Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run Tuesday night on NBC. To celebrate the show’s unforgettable characters, Flavorwire is publishing a series of tributes to our favorite Pawnee residents. Click here to follow our coverage.
In the 21st century, the nerd is in crisis. On the one hand, nerd culture has never been more ubiquitous: even the most obscure Marvel properties are reliable box office cash cows; an adaptation of a once-obscure fantasy epic has the power to crash HBO Go. And on the other, nerd culture has never been more scrutinized: Revenge of the Nerds, upon rewatch, is less validating than appalling; the tech industry, owned and operated by bona fide nerds, is continually raked over the coals for its institutional sexism. The nerd, in other words, can no longer pretend he’s the underdog. The nerd needs a new role model. The nerd needs Ben Wyatt.
Since he’s the character solely responsible for dragging me, kicking and screaming, into the Parks and Rec fandom, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ben. In embarrassingly millennial fashion, I got into Parks not because of advertising or even word of mouth, but because of a GIF. “They would never cancel Game of Thrones,” mouthed a handsome guy I maybe, sort of recognized in an endless loop. “It’s a crossover hit! It’s not just for fantasy enthusiasts. They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world.” He paused, hung his head. “Fill out the forms, please.” Unnerved by the note-for-note echoes of a sermon I’ve delivered to dozens of (barely) tolerant friends, I finally caved. One Netflix K-hole later, I was fully up to speed.
I warmed up to Andy, Chris, and Tom, but with a casual reference to Fringe or not-so-casual analysis of the new Star Trek, Ben always came back to being my favorite. The shared affinity for Game of Thrones helped, obviously, but Ben Wyatt’s appeal was more than the sum of his Jim Halpert Jr. “Seriously?” faces: just as Ron Swanson is the idealized form of one kind of masculinity — the meat-loving frontiersman who gets along with big-government progressives and gay hairdressers alike — Ben Wyatt is the best possible version of another: the triumphant nerd.
Ben is, and always will be, a total geek. But Parks and Rec never pretends that Ben’s obsessions were a roadblock to his professional success. They’re a character quirk, no more strange or debilitating than Tom’s affinity for luxury goods or Ron’s for woodworking. Even better, Ben’s nerdy side is a logical extension of his personality, because Ben Wyatt is a perfect example of what happens when wonky enthusiasm is used for good. Most nerds don’t grow up to send death threats to Anita Sarkeesian: they become software developers, or Patton Oswalt, or city managers who genuinely like accounting.
As a nerd archetype, Ben is the polar opposite of the Gamergater. He has no persecution complex; at the end of the day, he’s a handsome white-collar professional who just happens to love Batman, and neither he nor the show pretends otherwise. Ben Wyatt just likes what he likes, and feels only a tiny bit of shame about it.
Unabashed geekiness isn’t just what makes Ben such a great corrective to the oppressed-nerd canon, either — it’s also what makes him such an ideal partner for Leslie. Jokes about their Lord of the Rings love letters and Thatcher-Reagan role-play are funny, yes, but also driven by the couple’s fundamental dynamic: two people who are about what they’re about, and recognize that quality in each other. The force that moves Leslie to make brick-size binders for every occasion is the same thing that moves Ben to invent the Cones of Dunshire in the space of a week.
Ben and Leslie don’t just understand each other’s passions. When necessary, they calm each other down, because they know what it’s like to get too invested in local politics, or friendships, or a two-second Claymation film called “Requiem for a Tuesday.” But more importantly, they support each other. Ben is an equal co-parent who makes sure the Parks gang is appropriately supportive of Leslie’s promotion. Leslie gets Ben a life-size Iron Throne replica for their anniversary. That’s love.