Leslie Knope has clearly defined strengths and clearly defined weaknesses, and, like most people, the traits that make her brilliant in certain situations are the same ones that make her an absolute disaster in other cases. Her fierce, untiring devotion to making the world a better place has made her a caring, ridiculously thoughtful friend and a brilliant Parks Department employee. But the key phrase there is “making the world a better place.” Leslie doesn’t believe in small goals; everything she does has to be the most important thing ever, because otherwise she might not be able to sustain her unflagging devotion. And, because she sets her sights so high, she has to be working toward some larger goal, some larger vision for how the world should be. That’s part of what has gotten her into so much trouble as a councilwoman, and it’s a big reason why she currently faces the recall. For all her success as a government worker, Leslie isn’t really a technocrat, somebody working for pragmatic, incremental improvements in the lives of her citizens. She certainly isn’t a populist, crafting her policies based primarily on what her constituents want. No, Leslie Knope is an idealist, for better or worse, and while that’s made her tenure on the Pawnee City Council deeply controversial, it also occasionally makes her a terrible friend. Rarely is that more clearly on display than in “Doppelgangers.”
After all, it’s not just the thought of losing Ann that makes Leslie freak out. As Leslie repeatedly suggests, Ann’s potential departure is a betrayal of the very notion of friendship. That’s tied into a more selfish kind of idealism, to be sure. Leslie has a vision of what her life should be, and it’s one in which she has trouble seeing Ben as anything other than her husband, Ann as anything other than her best friend, and Pawnee as anything other than her beloved home. The fact that she invests so much of her energy into working toward her idea of a perfect world in both her professional and her personal lives means she is ill-prepared for anything that runs counter to that. Leslie thinks she knows what’s best for everybody, and what makes her palatable as a character in the long run is that she’s generally right, or at least not altogether wrong. The only previous time Leslie was ever quite so wrong about a situation was during her brief breakup with Ben back in season four, and that also was a case of Leslie ignoring what a loved one wanted because it conflicted with her own desires.
What makes an episode like “Doppelgangers” so difficult for Parks And Recreation to pull off is that the very essence of the show is so heavily tilted in Leslie’s favor. The show is designed to tell stories where Leslie is the crusading hero or where Leslie gets carried away by her own enthusiasm, but it’s trickier to craft a satisfying episode where Leslie is basically the villain. She has no natural counterweight apart from Ron, and his well-established aversion to getting involved means that he doesn’t give her an admittedly stern lecture until the final five minutes—and even then, Leslie doesn’t get a chance to properly acknowledge she’s wrong, because Ron’s big speech segues into the final big joke about Eagleton Ron (and we’ll get to him in a moment). To its credit, the episode finds ways to explicitly criticize Leslie before that moment, including when the Parks Department staffers reject the loyalty oaths and when Ann points out it’s not fair that Leslie is taking her frustration out on everyone else. Plus, although this is yet another episode where Leslie shares no scenes with her husband, Ben actually gets in the most pointed rebuke of all, as he responds to Chris’ news the way a sane, reasonable human being would: “That makes me incredibly sad, but also happy for you and Ann.”
But then, Leslie isn’t a sane, reasonable human being—she’s so much better and so much worse than that. It does feel like part of the payoff is missing from her story, as the episode doesn’t quite earn its sweet but inconclusive ending with Leslie and Ann sitting down on the bench in the office. This is definitely treading into the arena of personal taste (more than any other part of an inherently subjective review, I suppose), but I would say this episode needs a scene of brutal emotional honesty along the lines of the steamroller conversations back in “Smallest Park.” It’s generally fine for Parks And Recreation to let Leslie off the hook—because really, she’s earned the benefit of the doubt at least 50 times over at this point—but it doesn’t sit quite right here. It’s possible that subsequent, recall-focused episodes will force Leslie to confront more directly her own worst qualities, but, much like “The Pawnee-Eagleton Tipoff Spectacular,” this feels like a missed opportunity for character growth.
Now, in the interest of fairness, not everyone watching Parks And Recreation is interested in character growth. In terms of the more basic question of whether the episode was funny, “Doppelgangers” does hit upon the brilliant premise of introducing the Parks Department’s Eagleton counterparts. The funniest pairing is probably April and June Diane Raphael’s Real Housewives-inspired Tynnyfer, mostly because it’s always amusing to see April adopt a new persona. The episode drills right to the very core of April’s being when she sums up her new non-friend: “She’s the worst person I’ve ever met. I want to travel the world with her.” Raphael finds the perfect level for Tynnyfer, crafting an over-the-top parody of a vapid, entitled idiot that has just enough authenticity to it that Plaza still has room to mock her. As awful as Tynnyfer clearly is, it’s an awfulness that exists independent of any malice; she genuinely bonds with April—there’s a real fondness detectable when she and April announce their matching “slut” and “skank” nicknames—which makes it all the crueler, and therefore funnier, when April still tricks her into breaking into Dwyane Wade’s house.
Billy Eichner is similarly successful as Donna’s polar opposite, the insanely committed, high-strung Craig. Part of what makes all that impressive is that it’s even possible for us to know what Donna’s polar opposite would be, which says a lot about how much Retta and the writers have been able to flesh out what was originally a background character. Donna and Craig still manage to bond over their shared competence and, far more importantly, their mutual love of Scandal (except for Mellie, obviously), because even if they have nothing else in common, they’re both amazing. Craig is the only Eagleton employee whose name remains in the maybe column at episode’s end; while this is probably just a one-off guest spot for Eichner, I’d be glad to see him return, especially if he maintains his enraged disdain for Tom.
That just leaves living legend Sam Elliott as Ron Dunn, who is everything Ron Swanson ever wanted in a friend before he learns that he’s actually a sandal-wearing, Morrissey-loving, vegan communitarian. The whole gag here is simply that living legend Sam Elliott—one of the few people who could ever hope to defeat Ron Swanson in a manliness contest—turns out to hold beliefs diametrically opposed to those of Ron, and I feel a bit churlish for admitting that I was underwhelmed by the joke. Ron’s unequivocal rejection of Eagleton Ron is true to the character, and the ridiculousness of Elliott’s character gradually increases so that it’s hard to criticize Ron too much; by the time Ron Dunn is extolling the virtues of “Meat Is Murder,” it’s clearly time for him to go. But the initial twist of Sam Elliott being an ultra-liberal version of Ron feels so obvious that it’s a shame to see the show never really move beyond that initial joke. That’s true of “Doppelgangers” as a whole; there’s a potentially great episode here, but the show doesn’t quite push hard enough to find it.
- This is an episode where the review is probably a little more negative than my overall impression of it. That’s likely because a lot of the best bits of “Doppelgangers” are found on the margins, which tend to get disproportionately overshadowed when the core of the story is shaky. As such, after probably an unnecessary amount of soul-searching, I’m giving this a very weak “B,” for those who care about such things. So I’ll use the rest of the strays to celebrate my favorite little moments, as is pretty much customary anyway.
- Donna has a condo in Seattle and a fiancé in Denver—but don’t worry, it won’t work out. Again, Craig is right: Donna is amazing.
- I really hope Jerry is exclusively referred to as Larry from here on out.
- “Ron is basically a better version of George Washington.” Yeah… that sounds about right.
- “Shut your kind of pretty mouth and eat a mustard cookie!” Bad Leslie is never better than when she’s trying to make Evelyn into the new Ann.
- Ann knows how to distract Leslie from bad news: unexpected breakfast foods and a signed photo of shirtless Joe Biden on a horse.
- “Ron.” “Ron.” “What’s your last name?” “Dunn.” “Is that your name or are you telling me you’re finished talking?” “Both.” “Dunn and done.” Whatever else I might think, that exchange justifies Sam Elliott’s presence all by itself. I may be underestimating just how much of a joy it is to hear that voice on network television.