One day 15 years from now, someone is going to write an article about sitcoms in the year 2012 and how they ushered in an era of awkwardness on comedy television. There is not a single character on Parks & Recreation who is confident through and through; even seemingly cocksure characters like Tom and Chris are covering up for some massive insecurities. And sure, people are good at their jobs, but they’re pretty clueless (or at the very least naïve) when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I watch this show not to see funnier versions of what I want to be. I watch Parks & Rec because I see a lot of myself, and in Pawnee, that kind of behavior is celebrated.
So yes, “Dave Returns” prominently features the grand reunion of Amy Poehler and Louis C.K., but there is nothing satisfying about seeing these two together again. I’d forgotten how odd a character Officer Dave is. He speaks like a robot who’s been programmed to be more “human” by his creators because hearing a robot speak would just be creepy. He speaks about Leslie the way a scientist would speak about a thrilling bump in the statistical data of his most recent experiment. Yet he has feelings for her still, so he finds a way to remain a part of her life, even just for a brief moment.
“Dave Returns” splits the main group into two factions: In one, Leslie invites Dave out with her and Ben to a nice restaurant, hoping the two of them will hit it off and Ben will finally get over his irrational fear of policemen (killing two birds with one stone). In the other, Andy directs the rest of the team, which includes the other members of Mouse Rat, for a rendition of the campaign song he wrote for Leslie. Both stories reek of desperation, and I’m not just talking about Tom’s relentless pursuit of the meager-est of bones from Ann after their one date. “Dave Returns” swipes out charm and inserts normally decent people doing pretty crazy things. And I don’t mind it at all, because after four seasons, all the characters on Parks & Rec have earned the right to be a little strange.
Take the series of scenes at the restaurant (after the shock of seeing Louie up there on screen wears off—because he’s just such a force nowadays). All Dave wants to do is have a moment alone with Leslie so he can go into detail about how much he still loves her. And as soon as Leslie realizes this, which is pretty early on, she does anything imaginable to ensure she’s not alone with him even for a second but still thinks he and Ben have a chance of becoming friends. Thus begins an uncomfortable dance where all three characters are simply talking around each other without really saying anything. It’s especially strange given that scene in Louie where Louis CK confesses his love for Pamela right before she gets on the airplane: He’s so articulate and collected, and good lord is that show ever uncomfortable. This one doesn’t let Dave get a word in edge-wise, and only drives him to extreme measures—handcuffing Ben to the urinal so that nothing will interrupt his chat with Leslie—after every other thing has been tried.
I just think Parks does a great job of loving its characters, warts and all. It says a lot that Dave can return after more than a year away and he’d come off as even less flattering than when he left. Plus, even though Leslie winds up shaming him for the way he behaves, it’s not like Ben is any Don Juan in comparison. Ben still stumbles over his words and is far too desperate to get the policeman’s endorsement. And poor Leslie has to watch as those around her act like buffoons, rather than jump in like she normally does. This is a phenomenal show that can walk the line of awkwardness without tipping too far over the edge, and every character gets a fair shake. Hell, even Jerry, the butt of literally every single joke, gets a few awesome moments every so often, not to mention an enormous penis.
“Dave Returns” also marks a big step forward for Andy. He’s normally overeager but clueless, and this time, he’s overeager but clueless in a way that tortures his sweet naïveté. He calls everyone into the studio, but nothing they do is good enough for him. He lacks the capacity to properly articulate what it is he wants from everyone, so he winds up hitting his head on the floor hoping that any idea at all strikes him. Meanwhile, no one else in the recording studio is all that angry, because they certainly don’t know what the hell they’re doing either. The stakes of this scene aren’t very high, because everyone’s pretty much on the same page: The song’s not great, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
It’s awfully nice that Ron is willing to let a bit of his Duke Silver-ness slip out in the form of a sweet sax solo, and that April—always the Yoko to whoever feels like being John at the moment—would support him in his need to be secretive about his skills. But even Ron’s decision to take over the production isn’t one born out of confidence, but rather reluctance. Same goes for Tom’s “courtship” of Ann, if you can even call it that. Tom borrows his swagger from movies and television (and from a lesser extent Jean-Ralphio), meaning his excitement over one date is completely unwarranted. There’s no reason why he should ask about changing his Facebook status or make some grand confession of his love in front of everyone he works with. But he does anyway, too oblivious to know how relationships are supposed to work. Or maybe he just doesn’t care.
Parks & Rec is made up of everyone that sat at the uncool table in high school. But I sat at the uncool table, and let me tell you, those were some mighty fine folks who learned not to give a fuck about what anyone thought about them.
- "It's like 'We Are The World,' except it can actually make a real impact on society."
- "Jerry, if you're eating, you're not listening."
- Apparently the microchip (Chris) missed that day of programming where everyone was in little league together.