I’ve been going around telling people all day about tonight’s Parks And Recreation double header, explaining it thusly: “It’s the episode that they wrote to sub in for the series finale if it came to that… and then just some episode.” Yeah, it’s a little reductive, but it was hard to shake the feeling that part one would be THE GREATEST EPISODE OF THIS SHOW EVER, and part two would be… just some episode.
As it turns out, the dichotomy isn’t that stark. “Leslie And Ben” is an excellent episode that manages to capture the essence of these characters in fleeting glances. No need for the full mirror-staring treatment—the elegance of “Leslie And Ben” is its confidence in the sum total of the show. The heavy lifting of, say, why Ron Swanson is the greatest human being to ever walk this planet doesn’t have to be done anymore; it’s been placed on a forklift and very slowly gunned for the heavens, needing only that extra nudge to leave me feeling like his legacy will endure. On the flip side, “Correspondents’ Lunch” doesn’t address the elephant in the room that is/was the Leslie Wyatt wedding, save for an opening scene, nor does it have to. The mythos of Parks is like a DJ Roomba that grows ever so slightly as it cleans and pumps phat beatz. So they’re married. It was beautiful. They move on with flair.
Speaking of Leslie Wyatt, “Leslie And Ben” was wisely Amy Poehler’s episode to lose. Written by Mike Schur and longtime writer/producer Alan Yang, it begins with Ben jokingly insisting that Leslie take his name. Of course she won’t, nor would she ever—a lot about Parks has changed, but Leslie’s fundamental self-confidence remains, and kicks off what might have been the final beginning ever (okay enough with the doomsday talk).
And this is Leslie’s day. Her dress, thrown together by Ann, is a scrapbook of her many media appearances and accolades over the years. When the wedding gets derailed by a Councilman Jamm stink bomb (I kept thinking of Jon from Delocated delivering those lines and laughing at WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN), she will not continue the ceremony because Ron, having punched Jamm in the face, is now in jail and cannot walk her down the aisle. The gang rallies and throws together a gorgeous ceremony in the parks department office—accompanied by a vocally nimble Donna—and even then, when it comes to the vows, both Ben and Leslie talk about Leslie. Ben speaks from the heart about how he’d visited tiny towns and rural villages, searching all across Indiana for, it turns out, Leslie; her speech is about how much Ben supports her.
“Leslie And Ben”’s bolding of Leslie doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Parks is a show about how luck truly is residue of good design. Imagine all the things that have to happen so you can do something ultimately forgettable, like run into a friend on the street you haven’t seen in years. Pete Holmes said it well on a recent episode of You Made It Weird: This happened to him, and for the rest of the day, his outlook changed because he ran into this person from his past. This happenstance rippled to encompass his entire day, which might change the way future days are treated, were he to do a great set that night, get noticed, etc. Leslie is that catalyst. Without her, Chris and Ben would have never come to Pawnee, Ron would never have opened himself up to finding true friendship, and April might never have met Andy. As the episode wisely points out, Leslie Knope is responsible for bringing every single person into that room, at that exact moment. These kinds of things happen every day. We just so happened to have witnessed the beginning of this unstoppable chain of events, and it was called “Pilot.”
Really, though, it’s the writers who set things in motion and have gotten out of their way, only stepping in when absolutely necessary. “Leslie And Ben” is some of their finest work. It’s wall-to-wall with little nuggets like Leslie’s unrequited letter to Ken Burns and an angelic portrayal of Lil Sebastian. There is a very intricate and testosterone-fueled montage of Ron Swanson building wedding rings from a sconce in Ann’s house, which he breaks off with his bare hands. And of course, there’s the sentiment that Leslie and Ben say to each other right before they get married: “I love you, and I like you.” Love is confusing and horrifying but ultimately the most primal motivator of all time. Like is a firm handshake or a hug when you need it most. I’d like to think that both were at play when the team got together to bang out “Leslie And Ben.” They like the show, and give it jokes and Jerry gaffes. They also love the show, and will do anything to protect its integrity. They’re having people sing, “Bye Bye, Lil Sebastian” because it’s not only the goofiest thing they can think of, but also the perfect metaphor for this charming double-take of a show: an ode to a miniature horse.
What if those were the last words ever written about Parks And Recreation? I’d be okay with that.
BUT WAIT. Because if you are asking yourself, “Yeah this is all well and good and blah blah love-like, but where is Perd Hapley and why has he not uncomfortably exited any conversations about artificial insemination?!?”, weeeeeeeell “Correspondents’ Lunch” is not just “some episode.”
The previous one is a chance for Leslie to let her guard down and bask in the glory of her wonderful friend-family. “Correspondents’ Lunch” is all-out war. She’s all set to give a speech at Pawnee’s annual correspondent’s lunch and finally give that bitch Kim from the Pawnee Sun a taste of her own medicine (side note: Amy Poehler + White House Correspondent’s Dinner 2014 = you’re welcome, universe + me getting mad props—and yes, the transitive property does apply). But the dirty scoundrel that she is, Kim remains one step ahead, and somehow nabs a copy of the speech beforehand and does all of Leslie’s jokes. Donna, that angelic, devious bastard, concocts a scheme to catch Kim in the act of e-mail-hacking, sending Leslie an e-mail about the midi-chlorian levels at the park and outing herself as a terrible journalist and enabler of bad Neve Campbell impressions. Leslie gets her little victory lap.
After the mania of “Leslie And Ben,” this episode, directed by Nick Offerman, is a necessary simmer to catch our breaths and prepare for the remaining episodes. There’s a lot of leg work that has to happen. Ben has taken a new job with Sweetums as the guy who guides their charity work, and Ann is desperately seeking Chris’ seed to create a super baby who will never get sick. There’s a lot of time spent swirling around the inevitable, especially with Ben and his realization that Andy is miraculously gifted in the field of philanthropy. It’s not the first time Andy’s deus ex machina-ed his way into a great job, though it’s the first time it’s been this niche-specific. (Though it is the first time April goes all the way out of her way to come to Ben’s office and say no to him, just to see the look on his face when she does.) But it’s definitely the first time the show has had a character ask for semen. If I’m wrong, somebody please gif the hell out of the comment thread.
Despite containing the most laugh-out-loud moments of both episodes—I’m thinking specifically of Tom’s charity pick of the group that provides legal assistance to the KKK, and Andy’s slow realization that Ben’s probably talking about that weird other guy in the courtyard—“Correspondents’ Lunch” is necessary, though not quite as nimble as its predecessor. The back third is fully loaded with plot and Perd, with the rest as wind-up. It’s okay. Parks needs a breather, and thanks to the sage wisdom/desperation of NBC, it’s got one.
"Leslie And Ben": A
"Correspondents' Lunch: B
(final grade up top adjusted for inflation)