Parks And Recreation: “Are You Better Off?”
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Parks And Recreation: “Are You Better Off?”

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Parks And Recreation

“Are You Better Off?”

Season 5, Episode 22

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When I was a kid, I thought being an adult meant having a solid job and a girlfriend/wife who would sit on the couch while I played video games. You know, stability. (Or, failing that, it meant having completed my Bar Mitzvah and used my money to buy some sweet Stüssy clothing and Oakley sunglasses.) But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that I’m not the kind of person who’s wired for complacency. Nothing ever feels complete; even writing these recaps can be overwhelming because I’m chasing the impossible ability to perfectly articulate what’s swirling around in my brain. There are few moments when I’m capable of taking a deep breath to let things simply be. Stability is many, many steps removed from even that, and I doubt I’ll find it any time soon.

But I’ve never felt more like an adult than I do now, largely because I’ve realized that the metric by which I judged adulthood has been flawed for years. Stability is bull—what makes me an adult is self-awareness. The ability to know who I am, where I stand in the world, and what I can do to better myself.

My argument about Parks And Recreation has always been that its characters are complete humans, which means they’re entirely self-aware. Over the course of five seasons, they have learned that outside validation is only fleeting and shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. Take Leslie Knope from season one, upset because her mother wasn’t acknowledging her accomplishments. Now she’s a city councilwoman celebrating her first year in office, largely due to her ability to stop worrying and act from her heart, knowing it’ll be the right decision.

“Are You Better Off?” is a question with a definitive answer even before the episode starts: yes. And fittingly, Parks packs its season (possibly series, though that would be a pretty bone-headed move on NBC’s part) finale with the best these characters have to offer. Every joke is a hit, every decision the characters make feels right up their alley, and they handle any problems that arise with humor and grace. Self-awareness makes the best of us all.

Leslie’s storyline is the only one that has its fits-and-starts. When holding a town hall meeting to take the temperature of how well she’s done her job, she learns that citizens are none too pleased with the good work she’s done, even if it’s for stupid reasons. One guy is livid that she blocked the construction of a Paunch Burger on Ann’s lot, and now must walk 10 extra minutes each way to get his beloved triple decker pancake breakfast pizza each morning. “Why don’t you eat something else?” Chris asks, smartly, to which the man replies that he’s allowed to eat whatever he wants (though apparently not whenever he wants—why not just wake up 20 minutes earlier so he’s not late to his job at his own home?). The rest of the town jumps in, accusing Leslie of taking away their freedom to order comically large sodas and enable the pornographic version of Argo, Our Goo, to be easily distributed to the masses. They have completely lost the forest for the trees, and that’s saying a lot, considering they have a shortage of parks. Chris is the only one who recognizes publicly that Leslie’s work has caused the town to lose weight equal to 100 manatees. Which is good work.

The town hall pile-on is nothing new for Parks. It’s a trope that easily lets the small-town drama of Pawnee feel very high-stakes. And like all the other times it’s happened, I don’t mind it in “Are You Better Off?” because the members of the Pawnee community are batshit insane—smut magnates, colonial reenactors, Harris Wittels. The scenes here resemble 30 Rock in their over-the-top whimsy and draw blood from jokes you thought had turned into stones. (“I’ve seen the first 90 seconds.”)

And yeah, we’ve also seen the part of this process where Ben takes Leslie out for breakfast food afterwards and reminds her why she got into politics in the first place. This time, it’s not a seismic pep-talk she needs. Merely a gentle nudge in the right direction. Their relationship has developed almost effortlessly, just as the two of them have, merging their divergent lives into a parallel one. It’s reaffirming to see that the last person you might expect to fit into your life is exactly the person who needs to fit. When Ben and Leslie met each other, they had a contentious relationship that quickly turned into a series of excuses why they shouldn’t be together. But they became self-aware. They seized the opportunity, and look how far they’ve come.

Another miraculous feat: Tom has become one of the most likable characters on the show. Tom Haverford. The same guy who was so apathetic in season one that he refused to answer the phone that was right next to him. He was never outwardly hostile—even April did more of that than him, and she barely did anything that wasn’t passive-aggressive—but he clearly wasn’t happy, and not in an empathetic way. Lack of motivation is not attractive, even for someone I only see once a week for 20 minutes for 2/3 of the year.

Yet Tom has managed to realize the same things that can annoy people can also be his strengths. His overeagerness to please is a virtue with Rent-A-Swag, and not surprisingly the business is a success. In “Are You Better Off?”, he’s made an offer by a potential buyer who may or may not be Diddy (it is… not him… or is it… not him… or). Let’s flash back to Entertainment 720 for a moment. He ran a business that did nothing except allow him to run a business. He had a sweet office, cocktails and dance parties, yet the fantasy proved too financially risky without anyone conducting actual business. He was playing buzzword bingo, with seven secretaries. Now he’s running a company alongside his girlfriend Mona Lisa—so it’s just him, alone. It’s not as flashy, and in fact requires that he work when he’s not at the parks department, meaning double overtime always. This investor is the easy way out. But unlike so many other decisions Tom has made, he decides to keep a controlling share, work hard, and expand his business to perhaps include sweatsuits you are actually allowed to sweat in, especially to tap the senior market for Rent-A-Sag. This guy, all grown up!

He’s also VERY aware that his relationship with Mona Lisa is doomed, and is eerily calm when she treats him like shit. She demands he has sex with her in a tree, and he goes for this eight minutes of bliss despite not wanting to—she has all the power. Then, when there’s fear that he might have impregnated her, he laments, “What have I done? Like, to humanity?” She is the worst. But Tom is so secure with himself that her actions can’t drag him down. Nor is the discovery that a competitor has stolen all his ideas (Jean-Ralphio?) and is opening up shop across the street from Rent-A-Swag. He’ll be just fine, I’d imagine.

When looking at Tom even over the last season, it’s actually not that hard to believe that he and Ann didn’t work out; if anything, it’s Ann’s stasis that might have made her the less-desirable prospect. Her baby-fever is so bad, in fact, that when she finds out that one of the parks folks might be pregnant before her, she gamely joins Andy—Bert Macklin—to find out who it is (“My assistant has something she’d like to show you, partner). Ann can’t just be happy for someone else; she has this juvenile compulsion to win something that’s not even a contest, as some sort of retrograde validation that she’s BEING AN ADULT DAMNIT. Also there’s plenty to read into her doing all this with her ex-boyfriend while sleeping with yet another ex, but I think we all know someone who defines themselves by their relationships. And yeah, I feel sorry for my version of those people, too.

Of course, no discussion about adulthood on Parks would be complete without pointing to Andy Dwyer, perpetual man-child. Yet if anything, he’s the most mature of anyone. Yeah, okay, he plays make-believe and is incapable of making a conspiracy board that sheds any sort of light on said conspiracy—or any conspiracy—but he proves far more a man than child when push comes to shove. At the end of his plight, he is forced to approach April, the last suspect yet to be ruled out. But she has something different to tell him: She has been accepted to veterinary school in Bloomington, and it’s her dream. Andy doesn’t need to hear any more. As he learned 20 seconds ago, this has been her dream, and no matter what it takes, he will be there for her, even if he’ll miss her like crazy. He’s like Hobbes, the tiger from Calvin & Hobbes: a stuffed animal who ages along with those around him, providing the same kind of precision empathy only plush toys can.

Now we come to Ron Swanson, a man’s-man who is about to become someone else’s man. At the beginning of this episode, he is standing in front of his cabin surrounded by the parks department, ostensibly his friends. He laments introducing them to the cabin itself, plus the fact that, “I’ve gotten to know any of you.” Classic Ron, right? Only at this point, I know he doesn’t really mean it. His rejection of all things emotional is a thing of the past, and it’s more a facade now than anything else. He’s learned, over five years, that he can drink expensive scotch, eat steak, and make sweet love to a woman IN A COMMITTED RELATIONSHIP—even when she has two clingy daughters around.

Most of all, he’s learned that there’s value in letting other people in who won’t put the fuckin’ in Ron Fuckin’ Swanson. His friendship with Leslie is unexpected, but mutually beneficial. She humbles him with her uncanny ability to pinpoint the exact insecurity Ron is covering up with his machismo, and simultaneously call him on it and play him to her advantage. He humbles her with straight talk she won’t get from yes-men like Ann or Andy. There’s a lot of Liz/Jack DNA in this relationship, serendipitously transporting itself across the universes that are Parks and 30 Rock via NBC osmosis. Maybe there’s something in the water at UCB.

Point is, Ron is open now in a way he never has been—to change, yes, but specifically that change is a necessary and unstoppable part of living a satisfying life. Stasis is fine for a chapter, but he’s writing a book. A leather bound, hand-crafted, wood-finished book. And next up is the birth of his child—Lucy Lawless, his girlfriend, turns out to be the pregnant one. I hope it’s a daughter. He’d teach her a lot about what it means to be a real man.

I dunno. I guess I’m a little wistful. This is a great show. The cast, the writing, the directing—how often do so many awesome factors line up, especially on network television? I don’t know what the future holds for Parks, but its past is inspiring. For all its misfires with one-dimensional characters and non-starter plotlines, it’s become a smart, funny, charming, and fully realized show. Every false step is a lesson to be learned, contributing to the Parks And Recreation of today, that “remained interesting.” It’s a lot like us, waking up feeling normal, occasionally forgetting (though sometimes happily so) all the mistakes that got us to the content place we are today.

I do know what the future holds for myself and Parks. No matter what the case may be, this will be my last review of the show on this site. I’m rooting for a pick-up, of course. But I want to enjoy this show purely as a fan. I’m trying to recognize when it’s time to call it quits, because all I can do is trust what I’m feeling now—to be an adult and let my own awareness call the shots. Though, like Bert Macklin, back from the “dead”, I guess we’ll never know what’s next. And that’s the thrill—the kind of thrill that comes from eating an entire candy wrapper. JUST BECAUSE.

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