Parks And Recreation: "New Beginnings"
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Parks And Recreation: "New Beginnings"

Ron should have fired Leslie at the end of tonight’s episode. He certainly would have had ample reason to. She repeatedly, unjustifiably belittled and undermined a coworker. She almost ruined a significant money-making venture for the town over little more than personal pique. Her last-minute decision to sabotage her own presentation was a nice gesture, but that save still made a mockery of the meeting. She refuses to adapt to the changing nature of the department, and her insistence on having her own way over the silly spirit dog board suggests her continued presence would have a negative impact on department morale. Hell, if we’re going to be needlessly pedantic and literal about the opening teaser scene—and you so know that we are—then we could argue that Leslie only got her old job back because of special treatment that she demanded from Ron. Leslie’s multi-season absence from the Parks department has left her with no natural place there, and “New Beginnings” is left to recycle old story beats, most noticeably from last season’s “Animal Control.” Ron is right that the Parks department isn’t a destination for Leslie, and the best thing for the department, for Leslie, and for the show in general might well have been to fire her, to send her on her path to whatever is next.

Then again, it’s hard to imagine Ron doing anything so extreme, and not just because the Parks And Recreation writers still appear to be working out just what they want Leslie to do next. After all, I just laid out a bunch of entirely justifiable reasons why Leslie is no longer a good fit for the department, which is precisely why Ron would never fire her. As he says, Leslie has turned apathetic wastes like Tom and April into conscientious, hard-working government employees; Leslie’s continued presence might be the only thing keeping the Parks department from functioning perfectly.  Besides, if there’s anything that Ron prizes more than government waste, it’s mutual, hard-earned respect, and he makes it clear that Leslie has more than earned the right to leave the department on her own terms. Leslie’s new old job is a way station for her, but he’s in no hurry to send her onto the next part of her journey, especially not when he’s so busy burying his mutilated Employee of the Month plaque at the Illinois border.

The broader question then is just how Leslie is going to fit into the Parks department for however long she remains there, and the essential problem with “New Beginnings” is just how uncertain it is on that particular point. The show is actually somewhat hamstrung here by how far it has progressed April and Tom. Now that they are legitimately good at their jobs, it’s far more likely for Leslie to be in the wrong if they butt heads over Parks business. “New Beginnings” appears reluctant to bring such conflict to a head; this story is theoretically a showdown between Tom and Leslie, but Tom’s presence within the story is largely limited to his standard assortment of gags about living the baller lifestyle. He doesn’t actually display much of a character tonight, with Ron simply relating to Leslie the ways in which Tom has changed while she’s been busy. Yes, he proves the point at his lemonade presentation, but there’s precious little sense of what Tom makes of Leslie’s obvious, destructive meddling. One might argue that Tom is now enough of a professional that he knows it’s best to keep his head down and finish the task at hand, or perhaps he just respects and likes Leslie enough to tolerate her bumpy transition back to work.

Whatever the case, Tom’s effective disengagement from Leslie’s story means that she is left to spiral out of control all by herself, with only Ron on hand to talk some sense into her. This isn’t a good look for her, and Parks And Recreation knows that. If Leslie is going to stay at the Parks department for much longer, she probably needs a big project, something to take her mind off of the fact that she’s built a brilliant, well-run department that no longer needs her for its day-to-day operations. Leslie is at her best when facing impossible challenges, and she’s at her worst when she’s turning other people’s quite manageable situations into impossible challenges just so that she has something to do.

As its title implies, “New Beginnings” feels like a reset for the show, as is only appropriate for a series beginning its second hundred episodes. Whether Parks And Recreation is actually going to make it to episode 120, let alone episode 200, is an open question—though the show’s newly minted Golden Globe winner did rather boldly call this the “halfway point”—but there’s a definite sense here that the show is officially moving on from its old status quo, even if not all of the pieces have fallen into their new places just yet. Even leaving aside Leslie’s tenuous situation, there’s still Ann and Chris to consider. With their departure fast approaching, the lovebirds feel increasingly isolated from the other characters, to the point that I kind of wonder whether there are difficulties coordinating Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones’ shooting schedules with those of the rest of the cast. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine a more amusing proposal scene for Ann and Chris than one in which Larry is violently choking on cracker dust in the background; the presence of other cast members would have only taken away from Jim O’Heir’s sedentary physical comedy.

The rest of their story, in which they put a poor jewelry store clerk through repeated refund hell, is more substantial than last week’s subplot about finding out their baby’s gender, but their tale is unlikely to win over their detractors. As natural as the pairing of Ann and Chris is on character terms—although I think we all regret that Donna never got to prove just how perfect her and Chris’ children would be—they are a tricky pairing comedically. Ann has always been the show’s straight woman, and Chris, for all his indomitable positivity, is also a fairly grounded character, so their interactions are always going to be more subtly humorous than those of just about any other character combination. “New Beginnings” actually acknowledges this a bit by playing up just how seriously, if obliviously, they discuss the deeper meanings of marriage and their love. The fact that they inadvertently destroy the jewelry store clerk’s day and rob him of that other couple’s business might be a bit obnoxious, but eh... that guy really isn’t that sympathetic, even if he won’t be home in time to tuck his kid into bed.

The most successful—and, not coincidentally, the funniest—of tonight’s plots finds Ben establishing himself as the new city manager. His insistence on some fairly draconian new rules for government employees suggests more serious conflicts lie ahead, but “New Beginnings” decides it would be funnier simply to mess around with Ben, on the entirely reasonable assumption that there is nothing more hilarious than a flustered Adam Scott. The episode makes good use of Ben’s longstanding fear of cops, as he reacts to his arrest for illegal cheese arrest as though he’s just been busted for the Watergate break-in. The subsequent scene where he attempts to prank April and Donna back is especially funny, not only because of Ben’s wonderfully frantic, unconvincing performance but also because Andy announces just how bad it’s going to be ahead of time. It’s a good illustration of the old comedic principle that one tells the audience that one is going to tell a joke before actually proceeding to tell it. Plus, the episode finds a convincing character moment—April is always going to appreciate being splattered with blood—to bring the group together again, and it’s a nice touch at the end for Ben and his arresting officer to share a moment’s good cheer and understanding. After a long time in the Sweetums wilderness, Ben has found a natural place again alongside the rest of the cast. Now Parks And Recreation just has to do the same for his wife.

Stray observations:

  • Did anyone else think that Ben was pranking everybody and was actually pretending to be quite so awful an actor? I mean, I know he really is that bad, but for a moment I thought it might well be a con of some sort, with the ludicrous fake kidnapping thing a misdirection for some smaller, better prank.
  • Come on, Leslie, there are so many kangaroos beyond the blue flier! (Which is really just what the female of the species is called, based on my five-second research.) I mean, there’s the red kangaroos, the eastern grey, the, uh, the western grey, and then the antilopine, though that’s apparently just a northern version of the grey kangaroos. Okay, fine this is difficult.
  • “This is an elk hair.” “Yes, it’s the most effective hair for binder security. You know that, Ron!”
  • “That was a fantastic season finale on a show that is literally a never-ending rollercoaster of emotion.” Oh, Chris. The TV world will be a little bleaker without you around to describe Grey’s Anatomy.

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