Tonight’s back-to-back episodes find Leslie stuck in professional and personal purgatories. She lost the recall election and Ann is officially moving away, but she still has to serve out her last 30 days on the city council and await Ann and Chris’ official departure. Leslie has hit brick walls before, but she has never been as powerless as she is here. In that context, it’s not surprising that Leslie lashes out, embracing her inner maverick in “Fluoride” and making one last veiled attempt to keep her friend in Pawnee in “The Cones Of Dunshire.” She’s doomed to failure in both instances, her efforts stymied by circumstances she long since lost control over. Leslie never has a shortage of goals, be they major or minor—that’s part of why she can so effectively drive the show’s episodic and overarching plots—but she’s fundamentally limited in what she can achieve in the immediate future. “Fluoride” suggests that there are no longer consequences to Leslie’s actions, but that implies she has also lost her ability to make an impact.
That situation could be the basis for a compelling character arc, but both of Leslie’s stories tonight miss the mark. Her attempt to transform herself into a loose cannon in “Fluoride” is the more successful of the two, if only because it’s fun to see Leslie finally embrace all the underhanded, faux-populist tricks that Jamm and his allies use against her. I don’t mention Amy Poehler’s performances much in these reviews, because by now her brilliance as Leslie is a given, but I should single out how she plays Leslie’s brief tenure as a maverick. Her righteous indignation at the townspeople’s fluoride paranoia is leavened by unbridled enthusiasm, as though she knows she is getting away with something naughty and could be found out any minute—so she better make the most of her current momentum.
That’s precisely what happens when her anti-Sweetums rant gets Ben fired from his job in the company’s charitable wing. Ben’s understanding reaction places him somewhere between long-suffering and saintly, but at least “Fluoride” justifies his placidity by pointing out that he’s not running a charity so much as a very expensive public relations department. It makes sense that this doesn’t bother Ben, and its sets up a short-lived return to the accounting firm that idolizes him. But it also means that Leslie’s brash actions lack consequence—beyond her husband’s understated dismay. The writers and Adam Scott portray Ben as the perfect complement to Leslie, which for all its storytelling advantages does mean it’s now hugely difficult to bring them into conflict, even temporarily. “Fluoride” manages a pair of effective character moments in the resolution of Leslie’s Sweetums problem, as she cleverly turns her own flair for tedious facts and science to her advantage, making her rivals’ free sugar water appear hideously lame. Tom is a revelation here, as he finally puts his branding-obsessed business acumen toward aiding Leslie and the government. His inane patter about Sparkle Points and Aqua Badges is deeply stupid, but it’s just the sort of stupid that Pawnee laps up. With his career in flux after the Rent-a-Swag purchase, this could bode well for the character’s next move.
Leslie’s story with Jeremy Jamm in “The Cones Of Dunshire” feels all too reminiscent of their previous bonding session in last season’s “Swing Vote.” The success of the second episode’s story rests primarily on the audience’s enjoyment of Jon Glaser as the odious councilman, which means this is likely to be a divisive plotline. Jamm is fleshed out along divergent lines, as tonight’s episodes both ramp up his obnoxiousness and hint at the damaged human being lurking within. Jamm makes what he hopes is a casual reference to the wife who left him, and his attempt to stall Leslie’s negotiations are less about politics and more about loneliness. Yet the show is uncertain what to do with these hints of a more complex Jeremy Jamm; after more than a season of unrelenting awfulness, it’s hard to sell the notion of the councilman as an object of pity, even sympathy. Jamm has to remain a villainous caricature, but that leaves “The Cones Of Dunshire” with no option but to revisit the story beats of previous plotlines featuring these characters, with Leslie tolerating Jamm right up to the moment that she just can’t stand it anymore. This is a frustrating turn, but at least it provides Chris Traeger an opportunity to step into the spotlight.
After all, it’s Chris who realizes that Leslie might be motivated by something more important than defeating Jamm. With Rashida Jones noticeably absent from both episodes as Ann finalizes the couple’s move to Ann Arbor, it falls to Chris to reaffirm to Leslie that they really are going away. Chris has always been one of the show’s more quietly fascinating characters, as he is driven by a set of principles that are just as strong as—but not identical to—Leslie’s. When the pair’s deeply held ideals have clashed, as in “Jerry’s Painting” and “The Trial Of Leslie Knope,” Chris has emerged as one of the more formidable of Leslie’s adversaries, because for all his ridiculousness he can’t be reduced to just another strawman like Jamm. (A lot of that is rooted in the unshakable integrity Rob Lowe brings to the role.) While there’s no big confrontation between the two in “The Cones Of Dunshire,” it’s Chris who has to tell Leslie in no uncertain terms that the move is happening. Lowe simply drops Chris’ surface-level goofiness to make it clear just how serious he is.
The weight of Chris’ goodbye gift to Leslie shouldn’t be underestimated either, since he compromises his ethics to get the deal with Jamm done. Considering how unbending he has been for all these years—even earlier in the episode, he refuses to help Leslie in any way that might violate his duties as city manager—his decision to mislead Jamm demonstrates just how much Leslie and Chris mean to each other as friends and colleagues. (Even though theirs is roughly the 15th most important relationship on the show.) That’s a hell of a testament to the show’s ability to flesh out its characters and fully explore all the ways they connect together.
The same applies to Chris and Ron’s crib-building story in “Fluoride,” which also plays as the quietly moving culmination of a long-simmering character arc. Most of the story presents Chris at his most ludicrously dependent—his faith in the child-rearing wisdom of Lenny Kravitz, Vanna White, and the duo of Shaun White and Apolo Ohno is deeply, deeply troubling—and his insistence on emotional availability continues to drive Ron mad. Yet when Chris needs to hear that he has what it takes to be a dad, Ron opens up in a way he so rarely does with anyone, least of all Chris. Such character work doesn’t compensate entirely for the overfamiliarity of the story beats in “The Cones Of Dunshire,” but it does demonstrate why Parks And Recreation is still worthwhile, even on an off night.
“The Cones Of Dunshire”: B-
- These double episodes are a pain to boil down into even semi-coherent reviews, so let’s run through some of what I missed in the stray observations, starting with the fresh round of Indianapolis Colts cameos at the beginning of “Fluoride.” I appreciate how pleased Andrew Luck is to see Ron again—even if he quickly realizes how weird these people are—but nothing is going to top Donna coldly shutting down Robert Mathis.
- Speaking of Donna, she shares an interesting little side-story with April. The quest to find every Parks employee’s spirit dog seems like it’s going to be a total throwaway story, but it proves an effective way to explore just what Donna means to her coworkers when she has worked so hard to keep them at arm’s length. It’s also a great role reversal to see April working for someone else’s approval. The scene where Donna explains why April is a rare Black Siberian Husky features some terrifically incisive writing, and Retta nails the delivery. It also leads to the following reaction from Craig…
- “That was so spot-on it was scary. I need to go lie down for 45 minutes. No! An hour! A full hour!” You know, I’m not as sold on Billy Eichner as some people, but that line had me cracking up for a solid 30 seconds.
- There’s not nearly as much going on with the main Parks staff subplot in “The Cones Of Dunshire,” as Ron enlists the aid of Donna, Tom, and April to sell one of his four—scratch that, two—cabins. It’s a fun enough way to throw the characters together, and April’s efforts to attract the interest of a hipster couple are particularly amusing. The story doesn’t say anything we don’t already know about these characters, but that’s not the worst thing in the world.
- “I hate metaphors. That’s why my favorite book is Moby Dick. No frou-frou symbolism. Just a good, simple tale about a man who hates an animal.”
- “I call ledgerman!” On the one hand, those accountants are the biggest nerds in television history, so it’s not exactly surprising that Ben would leave them behind as soon as Chris offers him an amazing opportunity like city manager. But I still find it weirdly heartbreaking to see Ben turn his back on a company that rewards him for his accounting brilliance with a pizza party that is actually a calzone party. These people don’t just get Ben, they’re damn near ready to start worshipping him as a god. Then again, let’s go back to the episode’s final line. This is a company where people fight for the right to be a game’s scorekeeper. Yeah, he’s probably better off leaving them behind, at least until he inevitably flames out in the real world once again.