Big events where people are supposed to have all of the fun frequently end with fights and feelings hurt. It’s a hard truth, and I wish it wasn’t the case, but I’ve read The Sun Also Rises. More topically, I’ve seen the latest episode of Parks and Recreation, which centers on two big events and two major revelations regarding under-the-surface tensions.
There is no main plot/subplot dynamic, making the episode a kind of dueling banjos. It gestures toward a main plot of Ron and Leslie attending a woodworking awards show (just in time for Grammy nominations as well as the annual Oscar movie mad-grab. Tis the season.). The subplots would be Ben and Chris rekindling their friendship (Manic Pixie Dream Boy Ben has the night free, thanks to Leslie tending to Ron’s emotional needs) and Tom, Donna, Andy, and April going out for “Jerry Dinner,” an annual event funded by a $1 contribution from each participant for every time Jerry does something dumb.
Instead, the subplots merge, becoming equal with the main plot. While Ron struggles with Tammy Two and Leslie tries to protect everyone’s well-being, Tom, Donna, April, and Andy have to confront the fact that they are unnecessarily harsh on Jerry. While on their way to Jerry Dinner, Donna has an attack of conscience and decides to include Jerry, only to discover that he’s throwing a joyous Christmas party. The three of them weren’t invited. More to their dismay, they notice Ben and Chris thoroughly enjoying themselves at the in-house buffet.
I should take a moment here and offer a peace-offering to Ann Perkins. Similar to Tom, Donna, April, and Andy thinking Jerry was completely uncool deadweight past his prime, I thought Ann had outlived her interestingness. Instead, it seems Ann has been working behind the scenes—much like Jerry—being charitable and unselfish. Big hearts think alike, and Ann merits a solo invite to Jerry’s Christmas party. An argument could be made that Ann’s so hard up for a social life that she’ll take any party invite. Fortunately, she doesn’t spend the episode throwing herself at anyone. In fact, for the first time this season, Ann isn’t spoken of as a sex object at all. It’s almost like she’s a person.
Donna finds her redemption early, but Tom, April, and Andy have to really dig deep and figure out why they deserve to be a part of Jerry’s Christmas party. It’s like a hip, young government worker version of A Christmas Carol. Eventually, they contribute all of the “Jerry’s Dinner” money to Jerry for his party—but not without slamming a door right on his nose.
Jerry himself seems a send-up of Kevin James-type characters, fat, disheartened schlubs who inexplicably have smoking hot wives. It’s an old, old sitcom tradition, one that perfectly reflects Hollywood’s boys’ club attitude as well as its borderline pedophilia need for an endless stream of bombshells not old enough to drink (despite what Bret Easton Ellis might think). Accordingly, Jerry’s wife and daughters are Barbie-beautiful, but completely one-dimensional and dull. It’s everything Jerry deserves, in a myriad of ways.
One interesting parallel is when Chris’s ex/Jerry’s daughter, Millie, surprises the party; meanwhile, Tammy Two does her best Sharon Stone impression and makes some perfect sexual puns while crashing Ron’s woodworking event.
Ron struggles to keep it together for his new lady’s sake, and (twist) it’s actually Leslie’s earnestness that’s off-putting. Everyone learns a valuable lesson about the value of friendship and boundaries. Tammy tries to initiate lesbian sex, Leslie remembers this isn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch, and Ron ends the episode happy with Diane. It’s all very predictable, but still riveting thanks to all of the acting talent involved. Ron and Tammy, a real-life husband and wife team, have to repress enough tension that you feel like anything could happen. The revelation that Diane is more uncomfortable with Leslie than Tammy isn’t particularly crazy, but reveals how much more Parks thinks about human relationships than most sitcoms.
Meanwhile, at Jerry’s party, Chris is making real progress with his therapist (fifteen sessions a week really do wonders), but the sight of Millie really affects him. He handles it well, and Ben seems reassured, but I’m not backing off my prediction that we’re getting an epic Chris Traeger episode soon. He doesn’t seem to recover from his shock, even if he says he’s fine. There’s a bit of false Christmas cheer in Chris’s insistence that things are ok, really, no, he’s serious, you guys. I wait with bated breath.
And isn’t that the other fun of parties? The initial fun is to let loose and see all your friends. The beers are consumed, the shots are downed, the joints passed all around, and then the claws come out. Fights may explode, personal conflicts erupt, the morning begins with coffee and regret, but soon you’re texting your friends saying, “Last night was so fun, let’s do it again soon.”
Both scenarios are true. I’m not trying to say parties are terrible. I’m not even saying fakeness is necessarily bad. The Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/whatever season is a time for people to experience love in spite of their loved ones’ shortcomings. This week’s episode involves some picture-perfect gatherings beset by Murphy’s Law. It wasn’t even a “Christmas” episode, yet it captures holiday gatherings more accurately than anything else you’ll see from now until the New Year.