concert that had previously been cancelled due to the shut-down. It’s no coincidence that when Leslie succeeds it’s because she asks her friends for help – this trait reminds us that when you take the time to care for your friends they will take the time to care for you (and they can usually tell when you’re being disingenuous, so don’t try to fake being nice to people so they’ll do what you want. A person I used to work with did that… it went down like lumpy milk).


In season three she succeeds in staging the Harvest Festival, in season four she runs a campaign for city council. In season five she manages to pass a series of city council bills, despite huge political backlash and sniping. She achieves all of these things because of her own determination and because her friends want to help her. And they want to help her because she makes time for them. For Ron’s birthday she creates the perfect dinner for him to eat by himself because he hates people and loves meat and whisky. She later brings him with her to England and sends him on a scavenger hunt that leads him to a remote scotch distillery – his idea of heaven.


She backs Tom in all of his insane business ventures, including promoting Snake Juice, his high-end liqueur that gets the entire club absolutely wasted. She uses his company, Entertainment 720 to run her campaign for councillor – he completely blows it and the company goes bankrupt, but that was his own fault.

She constantly tries to encourage April to be enthusiastic and get involved with the community, something which doesn’t properly sink in for a few seasons because April is a determined misanthrope.

Leslie Knope is a sensational friend.

In the initial seasons, we see that Leslie will go to any lengths to achieve her goals. In season five she concedes that she needs to cut back on work hours in order to devote more time to the campaign – this is a huge step for someone who loves her job and cares as much as she does.

In season six she makes a huge decision – to put other people’s rights ahead of her own interest. By the end of season five Leslie has made many sensible, and therefore unpopular, changes to Pawnee legislature. So now she’s facing a recall election. While this is happening, their rival neighbouring town of Eagleton has gone bankrupt and needs to be incorporated into Pawnee. As much as Leslie despises Eagleton, she campaigns to incorporate the two towns so that a whole bunch of people can keep their jobs. As unpopular as this makes her with her home constituents, she does it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. The only upside for her is that she now has hundreds of new citizens who see her as a saviour and will vote for her in the recall election.

Except, there’s this guy.

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Jamm. He’s one of Leslie’s fellow councilmen, and he’s worse than a cockroach. Anyway, he tries to pass a bill that says only people with official Pawnee addresses will get to vote in the election, and Leslie has no choice but to filibuster while wearing roller skates (for my Australian readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of a filibuster and have never seen “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”, link here. The last Australian filibuster was in 1918, after which they passed a law limiting speech times to twenty minutes).

Toward the end of her filibuster, Ben informs Leslie that the Eagletonians won’t be voting for her in the recall election as they wish to elect someone who will represent their own interests.

Leslie: I’m not going to yield. I need some time to think, and because I must keep talking I’m going to think out loud. Okay… if Eagletonians vote for someone else, then it would be in my best interests to stop, right? So they can’t vote.

Jamm: A-doy! Yield!

Leslie: Or I keep going, because the right to vote is fundamental in any democracy and this is bigger than me, or anyone. I don’t care if I lose. No-one prevents people in my town from voting. Not on my watch. The filibuster is on!


This move means that Leslie ultimately loses the recall election, but she couldn’t live with herself otherwise. This is a big difference to the tunnel-visioned Leslie of season one.

Toward the end of this season, one of the other council members is exposed in his umpteenth sex scandal and finally steps down. Leslie wants to run for council again, and her now husband Ben does exactly the right thing to convince her otherwise – he calls in the political consultant who helped to nearly beat Leslie in the original election.


Ben: You know, I’ve been thinking for weeks of what to get you as a “last day in city council” present, and I finally figured it out. You remember Jen Barclay, political consultant and powerbroker?


Leslie: So they recall me, after all I’ve done for them.

Jen: That’s ridiculous.

Leslie: But Dexheart now has another sex scandal –

Jen: Of course he does.

Leslie: -and the plan is I’m going to run for his seat, because how do I lose to a guy like that? It’s a great idea, right?

Jen: It’s a terrible idea.

Leslie: I knew it! Wait, what?

Jen: First of all, you could lose to a guy like that. Terrible people defeat great people all the time. I should know; those terrible people have paid me so much money that I have a condo on every virgin island. Now, you might win. You’re smart, Ben is smart, you might win. But why would you want to?

Leslie: Because it’s my dream job.

Jen: Then dream bigger. Look, you love this town, it’s being run by monsters and morons? Get a better job! Rise above their heads! Affect change at a higher level! Don’t be the kid that graduates high school and hangs out in the school parking lot! Be the woman who moves away, climbs the ladder and then confidently comes back and has sex with her hot old English teacher just for kicks!

Leslie:… is that what you did?

Jen: Yeah. Mr Baker. Sex was pretty good, thanks to me. Look, Pawnee has done you a favour. You’ve outgrown them. You’ve got talent, you’ve got name recognition, which means you have a bright, wide-open future with a thousand options! State senate, federal jobs, even congress. All of these are do-able for you. And trust me, because I don’t care enough about you to lie.


Leslie takes Jen’s advice. She realises that as much as she loves her town, and loves getting her hands dirty by affecting change on a micro level, there is no way that she can make the kind of difference she wants to make by staying in her home town. As much as she loves Pawnee, she needs to move on.

Which brings me to my final point – Ben and Leslie. So many TV show writes bring in romantic interests as comic foils, as incomplete people who are finally complete when they find “the one” in the protagonist. That is not Ben and Leslie – they work so well because they are both complete characters already. They also have enough in common that it’s not weird that they’re together (ie: the Odd Couple trope), and they have enough differences and personal problems that the other can get to know them. Another trope that irks is when one fails to change the other – Ben first starts to fall for Leslie when he sees her give a perfect speech while she’s delirious from flu, he doesn’t try and change who she is.

Ben and Leslie are also immensely supportive of each other, and they are constantly trying to help each other achieve their dreams. Ben resigns his job so that Leslie can run for council and still be in a relationship with him. He then runs her election campaign. After the campaign he is headhunted by Jen Barclay to work on a congressional campaign and spend six months in Washington, and as much as Leslie will miss him she tells him to go for it. He then gets a job working for Sweetums, a company which is trying to get Leslie recalled, and they still make it work… until she accidentally gets him fired. But then he takes a job as city manager, so it all works out. Ben does make the odd sacrifice to be with Leslie, such as only working on the one congressional campaign rather than taking up another one, but it’s a welcome change from what we’re used to seeing, which is usually the woman giving up her own dreams or begging her man not to pursue his.


There is so much more that I could say about Leslie, but I don’t have the space in this blog. Her character shies away from the usual female clichés and instead creates someone that people can admire, despite her flaws. She makes me want to be a better friend, a better writer and a better me.

There will be more Parks and Rec talk next week. Until then, go catch your dreams.


One thought on “Parks and Recreation: A Character Development Masterclass Part 1 – Leslie Knope

  1. I know this is an old post, but I couldn’t agree with this assessment more. There are not nearly enough well rounded female characters on TV or in fiction in general and I think Leslie Knope is up there in at least the top 5 of the very finest (if not higher). It’s so refreshing to watch something where they didn’t feel the will they/won’t they needed to be the cornerstone of the show and instead just show a decent person living their life. Great article!


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