Fiction: Parks and Recreation
First Appearance: Season 6, Episode 8 “Fluoride”
Review: My family always has something playing in the background, whether music or the television, and though nowadays our go-to is CNN — Wolf Blitzer is in my living room more often than I am — in simpler times, we were obsessed with Parks and Recreation. We played the show over and over again, which may have something to do with the fact that we ourselves lived in small town America: Our hometown is as resistant to change and determinedly bizarre as Pawnee, and a few episodes felt not just familiar but uncanny in their depiction of the delicate politics that govern such places, and none more so than Season 6’s “Fluoride.”
Protagonist Leslie Knope has just been recalled from her position as a city councilwoman, and is using her remaining time in power to accomplish what she sees as a common-sense public health measure: Getting fluoride into the town’s water supply. Despite the fact that fluoride is perfectly safe, her nemesis and fellow council member Jeremy Jamm wastes no time in convincing the people of Pawnee that fluoride is a toxic chemical that may turn your children into communists. When candy corporation Sweetums gets involved — offering to fill the town’s reservoir with “Drinkems,” a sugar-filled water substitute — Leslie is forced to rebrand fluoride as a social media experience in order to convince the public that it is not unhealthy (or communist.)
Up until the arrival of Sweetums, this exact storyline happened in my town.
When I was a junior in high school, our town’s Facebook page — which ranks somewhere below the graffiti on a bus station bathroom stall in terms of quality of discourse — was overrun by fluoride panic. I don’t remember if anyone explicitly said it would push your child away from the warm embrace of capitalism, but if they had, the argument wouldn’t have been out of place. A local science teacher was a member of the anti-fluoride brigade, and hearing him talk about it resulted in the same kind of disillusionment that I’d imagine would ensue if your driver’s ed teacher suggested shots to ease your pre-exam nerves.
Fortunately, our town’s industry was fishing, not confectionary, so no one pitched as compelling an idea as Drinkems to the populace. The offending drink looks like Gatorade, bottled in a rainbow of colors and filled, as Leslie points out, with sugar.
Side note: Is Gatorade good or bad for you? I’ve had it twice in my life — both times when I showed up at the university health center for unrelated reasons and the nurse discovered my hydration level was roughly equivalent to that of someone marooned on a desert island — and I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it. Is it weak juice or strong water?
Anyways, Drinkems is obviously terrible for you and absolutely delicious, in that fluorescent way of most good old-fashioned American junk food. (What’s your favorite food color that doesn’t occur in nature? For me, it’s Strawberry Starburst Pink.) Had Leslie lost this fight, I imagine each house in Pawnee would replace the hot and cold options at the sink with a tap for each flavor of Drinkems.
Parks and Recreation is a joyful comedy, populated by fundamentally good-hearted characters who only get smarter, kinder, and better at their jobs the longer the show goes on. Drinkems may be junk, but this show is pure comfort food, and though neither of those things should stand in for more nutritious fare — or, you know, drinking water — they have their place, especially in a world as stressful as this one.
Would I try it? Maybe once, but if I don’t trust Gatorade I definitely don’t trust Sweetums.
Mary Colussi is an NYC-based recent graduate and writer, mostly of humor and TV scripts but occasionally of fiction and encouraging texts to friends. She has been published in Sally Mag, Little Old Lady Comedy, and Points in Case.