Good evening, park-goers and recreational activities enthusiasts! It's been over a month since we last checked in with Leslie Knope and her governmental co-conspirators, and while it left us with a powerhouse episode ("Summer Catalog" was one of the strongest of the season, I thought), it's been sorely missed. When a show's been out for a long while, it needs to come back strong in order to keep its quality fresh in the minds of viewers; television watchers are a notoriously fickle lot, and it's not unusual after a hiatus for viewers to just forget to return. And that would be a shame, because "94 Meetings" was a very strong comeback.
The best episodes of Parks And Recreation balance giving due time to the show's premise and shedding light on the relationship between the characters; that's the reason that it's not a genre-defying game-changer, but just a solid, reliable, and especially effective situation comedy. And "94 Meetings" gives those two qualities nearly equal time to great effect. Credit should go to show creators Greg Daniels & Michael Schur, who wrote this one, for coming up with a premise that allows it all to unfold with such efficiency: because of her inept scheduling (she didn't think March 31st was a real day), April lines up nearly eight dozen meetings with Ron Swanson in a single day.
At first, Ron, who knows the strengths and weaknesses of his staff quite well, figures the easiest thing to do is hand over every meeting to Leslie, and at first she's all for it -- she even suggests slotting in a few more to make it an even hundred. But she's soon sidetracked with a major crisis, as she has to prevent two local bigwigs from making radical changes to a historical site. This plot thread sets up some of the episode's funniest bits, because not only is it kicked off by yet another look at one of the dismayingly gory, racist murals that festoon Pawnee City Hall, but it also features the return of Susan Yeagley as beauty queen/trophy wife Jessica Wicks. She plays the role perfectly, with a combination of unctuousness and condescension so often found in beauty queens, and she perfectly nails the repulsive Southern-dame quasi-charm common to the archetype. (Her terrible, terrible song -- with harp accompaniment -- is one of the biggest laughs of the night.)
Meanwhile, back at City Hall, Ron tries to lighten his workload by pressing other Parks Department workers into posing as him ("I'm gonna need more Ron Swansons", he says, and so say we all). This scheme meets with limited success: April displays a curious gift for empty bureaucratic jargon that placates some of her interrogators, while the enthusiastic Andy, reluctant as ever to disappoint anyone, ends up caving to whatever demand is made of him. Ann can do little but dispense medical advice. (It's become a running gag that Ann keeps getting roped into working for Parks & Rec even though she isn't employed there, but I think it works most of the time.) This thread of the plot also works like gangbusters because it not only sheds light on the personality of the supporting cast, but it gives us an always-welcome look at the crazies that constitute the citizens of Pawnee. Loudon Wainwright III's Barry is still missing in action, but the hotheaded guy who yelled "YOU SUCK" at five-year-old girls compensated for his loss.
The only parts of the episode that didn't work for me were Tom Haverford, who seemed a bit underused (though Jerry only had one tiny scene, and it was a killer), and the scenes involving Ann and Mark's relationship. To be fair, this is one of those situations where inside-baseball knowledge of industry happenings can ruin your enjoyment of the show: since most of us know by now that Paul Schneider will be leaving the show, we know that Mark will soon be a thing of the past, and we grow impatient wondering how his situation with Ann will be resolved. But even if we didn't know that already, their scenes just seemed to lay there and die: action was set up but never resolved, and the deferral contained no laughs to compensate for the dramatic fizzle.
Despite that, though, this was still one of the strongest episodes of the season, coming back strong and rewarding everyone who patiently waited through the hiatus. It may not have been the best episode of season 2 -- though it wasn't far from it -- but it may just be the most quintessentially Parks And Recreation.
- We finally meet April's equally sulky, dismissive, lookalike sister, and her bizarrely enthusiastic, ultra-Midwestern parents -- including her mom, the world's biggest Latina Duke Silver fan.
- The writers seem to be guiding us to an ending to the Ann/Mark romance that involves him bolting from either fear of commitment or overcommitment. I don't see either one as much of a satisfying note, but then I've never been much of a fan of the Ann/Mark relationship in the first place. Anyway, only one episode of it to go.
- Nice use of some Pawneeverse characters from the past: Shauna Malwae-Tweep and Nick Newport Sr. were both used sparingly and to fine effect. (Did anyone else think that there was going to be a reveal at the end that the elder Newport was dead in his chair?) I missed Donna, though.
- "If I could sum it up in just one word, it would be 'Auuuughhhhhhhooooooooh'."
- "I just need to spend a minute in my cologne cloud."
- "I don't know anything about infant care. My God, I could have killed her."
- "Tell me straight: are you a Chinese?"
- "What's our team name? Are we the Lightning?"