Parks & Rec has always identified Ann Perkins as “Leslie’s friend,” but not much else. Sure, Michael Schur has said that the centerpiece of the series is the friendship between those two women, but Ann was always the sane side to Leslie’s irrational streak. She wasn’t really given much to do; the notable qualities of Ann have been demonstrated via a conduit, be it Leslie or, quite honestly, the men she’s dated. It was only when Chris dumped Ann—followed by a streak of wild nights and hair-streaking—that she finally took some of the screen for herself, rather than wait around until the camera was forced to find her.
Now that things have settled down, Ann should conceivably go back to playing the plot-forwarding sidekick, but the writers have demonstrated in “Born And Raised” (as well as next week’s episode, which I saw on a screener) that it’s not going to fly this time. In “Born And Raised,” she manipulates a situation so that she can work alongside Ron and April, and thus afford herself multiple opportunities for small talk. After enough of these fleeting conversations, she tells herself, these two cold characters will surely warm to her charms. At the same time, it’s the show’s attempt to warm its audience, too. The problem is that Ann’s spent so much time on the sidelines, it’s hard to identify with her plight or find much humor in her foibles.
Basically, I loved the vast majority of “Born And Raised” and was tempted to give it an A, which I believe would be the first time I’ve felt so strongly about back-to-back episodes of Parks & Rec. But I didn’t (obviously) because Ann’s storyline was too distracting. “Born And Raised” was electric—full of playful back-and-forth, outstanding one-liners from Chris, and insanely great physical comedy from Andy Dwyer. Everything having to do with Ann, including the usual stand-out Ron Swanson, fell flat. It was all just too straightforward, and given there’s not much to Ann’s character to begin with, I found it hard to care much that she was having difficulty speaking to April—who probably still hates her—and Ron—who’s clearly not the most cuddly teddy bear in the wilderness. (Though you’d think that given how close Ron and Leslie are becoming, Ron would at least make an attempt to be cordial to Leslie’s best friend.) The solution, it turns out, is for Ann to share a really disgusting medical story, because everyone likes those. And even though Ann is still far from becoming one of the gang, she’s satisfied, and that’s the end of that. Much too neat and clean for a show that regularly has as much fun as possible with its storylines—like last week, when Chris goes nuts shooting the diabetes PSA.
In fact, a perfect example of a Parks story done right can be found in this very episode. In an effort to get the word out about her campaign, Leslie and her team decided to publish a book about Pawnee—well, Leslie wrote it anyways, but now they had a reason to release it. She starts making the press rounds, first on an NPR-type show hosted by Dan Castellaneta (and featuring terrible music by Nefertiti’s Fjord), then over to Joan Callamezzo’s show, the most important of the bunch. Joan’s the Oprah of Pawnee, meaning if Leslie’s book becomes part of Joan’s book club, she’ll sell a bajillion copies and have Joan’s “subtle” sticker adorning her cover. But right before Leslie’s appearance on the show, an anonymous tipster alerted Joan to a shocking factual error in the book: Leslie wasn’t actually born in Pawnee.
The resulting episode feels like part of Ocean’s Eleven or something: The team assembles, each person eager to contribute his or her strengths to the task of smoothing out this PR kerfuffle. Tom and Ben snap into damage-control mode with Joan, taking her out to lunch to try and nab that book-club recommendation. Tom contributing his ability to ride coattails and flirt from a safe distance; Ben contributing his ability to kill a mood with Star Trek talk when Joan gets wasted, reveals she’s about to divorce, and comes on to Tom like the photogenic celebrity she is. (Ben’s special power also seems to be his uncanny ability to cut through subtlety and bluntly say, to hilarious effect, “Is she gonna powder her vagina?”) Jerry heads out on the road, best left to his own devices. Leslie grabs Chris and Andy and heads to Eagleton, where the long-form birth certificates are held. Leslie’s the taskmaster, Chris is the pretty boy, and Andy is the eager and willing “muscle.” One by one, they each try to get the birth certificate from the Eagleton archives: When Leslie’s straightforward approach doesn’t work, Chris bats his eyelashes in silence, to no avail (Rob Lowe’s ever-graying face doesn’t really help). Then it’s up to Andy to blindly leap into the heart of the beast—first checking the spelling of “Knope”—and steal the certificate, and a briefcase he can casually toss off. Bert Macklin is back. You thought he was dead? So did the President… ’s enemies.
The quest for the birth certificate, and the town’s insistence to see the long-form version, is the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines plot the show tried two episodes ago with the dick-pic thing. But I didn’t mind tonight’s version as much as the first one because Parks & Rec really went for it. Not only was it the A-story, but the result of Leslie’s investigation was totally opposite what happened in real life (AT LEAST THAT’S WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS YOU TO THINK!), and Leslie has to confront her Eagleton-based past and still make good with the community. It’s a sweet resolution—which includes at least one fleeting lovelorn glance between Ben and Leslie—and it’s the kind of story that really serves to ground Leslie as a three-dimensional character who can go over-the-top without losing our sympathy. The problem with Ann, at the moment, is that there isn’t enough sympathy there.
- “Thoughts…for your thoughts.”
- Leslie’s signing of April’s book: How were that many blank pages even?
- “I’m worse than a liar. I’m an Eagleton-ian.”
- I did enjoy the fact that when Ann talked about her medical story, April and Ron had simultaneous questions about it—and Ron’s was “What kind of blade did he use?”
- See ya around, Jerry?