After my less-than-positive review of last week’s Parks and Rec, I confess I began to doubt myself. Am I too harsh? What exactly is the role of a television critic, when television (particularly sitcoms) is explicitly dedicated to escapism? Are my standards too high? Have endless Sundays filled with CBS promos for awful CBS programs made me so jaded that I can’t enjoy the medium at all unless I’m binge-watching, commercial-free, on Netflix?
The latter is entirely possible. But this week’s episode of Parks and Rec proved all my other doubts wrong.
The cold open, in which Ron and his new lady-interest Diane attempt to “see” each other while Andy chases Diane’s screaming daughters around Ron’s office, is perfect. It illustrates exactly how dating someone with kids means it’s not just about the two of you. It’s also a great advertisement for birth control.
Incidentally, Nick Offerman is incredibly in love with his wife, Megan Mullally, who, coincidentally, plays Tammy 2. This is evident, because Nick Offerman knows exactly what to do with his face during romantic situations. When Diane storms out on him, he’s unbearably sad, but he can’t hide it behind puffy eyes, staring at the floor in spite of a perfectly straight neck, and a curt dismissal of April’s attempts to get him to open up. It’s not Ron being gruff. It’s exactly how you react when you’re publicly broken up because of your own screw-ups. Unless you’re prone to publicly crying, in which case, change.
Leslie, meanwhile, is trying to plan for a future with Ben. It’s uncertain, because Ben is ready to make a career as a campaign manager, which could have him temporarily moving to Florida. She learns of this possibility whilst running a charity auction for “Jerry’s kids’ dad,” and she immediately does the Leslie thing, trying to fix her personal problems by proxy. If Ben is going to be running a campaign in Florida and Leslie has to back out of her leasing agreement on her house, at least she can do something drastic to save Jerry’s kids’ dad, dammit. Her big, panicky move is to auction off a night with Ann, of course. Ann, who is trying to be a bit more discerning with men, bids a million dollars on herself and runs away.
In the end, Ben arrives at the home Leslie has chosen and proposes. It doesn’t quite feel earned, since Leslie and Ben have barely had a relationship that didn’t center on political campaigns, but it’s still a great moment. Leslie is determined to remember everything, which leads to a long, awkward silence where they both scan an empty room for minute details upon which they can fixate. This is comedy gold. Comedy is at its best when undercutting heavy, emotional moments. It’s why The Wire is funnier than Two and a Half Men or Meet the Browns could ever dream of being. There you are, crying over your pint of Ben and Jerry’s because Ben is proposing to Leslie, and all of the sudden you’re laughing uncontrollably as Ben swivels his head and pivots his bent knee, looking for whatever the hell Leslie thinks she’s looking for. Then they kiss before Ben can even finish his question, and it feels so genuine that you don’t even know why you’re laughing anymore.
So how are Leslie and Ron related this week? To paraphrase James Bond losing a big hand at Casino Royale, you’re bluffing if you win on the last card. Leslie didn’t know Ben was coming back, so she threw herself into Jerry’s health campaign. Ron didn’t know Diane would take him back when he showed up at her doorstep with flowers, chocolates, grout cleaner, and a saw (for the girls). This episode could have ended very differently for our two main plots.
Ron and Leslie are both at a crossroads with their relationships. A lot is at stake here, because television still thinks relationships are the only things that make us happy. What’s fascinating is how they both deal with their problems. Ron’s solution is to abstain from the world and perhaps go build a table or canoe. Last week, we saw him try to cure Tom of an internet addiction by driving out to the woods for hunting, fishing, and log splitting. Leslie’s solution is to help others to a fault. This is why her house is a hoarder’s nightmare. Leslie doesn’t have time for a personal life because she needs to be needed. If Ben is going to Florida, well, Jerry has medical bills to pay and Ann has love to find.
Better minds than mine can parse out the gender issues inherent in the Leslie/Ron dichotomy. I’ll just talk a bit about their politics. Ron Paul Swanson is already a huge meme, but Ron is so radical he can’t really be called a libertarian. He’s actually more of anarchist. Leslie believes in government—again, to a fault. She’s bureaucracy’s battered wife—it keeps ruining everything she wants, but she paints on a smile and relishes the opportunity for another round. She’s like the Micky Ward of local government.
While my politics tend to lean towards Leslie’s, it’s clear that she’s never been to a DMV. And Ron, like all libertarians, has little to no concept of empathy and can’t see past logic so cold it could break a Kelvin thermometer. But they both are growing, and life is changing. And, like any sitcom worth planning your Thursday night around, it’s incredibly hilarious. Some quick hitters:
• “Trees. Leaves. Night. Sky.” – Andy is the best potential policeman. He’s like a high school poet who just discovered imagery. He’s only slightly less articulate than Watchmen’s Rorsarch. I hope they make a buddy cop movie where Andy only speaks in single syllables and Louis CK only speaks in exaggerated cop language. Actually, BRB, I’m about to go write the script.
• Chris is profoundly fucked up, asking his therapist for a certificate of “Most Improved Patient.” It’s awesome. He’s like Rob Lowe in reverse, but they never really talk about it.
• Death Canoe is perfect. From the Friday the 13th callback to Donna live-tweeting a 25-year-old movie, it was a great shout out to Halloween scary movies without centering the episode on an extremely worn-out premise. Retta is really showing her comedic chops, and when I thought the episode was going to dip too much into racist stereotypes (Donna screaming at a movie screen), they pulled back. From then on, Retta just got to do her. Good move.
• Speaking of Halloween, OF COURSE Leslie was Rosie the Riveter.
• Tom’s reaction to Jerry’s heart attack was Tom at his best. From mercilessly making fun of Jerry’s farting while not listening to Ann’s admonishments, to finally saying, with genuine surprise, “Oh shoot, I didn’t know that, Jerry, you okay?” Aziz Ansari is tremendously underutilized in this show. Can Kanye roll through Pawnee sometime soon?