Garbagehead Doo-Doo Face: The Evolution of Parks & Rec's Leslie Knope


Within the first five minutes of “2017,” the premiere of the seventh and final season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has already called someone a, “stupid garbagehead doo-doo face.” Hyperbole is Knope’s bellwether; the gesture is a marked indicator that the writers of Parks and Rec fully understand that even when a person matures and advances in her life, her essential core stays the same.

At the show’s start, Poehler’s Knope is sprightly, albeit totally lost about anything in her life other than her career. Through the previous six season, viewers have watched her blossom from a lovelorn hoarder in a mid-level government position in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana to a woman who is confident in love, married (to character Ben Wyatt, played by Adam Scott) with three children and the head of the midwest chapter of the National Parks Department. The journey that Leslie takes through the first six seasons of Parks shirks a lot of the tropes we come to expect from feminist characters on sitcoms—yes, she’s scrappy, but she doesn’t come adorned with lettuce in her hair like 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon, nor does she submit to the Cool Girl Fantasy like How I Met Your Mother‘s Robin Scherbatsky, even though Leslie is one of the most aggressive careerists on basic cable since Murphy Brown. She is sweet, she cares deeply for the people she works with and focuses extra attention to bolster her female friends and colleagues. And unlike Lemon and Scherbatsky, Leslie is unafraid of her own vulnerability—and that’s what gives her power. She doesn’t fear risk because she believes in doing the right thing, even if that means it’s not the safe thing.

But Leslie is always effusive, whether it’s how she compliments her best friend Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) or her persistence toward perfection in a job she loves more than any person has ever loved one. What makes the show truly impressive, however, is how the show depicts Leslie’s—and, frankly, almost every character’s—growth over the eight years the show takes place. Here, we’ll mark each of Knope’s biggest triumphs (or, in some cases, failures) per season.

Season 1

The first season of Parks and Rec was too short to find its sweet spot. It did, however, portend the Leslie of the next five seasons. We were introduced to her insecurities about her mother Marlene Griggs-Knope, a high-ranking governmental official in the Pawnee Education Department, and, perhaps, more importantly to Leslie’s boundless affection for former lover city planner Mark Brendanawicz. While most of the season tracks her developing friendship with Ann—the two first meet at a town meeting where Ann goes to complain about Lot 48, a pit in her backyard that her boyfriend Andy Dwyer fell into—and Leslie’s strident work to get the pit filled, but this is not her biggest victory. In the finale, Leslie curbs her lust for Mark, who she won’t sleep with because he’s drunk. It’s the first indication that Leslie knows how to redirect her manic energy into her political priorities and that she is slowly starting to fine tune her self-confidence.

Season 2

Leslie’s labors in love improve considerably in season two—and so does the show. She has a short relationship with Pawnee Police Department doofus Dave Sanderson, played adorably by Louis C.K., dates Ann’s asshole co-worker Chris (played by Poehler’s then-husband Will Arnett) and has a short tryst with Indianapolis hotshot lawyer Justin (Justin Theroux). Whether it was the writers’ intention to let Leslie’s romantic confidence bolster her own sense of self-worth is unknown, but there are moments in season two where the Leslie’s overt perkiness and blind (if frustrated) faith in Pawnee start to fade. When Ron Swanson, the libertarian, anti-government head of the Parks Department, is given the honor of Dorothy Everton Symthe Woman of the Year, Leslie is forced to navigate disappointment in a town she adores, and explore what to do when feminism fails you. Parks & Rec is unafraid to let Leslie lose without wrapping it in a happy ending bow at the end of 22 minutes. The allowance for failure that sticks is what helped to develop Leslie’s rich character. Bonus points for giving us Galentine’s Day and the phrase “wiz palace.”

Season 3

For anyone who loves a long sitcom romance plot, the Leslie-Ben narrative is the first on the show that truly satisfies (but shout out to Andy and April for just totally going for it). Season three succeeds because it’s the first time Leslie smashes her perennial love for following rules—without which, her relationship with Ben wouldn’t be possible, anyway. After victoriously reinstating Pawnee’s Harvest Festival, Leslie has harnessed an internal power we see most clearly in an episode where blundering Parks Department employee Jerry paints a picture depicting a topless Greek goddess… who looks exactly like Leslie. Conservative Pawneeans demand its destruction, but Leslie manages to steal the painting for herself. The episode, from the images to the plotline, are a manifestation of Leslie’s vehemence that she is no longer willing to tamp down in the name of playing the nice girl. It’s how she carries on a secret romance with Ben and stands up to her mother for the first time.

R.I.P. Li’l Sebastian.

Leslie party break!

Season 4

Leslie’s bid for Pawnee Councilwoman dominates this season, but it also gives other characters a chance to stretch their legs and become even more well-rounded. Ben is given the opportunity to redeem his political failures by running her campaign. It’s also the very real beginning of the foothills Leslie has to face the higher up in politics she climbs. Her ultimate defeat of Bobby Newport, despite having been suspended from her Parks Department job mid-season for having a secret relationship with then-boss Ben and having to rebuild her entire running strategy, was certainly fan service. It just also allowed for the writers to create even more conflict in the following season.

Season 5

Soda tax! Extended pool hours! Landmark bailouts! Leslie and Ben get married! Pawnee threatens to recall Leslie! Leslie accomplishes more in season five than any previous season of the show, natch, but it’s Ron who is the real beacon of maturity here. We’ve seen his romantic foibles with his first and totally heinous wives Tammys 1 and 2, but here he meets a woman that kicks him in the gut and softens his steak-and-eggs-hardened heart. Did we ever think Ron would be a daddy, let alone become enamoured of two tweens enough to let them dress him up like a princess? Only Xena, Warrior Princess could make that change. Ron wins season five.

Season 6

When Pawnee has to merge with to bail out and merge with snooty, affluent town Eagleton—a place that gets under Leslie’s skin throughout the entire series—we get a fully rounded picture of Leslie’s growth. Despite that fact that she is potentially up for recall, she holds a filibuster (on roller skates, no less) to give the newly incorporated Eagletonians the right to vote. (Spoiler: She gets recalled.) But her ability to put her utter detestation of Eagleton aside as a commitment to her job is, perhaps, the biggest testament to her growth on the show. She is still idealistic as ever, but she has learned how to put aside some of her impossible morals to do what makes sense.

Parks & Recreation begins with Leslie attempting to make a literal hole in her community into a parks space and will end with her bidding to make the Newport land a national park to be enjoyed by the entire country. It’s the perfect swan song: The difference in size between the Pawnee Commons and a national landmark are indicative of the strides that Leslie has made through the series to push herself outside of her own comfort zone, and to continue her dream of making Pawnee a better place. In doing so, Leslie has shown us that it’s fine to fail, but that you have to keep believing in yourself. That love is messy and shitty but worth waiting for, while still placing a premium on finding someone who understands her worth. We might not all be a Leslie Knope, but she is all of us: An unflinchingly caring friend who knows when to call you out when you’re on some bullshit—and who else has ever called the first fight with her best friend a “watershed moment” because it means the relationship is going to develop deeper?—a woman so staunch in her support of women in power that, despite her clear liberalism, she will still list Sarah Palin when rattling of names of women in politics, because female representation is so important to her. Even when the show kicks her when she does down, she continues to walk it off even when she’s hit with repeated blows. She does it because she believes in herself, but the show does it because it wants us to believe in us.

Claire Lobenfeld is a music and culture writer, TV recapper and amateur basketball journalist living in New York.

Image via Danny Feld/NBC

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