Also: STOP. POOPING.
(This post discusses last night’s Parks and Recreation at length; spoilers, etc)
Last night’s Parks and Recreation, in addition to being the funniest episode of the series to date, was also a stellar example of how a great sitcom should work. Its story served the characters’ growth and taught us more about them; it also served a season-long arc in addition to giving everyone goals that were specific to this episode. As a viewer of every episode (often multiple times), I was thoroughly satisfied, and I believe that a casual or first-time viewer would find it an unforbidding and hilarious point of entry.
If you don’t mind, I won’t mention how funny the jokes were. This is so subjective, and it’s nigh impossible to make an argument that a joke is funny. Suffice it to say, the episode makes “you feel like you’re in the hands of pros. That’s surprisingly rare and good, and always has been.” It was written by Norm Hiscock, who has an extremely impressive comedy resume, and directed by Wendey Stanzler, a television directing journeywoman. I’d like to focus on the episode’s mechanics.
Over a year ago, Questlove described Parks & Recreation as “the Wu Tang of comedy. An ensemble cast of which all the cast shines.” Questo’s absolutely right; the show has one of the strongest ensembles, and last night’s episode showed how versatile the show’s relationships are. He described the character of Mark Brendanawicz as Inspectah Deck, and much like Inspectah Deck, he was very useful for the early material, but nobody would really miss him.
Mark was replaced on the show by Chris and Ben, played by Rob Lowe and Adam Scott respectively. Ordinarily, when I hear more white guys are joining a show’s cast, I get annoyed. But Chris and Ben have proven to be a workable comedy team completely on their own. Chris’ boundless enthusiasm and Ben’s low-key cynicism are well-contrasted. While Chris seems completely oblivious of Ben, watch Adam Scott’s face whenever Chris is talking. In the second season (their first), they played the same game constantly (and it was always fun): Chris promises something he can’t keep, and Ben shoots down everyone’s hopes. This relationship is now played with a single look. Not quite Jim Halpert, but it’s definitely a little of what Ricky Gervais once described as the Oliver Hardy look at the camera: “You see what I have to deal with?” Chris and Ben’s relationship doesn’t quite evolve during this episode, but it is still strong and funny and shows how good Lowe and Scott are at playing off one another.
Rob Lowe himself has something of a standout episode here. Playing the funniest character of his career, it seems so obvious to give his perfect Chris the flu and just be a disaster about it. He is someone who believes that his body is perfect. He repeats several times throughout the episode, “My body is a microchip,” a ridiculous way of describing oneself. When his body breaks down, he explains to Ann that because of his body’s perfection, he runs through symptoms quickly - especially a fluid loss, leading to what must be a 2011 best-sitcom-moments moment: STOP. POOPING.
But Chris’s weakness isn’t just a way to show us another side of Chris. It lets the relationship between Chris and Ann deepen. Ann herself is something of a problematic character - Rashida Jones is a great actor and seems to be a super cool person, but Ann is the most aggressively normal character on the show, she often comes across as boring when she’s not being the audience surrogate. This certainly made her relationship with Mark tough, because he was the second-most-normal character on the show, notable mostly because he was pretty wry. But now Ann’s dating a Sitcom Character, and the dynamic is very strong. But Ann needs to see some kind of real-person-ness to Chris to make their relationship plausible. So here comes a sick Chris. Ann gets to deal with Chris falling all over himself and generally being gross. With this small gesture, the usually disaffected Ann can be a little less impressed with Chris’s superheroism.
Ann also has another important relationship explored on this episode: with April. April and Ann have almost nothing in common, other than an occasional shared affection for Andy. April already disliked Ann, but learning that Ann had kissed Andy right when things were getting going with him and April made April hate Ann. But the flu going around forces them to interact (otherwise they could go weeks without speaking). Rather than let Ann fight back at April, she takes her abuse because she’s a professional. But once Ann’s off the clock, we see her break down and yell at April - really, it’s an apology disguised as yelling - and they manage to bond a little, through hostility (which is to say, on April’s terms). April’s grown a little; she likes Ann a little more now.
There’s also a moment in the hospital that is subtly brilliant storytelling. Leslie, April, and Chris are all hospitalized with the flu. April buzzes for Ann, asking for more medication - this is a running theme in April’s storyline, her buzzing for Ann’s attention - which lets Ann know that Leslie has taken April’s medicine. Ann checks in with Chris - he’s breaking down further, he thinks he DREAMED Leslie took his medication - and finds that Leslie has stolen her friends’ medication and taken off. In other words, we learn a bit of off-screen story through further development of two character-driven storylines. That’s not easy to pull off.
The object of April’s affect, Andy, has a great episode too, with Ron. These two characters haven’t interacted much since Andy accidentally made Ron moan with his foot-massage-cum-shoe-shine. But here they have a surprising chance to bond. On paper, Andy and Ron have almost nothing in common: Andy is a slouching goofball to Ron’s self-serious frontiersman. This makes fertile area for conflict, of course, but instead Andy and Ron find something to relate over: a shared love of bro-ing out. This kind of development makes perfect sense for their characters, but also is not the kind of thing a viewer would have predicted. This is an example of great sitcom storytelling: you couldn’t have known what would happen, but after it does, you say, “Of course.”
At the end of their arc, they both have a chance for growth. Ron states early in the episode that his best relationships are ones that include no communication whatsoever. His interactions with Andy definitely support this: they’re happiest talking about food and football - Ron’s steadfast refusal to get personal matches up with Andy’s appreciation of simple pleasures. But the big difference is that Andy has not buried himself under any artifice: when you spend time with Andy, you get to do what he loves (tossing a football around, eating burritos) but you also get to know what he cares about. He admits to Ron that he’s bugging out over the April situation. And Ron allows a rare crack in his armor, the kind we rarely see (his reaction to being nominated for an award that should have gone to Leslie in season two is another good example of this) and allows his and Andy’s relationship to (briefly) get personal. It’s funny and pretty moving.
All this is really prologue, though, to the force of nature that is Leslie Knope. As we learned in the episode Christmas Scandal, Leslie never stops working. It took the show a little while to quite get a handle on what’s funny about Leslie, but it has it nailed now: she’s SO competent, and SO excited about her job, she cannot be stopped. She is to government what Chris is to physical fitness. So when Leslie is felled by flu, we get to see her fight that as much as possible.
Ben is pragmatic enough to continue to insist that she rest, but it is important to us that she not. As she states, “I don’t have faith in Ben.” We like Ben, of course, but at his core he is still someone sent from the state government as a bit of an impediment to Leslie’s ideal government. If he says Leslie cannot do something, we need to see her do it. So she steals April’s and Chris’s medication and runs a meeting of local businesses herself (this meeting is the episode’s main story, but it also has an important place in the series arc: it doesn’t feel too continuity-heavy, but it makes repeat viewing a richer experience). And until the last minute, we don’t know if she can do it. She gets very goofy (this gives Amy Poehler the chance to show her range - she’s definitely one of the best-used versatile actors on television) even leading up to her delivery of an inspiring speech. As Ben comments after she pulls it off, “That’s Leslie Knope.” He’s learning to never underestimate her, and she in turn has accomplished a goal. That she goes goofy again just a moment to soon serves to undercut her achievement just a little. It’s funnier, and it feels more realistic than just out-and-out victory. She pulled it together for a moment.
Oh, also, Tom Haverford has a funny storyline where he charms three local businessmen by taking them to a sauna. I personally find almost everything he does and says funny (sorry haters) and he has a Michael Scott moment here: we see what he’s sincerely very good at, and it’s charming the people who need charming.
There’s also Ben bringing Leslie waffles, which she devours, and homemade chicken soup, which she will never eat, and Andy’s apology to April, and again: STOP. POOPING. But for a 22 minute episode to contain so much character detail and development, and so much story deriving from who these characters are and putting together characters who rarely interact, is an incredible achievement. Most shows would be very lucky to ever have an episode approaching this one.