Before we get to Leslie and Ben, we should acknowledge this: Chris’s mental state is completely roof-blasting haywire. I’m talking about Rob Lowe’s character. Not myself.
This episode of Parks and Rec was about the build up of the little things that leave you mentally frazzled. Like how a barista who’s just a little bit of a dick sends you into tears before your morning latte. Or how that asshole bouncer put you in a bad mood all night. These feelings emerge from a place you typically bury. You don’t expect something so little to affect you so much.
Let’s start with my first example and namesake: Chris. It’s been a long time since he dated someone, and it’s been even less time since he realized mortality is a thing. So he’s been seeing a therapist, but he’s barely making baby steps. At Leslie and Ben’s engagement party, he bursts into tears that never stop, as if his server crashed and lost his LiveJournal post about his cat dying. It’s funny, but jarring. Rock-solid, easily charismatic Chris has been cracking at the edges for months, and now he’s finally breaking (is it too early to make a Paul Ryan comparison? I’m going to make a Paul Ryan comparison). It’s one of the most affecting portrayals of loneliness I’ve seen in any medium. When you’re able to maintain a marble-like facade, you stay in the background of the lives of those around you. Your coworkers, friends, and family barely even notice that you’re suffering, because you don’t want to actually deal with it. By staying out of any major plot lines for most of the season, then suddenly breaking down into episode-long tears, Chris has shown us how powerful loneliness left untreated is. It’s a prime example of how careful and talented the Parks and Rec writers are. More on that in a minute.
Tom has his own moment of “the little things got to me” this week. While trying to come up with a sales pitch for Rent-A-Swag that will impress Ron, “trusty” business pal Jean-Ralphio decides to go clubbing instead of staying in for the homework. Long subplot short, we get some excellent Jean-Ralphio moments before and after Tom kicks him to the curb and decides to proceed with Rent-A-Swag on his own, #solitaryswag. Tom realizes something Jean-Ralphio doesn’t: “Sometimes you gotta work a little so you can ball a lot,” which is a much better slogan than #YOLO.
The main plot revolves around finally-in-the-same-city Leslie and Ben. They’re throwing an engagement party in their new house, which doesn’t look like a hoarder’s nightmare. Leslie’s mother, Ben’s mother, Ben’s father, and Ben’s father’s mistress will all be in attendance, which promises to be rocky. Leslie hopes to patch things up by knitting a unity quilt, which is probably a joke she thought in her head whilst daydreaming through a particularly easy square.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a horrible party. Ben’s 2 ½ parents are like Congress: inwardly dead and outwardly obstructionist. It takes a Herculean effort from Leslie just to keep the party together. For everyone to play nice, it takes an ex-campaign manager to show that he’s completely at the end of his line and resort to pleading. Imagine Karl Rove begging his parents to call off hostilities.
As a viewer, the ingredient that holds everything together is Ben and Leslie’s bizarrely mature chemistry. It’s not the same electricity of, say, Jim and Pam, nor is it the half-resigned steadiness of Turk and Carla. Ben and Leslie simply have it together. They get each other. They’re both profoundly weird, and they understand each other’s quirks. You won’t find Leslie doing Catwoman cosplay for Ben, and you won’t find Ben pretending he’s Joe Biden (OK, you might actually find that next week). It never seems fleeting and never seems like it will dissolve into boring stability.
That’s part of what made the “You better not hurt Leslie, ever” joke so funny. Everyone has known Ben well for over a year, yet to have every character threaten bodily harm if Leslie suffers the slightest emotional damage at his hands is a prime example of how much the Parks writers understand nuance. It’s such a cliché to have a bunch of people tell a man “If you hurt her, I will END you.” If two clichés make us laugh and a hundred clichés make us realize something, then eight clichés make us laugh while realizing something profoundly important and supremely stupid. And honestly, that’s the goal of television.
So, after all this praise, what cynicism can I slip in at the last minute?
Look, it was a great episode. I laughed plenty, and we saw real advancement from a few characters, the kind of development that doesn’t happen much in sitcoms: Chris’s crying, Tom’s firing of Jean-Ralphio, Ron believing in Tom, and one of Leslie’s plans actually working (in her personal life!). It was one of the best episodes of the series, but it’s not an A+ episode. Remember what I said at the top about cracks?
Jean-Ralphio and Tom’s pitch for Rent-A-Swag is ripped almost perfectly from Step Brothers. The incredulous audience, the ridiculous business model, the un-self-aware attempt at creating a party atmosphere, the shameless attempt to cash in on dubstep. All that was missing was a crashed boat full of hoes. This is why I am critical of Parks. Jean-Ralphio and Tom are excellent characters, two of my favorites. They deserve to do more than something that Will Ferrell and John C. Riley have already done better. As a Parks viewer, I expect a little more. When you don’t plug the cracks out of laziness, you never know when an entire season of horribleness will creep up on you.