Classic Television

Revisiting Parks & Recreation – S1E2 “Canvassing”

The cold open for Parks & Recreation’s second episode is similar both in structure and spirit to the pilot episode’s cold open. Both feature shots of kids playing while Leslie bumbles through a work function requiring their willing participation. Here it’s the annual easter egg hunt and naturally, the kids are more willing. There’s a second or two where it looks like Leslie might be showcasing more of that excessive and sometimes off-putting incompetence that marred this first season but quickly it’s revealed that Leslie hasn’t uncovered a single easter egg because Tom forgot to bring them. If the pilot episode seemed to have started out with an eerily dialed-down version of Leslie’s coworkers (give or take a Ron Swanson) in effort to drive home the extent of Leslie’s neurosis, episode two begins by saying, yes, Leslie’s a scatterbrain who seems incapable of performing the simplest tasks, but her coworkers aren’t that far behind. In this and in Greg Daniels and Michael Shur’s decision beginning in season 2 to dial back Leslie’s incompetence while allowing her coworkers more room to get weird, Parks and Recreation soon put to rest comparisons it drew to The Office and developed its own voice.

But the road from “a lesser clone of The Office” to “that nice show with nice people who do nice things for each other” was uneven and riddled with potholes. In this episode, it’s a tug of war; the reluctance stemming from unfruitful community outreach efforts at one end of the rope, the kind of untethered enthusiasm that often leads to dusting off the old Karl Rove playbook at the other end (related: Karl Rove was at OZYfest this weekend and I’m being told his set brought down the house). That cynicism is palpable in the warm yet somehow dismissive manner in which Leslie is regarded by her mother Marlene Griggs-Knope (Pamela Reed). She wears well the grace and perspective she’s accrued from a lifetime in Indiana politics and, perhaps due to that perspective, she’s barely able to relate to her daughter’s enthusiasm over a town hall meeting.

From Leslie’s possibly unreliable vantage point, the elder Knope is “as respected as Mother Theresa, as powerful as Stalin, as beautiful as Margaret Thatcher.” She may be all those things but from the brief glimpses we get in this episode, she mostly comes off as another reasoned, well-adjusted adult in Leslie’s orbit. The Office could, more or less, adhere to this formula: surrounding Michael Scott with mostly competent ‘grown-ups’  (give or take a Dwight Schrute) whose shared indifference toward their jobs contrasted sharply with Michael’s dopey romanticism. Parks & Recreation couldn’t keep this up for very long. The idea of employees at a privately-owned business hating their jobs is infinitely more palatable to viewers than government workers detesting or even dreading the minutiae of public service. Where the citizens of Pawnee were allowed room to be as hilariously deranged and neurotic as possible, the employees of the parks department would either have to meet that level of weirdness halfway or lose the audience (a view which I think was shared by Schur who said in interviews during the show’s run that he didn’t want Parks to paint too negative a picture of public service).

The tug of war between reluctance and enthusiasm manifests itself plainly during the episode’s titular canvassing segment and later the town hall segment. Before heading into the suburbs of Pawnee to knock on doors, the canvassers split into two teams: Leslie’s team, consisting of Leslie and Ann; Tom’s team, consisting of Tom, Mark and April. It’s implied that both teams end up approaching a good handful of Pawneeans and knocking on many doors but we only get to see five citizens get canvassed and each exchange is pretty instructive with regard to how all four parks employees and Ann regard community engagement.

Leslie unveils her plan to go canvassing after Mark warns against hosting a town hall so early. The citizens have had little time to warm to the idea of a new park and, if they don’t like what they hear at the town hall, they could hold an early vote to shut the initiative down before it’s even begun. It’s a fairly reasonable concern that comes true later in the episode but for reasons more to do with Leslie’s antics while canvassing than some hard-learned truth about Pawnee’s citizenry. The episode does Mark a disservice by giving us only one example of him canvassing before bailing to go play Rockband with Andy and April in one of the episode’s most relatable scenes (Playing Rockband over lunch at a coworker’s place helped get me through a soul-crushing job many years ago). It’s too easy to use the word “soul-crushing” when describing Mark’s attitude toward his city planner job, he still has the ability to be inspired as evidenced by his decision in the pilot episode to help Leslie secure her subcommittee.

By having him sarcastically exclaim “I love canvassing” after giving us just the one (darkly funny) encounter with a Pawnee citizen (Brian Huskey) who happens to be a registered sex-offender, the episode seems to be hinting that he’s had enough encounters on the “I invited a sex-offender to a town-hall meeting” level of bad that it’s colored his overall view of canvassing for the worst. That would be a interesting if ill-advised dimension to add to Pawnee’s colorful citizenry except Leslie and Ann’s own encounters while canvassing don’t back that up even a bit. So the entire segment ends up accidentally portraying Mark as the kind of condescending government worker who views the average citizen as sex-offender-tier unpleasant to engage.

By contrast, Leslie and Ann are shown canvassing citizens almost all too normal to call themselves true Pawneeans. The first is a woman who easily approves of a park being built and seems like she might have a few things in common with Ann, who decides instinctively to go off script, ditching Leslie’s extremely thorough Canvassing Manual for a more organic approach. Leslie stops Ann in her tracks and directs her back to the manual. The manual instructs that at this juncture, they close the sale, so to speak, by asking the woman’s attendance at the town hall. The woman’s open demeanor shifts slightly and, whether or not she’s being truthful, she brings up a previous engagement, which in turn brings their exchange to a screeching halt. The second citizen likes the idea but isn’t quite sure. When asked about his reservations, he tells them they concern turning the pit into a park. “That’s kind of the whole thing,” replies a perplexed Ann. The next woman seems receptive to the park but can’t make it to the town hall because she’s watching her kids that evening. Leslie suggests she have the four-year-old watch the two-year-old.

During a brief lull, they express frustration at not being able to get anyone to agree to attend the town hall. It’s at this point that Leslie suggests push polling (a method she happily attributes to Karl Rove). She tries it on another woman (Lennon Parham) and it goes about as well as one would imagine knowing as much as we know about Leslie only two episodes in. Leslie accuses the woman of not wanting the park because she doesn’t care about her kids and the woman in turn decides to mobilize other citizens against the park. In the end, Leslie succeeds at getting people to attend the town hall but they’re almost all there to vote the park down.

If anything, it posits that the easiest way to inspire people to civic action outside of actually inspiring them is angering up the blood. Leslie proves to be a natural at this. These are the early episodes of the show where her incompetence would often conspire with her enthusiasm to disastrous effect. The episode’s writers seemed deliberate in this because where they paired Mark’s laid-back reluctance with a registered sex-offender, they paired Leslie’s upbeat energy with people who would under normal circumstances have half-heartedly agreed to remain informed on the park project at worst and attended the town hall in support of the initiative at best.


  • Leslie was voted best dressed by 87 votes in sixth grade… and there were only 63 people in her class
  • Excerpt from the Canvassing Manual: If the person looks like a celebrity, example: Jack Nicholson– use this to help your pitch. Example: “You can’t handle the pit. That’s why we need to turn it into a park.”
  • The pit is officially called the Sullivan Street Pit
  • Tom runs weird. I wanted to mention this last week but then forgot.
  • Also regarding Tom, I couldn’t find a good place to fit it in but his decision to sidestep the canvassing altogether, resorting instead to hold his palm out to various contractors in the Pawnee area for greasing is so classic Tom, I can’t even be mad at how unethical it is. Suffice to say, it’s good to know in hindsight that Tom had area scammer Jean-Ralphio Saperstein to call friend.
  • “Let’s blow in each others’ faces!”
  • Karl Rove getting a mention just one episode after the Sarah Palin shout-out really speaks to just how much the showrunners wanted to make this little show about local politics in a made-up town as apolitical as possible in the early goings. Coupled with Leslie comparing her mother to Margaret Thatcher earlier in the episode, it’s officially at the point where it’s difficult to ignore and slightly distracting for 2018 me. I’ll willingly admit that 2009 me mostly just laughed it off.
  • Lennon Parham and Phil Reeves showing up here so early into the show’s run further validates my Parks & Recreation/VEEP shared universe theory.
  • Andy’s a cute FDR.
  • Ron’s weird libertarian working in government shtick is apparently based on an actual libertarian Schur met while doing research for the show. I can’t imagine that guy has ever been as funny as Ron doing an impression of City Manager Paul Iaresco (Phil Reeves) while the man is still in earshot.
  • Ron for his part, shows up at about the halfway point in the episode and is weirdly supportive of the park project all of a sudden. During the town hall, he expresses concern about it not going well. A good game I’ll be playing going forward  is deciding when Ron is concerned for Leslie because her failure indirectly affects him and when Ron genuinely just wants Leslie to succeed.
  • Leslie Knope. Builder of Parks.
  • Leslie has zero patience for the top sod guy in Indiana.
  • Andy Dwyer gets a more fitting introduction in this episode, knowing what we know about him. He’s feuding with his neighbor Lawrence but isn’t mean-spirited enough not to acknowledge how awesome it is that Lawrence lives with his grandma.
  • Lawrence has nice, pretty expensive birds.
  • Band Name Watch: Just The Tip
  • Excerpt from Leslie’s Filibuster: “The city of Pawnee was incorporated in 1817 when a young man by the name of Reverend Luther Howell came from Terra Haute on an ox. He planted his flag in the ground and was met soon after by an angry tribe of Wamapoke Indians who, when seeing the whiteness of his skin, twisted him to death.”