One of the best shows to come out recently is NBC’s Parks and Recreation. It tells the story of Leslie Knope, a heartbreakingly dedicated public servant who works in the Parks Department in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana (“First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity”). Knope’s eternal optimism and extraordinary work ethic often put her at odds with her fellow government workers, most of whom couldn’t care less about their job and simply show up to do the minimum amount of work required and collect a paycheck. And while I enjoy the show’s take on the faux-documentary style of sitcom (think “The Office” and you’re mostly there), it’s the characters that really have me hooked. Andy Dwyer, who embodies the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” with everything he does; April Ludgate, the twentysomething emo girl with a heart of…well, maybe not gold, but possibly silver or at least copper; Tom Haveford, a thoroughly straight male obsessed with fashion and cologne. But the most standout character of all is Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson.
In fact, there has recently been something strangely familiar about Swanson. The mustachioed alpha male has always been one of the high points of the show, but recently I have noticed that his character is eerily similar to another office-dwelling character famous for his slacker-like ambitions but doing his job just well enough to not get in trouble. The resemblance is so striking that I believe it cannot be coincidental, and might be just one of the best gags pulled on audiences in recent memory. And after much contemplation, research, and Tapatio-flavored Doritos, I believe I have uncovered the truth behind Mr. Swanson: he is Peter Gibbons.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you might not have been in the narrow demographic who spent their college years watching Office Space while guzzling Live Wire Mountain Dew and playing Halo on the original Xbox. Office Space, directed by Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, bombed at the box office but struck a chord with college students when it was released on video. Its central character Peter Gibbons hates his job but does in anyway, dutifully putting in his time as a computer programmer while listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statement. He eventually gets so frustrated with his job that he and some co-workers (whose positions are on the chopping block) devise a plan to subtly rip off the company such that they never have to work again. The movie comes to a close with Gibbons working his dream job shoveling dirt for a construction company while his friends drive off to their new jobs at another computer company, while their thorougly inept coworker Milton reaps the rewards of Gibbons’ grand scheme, sipping unsalted mai tais at a beachside resort.
But what happened to Peter Gibbons in the subsequent years? And what does this have to do with Ron Swanson? In truth, the two are one and the same. Though more investigation is needed, my basic theory goes like this: Following the events of Office Space, Peter Gibbons quickly becomes dissilusioned with his construction worker job. He likes the outdoor work and doesn’t mind the early mornings, but eventually the physical nature of the job becomes too much for him to handle. After a year or so he parts ways with his fellow worker and neighbor Lawrence and realizes he needs to make a serious change in his life. But since his only friends are his fellow workers (at this point he has long since stopped hanging out with Michael and Samir, despite Michael’s plea at the end of Office Space for the three of them to “keep in touch.”), he realizes that the best option is to essentially start over. He moves to the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, changes his name to Ron Swanson, and gets a job doing the only thing he really knows how to do well: mid-level office work. But in Pawnee, with its less-than-stellar business climate, the best option is government work, and sooner or later he lands a position at the Parks Department–an inconsequential segment of the local government where he can quietly exist as a paper-pusher who collects his checks and doesn’t get in the way. But soon, his value as an employee is realized by his superiors simply because he isn’t a terrible employee. Just as The Bobs realized that Gibbons had upper management written all over him, Swanson’s supervisors in the Pawnee government soon promote him to the level of manager. Initially fearful of the new position, Swanson soon realizes that this job is tailor-made for someone like him, and spends the rest of his days quietly serving his time as the manager of the Pawnee Parks Department, working just hard enough to not get fired.
Allow me to explain further using the following bits of evidence.
1. Physical Appearance.
This is the most obvious, but also the least convincing, bit of evidence. Still, it bears pointing out that both have strikingly similar features. Along with changing his name, Gibbons also grew a mustache and started parting his hair on the other side–not much of a disguise, but then, it’s unlikely that anyone in Pawnee would recognize an inconsequential computer programmer from the Big City. Eye color is a bit of a mystery, but I have a hypothesis that Gibbons actually wore brown contact lenses while working at Initech because he thought it would make him more attractive to the ladies (my guess is that Michael convinced him to do it). Both prefer muted earth tones and have a penchant for office-casual attire, though Gibbons clearly takes that a few steps too far when he shows up for work clad in jeans and sandals. However, this sense of rebellion is still present in Swanson, but it manifests itself in a more inward political fashion and is ultimately what leads Gibbons to adopt such extreme libertarian views as he ages.
2. Work Ethic
Peter Gibbons isn’t a bad employee, and he famously told The Bobs “it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” He might show up a little late, but he’s always at work even if he’s barely doing any work at all. He even informed The Bobs that “I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working….I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.” Keep in mind that this kind of work ethic might be possible in an office environment (at least for a while) it would not be sustainable in a construction job. This is why, according to my theory, Peter just doesn’t last very long on the job site with Lawrence. But this type of do-the-bare-minimum approach is exactly how Ron Swanson goes about his daily duties, working, as Peter once said, “just hard enough to not get fired.” And now that Gibbons (aka Swanson) is the manager, it would seem that he really has found a comfortable way to live out his days without ever really worrying about getting fired. He hires April to be his assistant specifically so he has to do the least amount of work possible, and gives her accolades on several occasions merely because she keeps people away from him and out of his office. Swanson has also been known to spend time at work whittling things out of wood, while his younger counterpart would simply waste time at work by playing Tetris and munching Cheetos.
Before coming to live in Pawnee, Peter Gibbons never had much success with any type of relationship. His closest friends Samir and Michael weren’t really his friends, but coworkers with whom he could comfortably share a table at a restaurant. His neighbor Lawrence blatantly disrespects him, taking Peter’s beverages and using his coffee table as a footstool for his dirt-encrusted boots, much in the same way a schoolyard bully might pretend to be friends with a smart kid in order to trick him into doing his homework. The real tragedy of Peter’s life, aside from his general lack of goals or direction, is that he really is alone. And after moving to Pawnee, this sense of isolation only manifests itself further as Peter-turned-Ron continues to live a life devoid of any real personal connections save the superficial platonic relationships he maintains with his subordinates at the office. Peter isn’t exactly the life of the party, and a decade later his new self Ron is equally awkward and uncomfortable in large groups of people. Ron is most at ease when he is fishing, whittling, or in his woodshop crafting boats. Peter is never really happy, and it’s too bad that even after starting over in Pawnee, Ron is equally unhappy–though he seems to have at least eked out a comfortable existence doing things that don’t actively make him angry.
If there’s one thing Ron Swanson is not good at, it’s maintaining healthy personal relationships with women. Married and divorced three times (twice to the same woman), his alpha-male tendencies often get in the way of the daily give-and-take of a relationship. And even though we are not privy to many details of Peter Gibbons’ love life, we are given some important clues through his relationship with Joanna, the waitress from Tchotchke’s. The only thing the two of them have in common is a dislike for their jobs and an affinity for kung fu movies–clearly not the foundation of a solid, healthy relationship. And soon enough Peter’s inner demons rear their ugly heads and he ends up breaking up with Joanna due to an unfounded suspicion that she had a prior relationship with his boss Bill Lumbergh. It’s clear that Gibbons is more comfortable in front of a TV or computer than in the company of women, and this trait is clearly visible with Ron Swanson as well. Though in the years since Gibbons left his construction job he has clearly gravitated towards more outdoor activities like woodworking and fishing (instead of watching Kung Fu), his new Swanson self is just as awkward with women as his younger counterpart. It should also be noted that Gibbons enjoys fishing, and continues to later in life after changing his name to Swanson. Gibbons even takes Joanna out for a day on the lake during which they make several good catches, and he then returns to the office and cleans the fish right on his desk–a move that is right up Swanson’s alley.
Of course all this evidence is merely speculation and a somewhat loose connecting-of-the-dots, and there is certainly evidence to suggest that Ron Swanson is not, in fact, a grown-up Peter Gibbons. For example, Swanson’s alter ego Duke Silver, who entertains elderly women at nightclubs with his jazz band, is clearly out of alignment with anything we learn about Peter Gibbons in Office Space. Of course one could always suggest that Gibbons learned the saxophone in his years of soul-searching, but it’s unlikely given his lack of motivation and discipline. And the lengthy time span between Office Space and Parks and Recreation could allow for almost any possibilities, which makes this kind of speculation somewhat moot to begin with. However, I believe that with careful viewing enough parallels between the two characters emerge that certainly seem to suggest an intentional connection.
So is Ron Swanson really Peter Gibbons, all grown up but, in many ways, just as immature as ever? To answer that I will simply pose another question: is Charles Mulligan’s the best steakhouse in Indiana?
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
- Mission: Impossible III - November 1st, 2013
- Pacific Rim - July 19th, 2013
- House of Cards - May 9th, 2013
- Academy Awards 2013 Liveblog - February 23rd, 2013
- Why JJ Abrams Will Save Star Wars - February 19th, 2013