There isn’t really a main story in tonight’s episode. Instead, “Flu Season 2” offers three stories that play as beefed-up subplots to go alongside a major milestone for the series. What it doesn’t feature, funnily enough, is much by way of the flu. I normally wouldn’t worry about the title representing such a blatant bait and switch, but this is the rare Parks And Recreation episode that actually opens with a title card. Even though that seemingly positions the episode as a sequel to one of the show’s all-time greatest half-hours, tonight’s story instead ends up using the return of flu season as an engine for a few jokes with Larry and Andy and as misdirection for the big reveal of Leslie’s pregnancy. I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed that the flu plays such a minimal role in the story as a whole; after all, nobody else in the Parks department shows even the slightest sign of symptoms. Part of what was so great about the original “The Flu” was how it used the outbreak as the connecting thread for all the little character vignettes, reinforcing the sense of community between the show’s characters; plus, far more importantly, it gave us the enduring genius of “Stop pooping.” As such, it’s weird—not bad, necessarily, but weird—that tonight’s episode would so explicitly recall such a readymade narrative structure and then discard it.
As it turns out, “Flu Season 2” works just fine, mostly because it hits on the perfect combinations of characters for its three plot threads. Leslie benefits immensely from being paired with Andy, as his goofy idiocy allows the show to deemphasize Leslie’s more manic qualities and reposition her as a long-suffering straight woman. Andy’s status as an overgrown child has long since been established, but this joke is at its funniest when the show drops any pretense and writes Andy exactly as it would an 8-year-old boy. The best such moment comes when Andy begs Leslie to buy him candy; it’s a fun gag for Andy to return with that gigantic container of candy and claim it as “one” candy, but the scene really shines because of the comedic chemistry between Amy Poehler and Chris Pratt, not to mention some nice direction courtesy of Nick Offerman. Pratt expertly sells Andy’s childlike glee at the prospect of multiple pieces of candy is funny in isolation, but what elevates it is Poehler’s all-business approach in response. Leslie knows that this man who she sometimes sees as a friend and coworker must now be handled just as she would her own child.
There’s a parallel to be drawn between Andy’s behavior at the pharmacy and that which we might expect from Leslie’s future offspring, but “Flu Season 2” doesn’t oversell it. This is an episode oddly comfortable with being formless, and it lands enough of its jokes for that not to matter. The Leslie and Andy pairing alone allows the episode to tell multiple kinds of jokes, each revealing a different dimension of Andy’s foolishness. His inadvertent description of Leslie’s pregnancy is a wonderfully absurd bit of obliviousness, and Megan Amram and Dave King’s script playfully acknowledges the sheer implausibility of the exchange with Andy’s confused explanation of what a “petting the dog” hand motion is supposed to look like. Andy’s subsequent encounter with erstwhile Land Ho frontman Scott Tanner–as played by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy—highlights the slightly less lovable aspect of Andy’s essential Andy-ness, as his rocker’s pride forces him to repeatedly correct Tanner’s enthusiastic if slightly flawed attempts to harmonize on the Johnny Karate classic “Karate Chop Master.”
None of this is revelatory, but it’s refreshing to see Parks And Recreation showcase all sides of one of its supporting characters over the course of a single story, especially as this lends the plotline a sense of dynamism that it might not otherwise have. With Andy providing the requisite ridiculousness—assisted by Bo Burnham’s monstrous teen country star Chipp McCapp—Leslie is able to remain largely grounded as she processes the life-altering news. Well, she still gets to tell Chipp that their handshake left him covered in pee, and that this somehow isn’t proof of the essential hick status of Pawnee residents, but that’s downright restrained by Leslie’s recent standards.
Still, neither Tweedy nor Burnham is the episode’s true special guest star, as that honor goes to Sam Elliott in a return appearance as Ron Swanson’s peacenik Eagleton counterpart Ron Dunn. The episode taps back into some of the main gags from “Doppelgangers” in playing up the contrast between the two Rons, but this storyline really shines when Ron Dunn plays off of Ben. Nobody does nervous freak-outs like Adam Scott, and his manic, blueberry wine-fueled meltdown is thrown into high relief by Ron Dunn’s otherworldly, cosmically attuned sense of calm. Put it like this: Sam Elliott doesn’t need a damn falcon to land on his outstretched arm to prove that Ron Dunn is one with the universe, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.
The actual story that “Flu Season 2” tries to tell about Ben is less effective, as the whole point of the story is that Ben doesn’t understand why he’s angry until the episode’s final scene, which reveals that his whole character arc is just meant to dovetail with Leslie’s big news. Adam Scott is just about able to play this little twist so that it makes sense and doesn’t feel like it has come completely out of nowhere, but it still means Ben’s preceding scenes are a bit of a mess. After all, his storyline tonight deals with a conflict whose origins occur off-screen and primarily involve characters we’ve only seen once, teams him up with one Ron who doesn’t want to discuss it and another Ron who tells him not to worry about it, and just generally never explains why any of this matters until the very end. If “Flu Season 2” really wanted us to care about Ben’s arc in this episode, that might be a problem—and, yes, it does undermine the emotional impact of that final scene—but there’s little doubt that the real point of this subplot is to get Ben good and drunk and then let him respond to Ron Dunn’s sage, if slightly hollow, advice.
This is an episode that generally privileges comedy over story, and there’s no sense in quibbling with that approach when the stories are slight but the jokes are solid. Indeed, there’s an art to keeping the plots to their bare essentials, and that’s most clearly on display in the third subplot, which finds Tom, April, Donna, and Craig entering the world of sommeliers. “Flu Season 2” recognizes that there’s really only so much that can be done with this scenario before it collapses in on itself, so it just jumps from gag to gag: April’s attempt to troll everyone at the event, Craig’s sudden desire to prove he’s enough of a people person to make it as a sommelier, the rival restaurateur’s apparent refusal to admit he knows the English word for “thing,” and so on. What ties all these gags together, in the end, is the character work; the big grin on Donna’s face as she watches April’s antics says all we need to know about why this is the way that these four coworkers have decided to spend their afternoon. “Flu Season 2” never really attempts to live up to the epic promise of its title card, but this is one of this season’s finest hangouts with its main characters.
- “I just want to thank all the people who got me here: Norbit, Pluto Nash, all the Klumps…” April goes in for the deep cuts with her Eddie Murphy characters. Thankfully, I’ve only seen 75 percent of the films to which she refers.
- “Dude… are you a ghost?” “Am I?” “What is happening right now!?” This exchange is go great that it made me forget that Ron Swanson actually greets other Ron with a hearty “Motherfucker.” I could have watched several hours of Sam Elliott, Nick Offerman, and drunken Adam Scott around that campfire.
- “This guy’s the worst! I mean, it sucks that they didn’t have ham, but you can’t treat your dad like that.” As always, Andy gets it. Also, I appreciate how elegantly Chipp crowbars in his pro-troops messaging into his love songs.
- Ben’s spirit animal? “Baby snow owl.” “That’s right.”