Parks And Recreation has always gotten tremendous mileage out of the elasticity of its reality, the fact that its central characters can be either the sanest or the craziest characters in the room, depending on just whom the Parks department encounters in a given episode or even a given subplot. This is hardly unique to this particular show—pretty much every sitcom adjusts the wackiness of its main characters relative to its guest characters—but Parks has proved particularly nimble in making potentially whiplash-inducing shifts in tone cohere into unified narratives. Part of the reason for that can be found in the show’s local government setting, which provides instant justification for all different kinds of silliness. In tonight’s excellent, consistently funny episode, “Gin It Up,” it doesn’t feel like a contradiction that Donna and Leslie become the target of Councilman Jamm’s blatantly pointless inquiry while Tom spends the entire episode manipulating the system so that he can keep the beautiful, brilliant Nadia hanging around the office. Both stories are about petty corruption; it’s just that the show’s main characters are victims in the first instance and perpetrators in the second.
That larger context, even if it remains largely unspoken, helps hold together the wildly different strands of an episode like “Gin It Up.” It also provides for plenty of great gags. Jeremy Jamm is likely always going to have his detractors, but, for my money, this episode uses the character perfectly as someone who doesn’t even bother to hide how cynical and opportunistic he is. There’s nothing especially nuanced or realistic about Jamm here, but the episode builds some terrific meta-jokes around the fact that he basically takes the subtext of all trumped-up political non-scandals and then just says it as the text. He openly promises to blow this story way out of proportion, and he is righteously offended when Leslie demeans the value of the political points he is scoring. Jon Glaser has a gift for playing odious, obnoxious characters, but it’s not surprising that that particular kind of humor is more divisive than other aspects of the show. Parks And Recreation doesn’t even pretend Jamm is a credible antagonist anymore, as his ridiculous inquiry is really just an excuse for the show to shine a long-awaited, most welcome spotlight on Donna. In particular, this episode explores her friendship with Leslie, particularly in terms of how a generally even-keeled, publicly reserved person like Donna deals with her boss’ hyperactive enthusiasm.
Indeed, the show’s penchant for breakneck tonal shifts is embodied by Leslie Knope herself, who can shift from reasonable, apologetic friend to psychotically over-the-top, if well-intentioned, gift-giver in microseconds. But I’ll circle back to the Leslie and Donna story, as it is first worth recognizing how her husband Ben undergoes similar shifts, as he switches from the voice of reason to the guy making lovably goofy pronouncements about the mutual respect between lawyers and bad-boy accountants. Ron and Ben’s trip to the lawyer is the funniest of the three stories in “Gin It Up,” because it gives Ben an opportunity to be flustered by two very different people. It’s long been understood that Ron and Ben have basically nothing in common, something only reaffirmed by their initial conversation about the nature of weaponry, but Ben finds an even more perfect foil in Marc Evan Jackson, who once again returns as the no-nonsense lawyer Trevor Nelsson. If we’re creating a spectrum of sanity for Parks And Recreation guest characters, Trevor is probably closer to Jeremy Jamm than Nadia, but his weirdness is subdued and perfectly targeted—it mostly manifests in his antipathy for accounts—so as to make Ben squirm as much as possible, which is almost always funny.
Adam Scott generally plays Ben Wyatt as the main character (give or take Ann) most clearly connected to what we would recognize as reality, but he has a pair of consistent, broadly related quirks: his unrestrained glee for what those outside of the zeitgeist dismiss as nerd culture and his entirely unfounded belief that accountancy is the coolest thing ever. Plus, he doesn’t always know how to react when presented with something outside his area of expertise. That would include his several Icetown-related freak-outs, but tonight features a more understated example, as Ben tries and utterly fails to have a sympathetic conversation with Ron about mortality. Scott and Nick Offerman wring all possible humor from that little moment, their performances perfectly pitched to remind the audience how ridiculous it is that Ben, of all people, would ever be able to understand Ron. But then, Ben is still able to get through and point out the ridiculousness of not leaving a will in order to prove some obscure philosophical point, so there might be hope for them yet.
Still, these elements wouldn’t hang together if the writers and the actors didn’t understand the core characters as well as they do; over the years, the Parks And Recreation creative team has developed enough different sides to the show’s core characters that it feels plausible that they would respond sensibly to some situations and act like total weirdoes when confronted with others. What’s truly impressive about “Gin It Up” is that it proves that that is just as true of Donna Meagle as it is any of the other characters. Showrunner Mike Schur has famously said that the writers didn’t really have any clear idea about who Donna and Jerry were when the show began; Retta and Jim O’Heir were simply cast on the knowledge that both were funny, talented performers, and Schur and company figured the show would find characters for them as they went along. In the case of Jerry—or Garry, or Larry, or what does it matter, honestly?—Parks discovered maybe its greatest, longest running gag, and his character fell into place around the joke.
Donna, on the other hand, has never really moved beyond tertiary character status, even temporarily; before tonight, it’s difficult to think of any story or subplot where she is even the second-most important character, except maybe the time she was Ann’s guide to the world of casual dating in “Harvest Festival” and “Fancy Party.” For the first five seasons, Donna has worked perfectly in small doses, assimilating quite a few of Retta’s real-life personality traits, in particular her prodigious Twitter presence. Indeed, it seems only fitting that an errant Tweet is what kicks off Jamm’s entirely political crusade, and it’s Donna’s total, unfiltered honesty on her private account that gets her into trouble with Leslie. In an episode where Ann Perkins is noticeably absent—my quick research suggests this is only the third episode Rashida Jones has missed, along with “Woman Of The Year” and “How A Bill Becomes A Law,” although her absence will soon be a permanent thing—the show appears to be trying out Donna as a potential new best friend for Leslie.
Well, perhaps “best friend” is too strong a word, and “Gin It Up” certainly understands that Donna can’t suddenly, inexplicably have the same relationship with Leslie that Ann has built over the past five years. When Ethel Beavers reads out Donna’s mean tweets, Leslie can’t just take it for granted that she was simply blowing off steam; while both assumed they were friends up to this point, Leslie suddenly realizes that any apparent friendship might actually have been politeness between coworkers. The episode ultimately resolves this conflict in a way fundamentally different from how it would a superficially similar disagreement between Leslie and Ann. The conversation on the bench—not to mention Chris’ earlier reading of Donna’s tweets in fierce support of her boss—makes it clear that Leslie and Donna share a friendship based on mutual respect and understanding, rather than on the more or less unconditional love that underpins Leslie and Ann’s friendship. Donna and Leslie’s story is so refreshing not because it’s better than past stories but because it feels different, and also, frankly, because Donna’s increased presence offers a whole new way for the show to introduce random, one-off characters like Typhoon, he of the Great Gatsby brunches and the real name Norman. There’s an old proverb that a change is as good as a rest, and if “Gin It Up” is any indication, that might well be true of what the coming cast shakeup could mean for Parks And Recreation.
- This won’t be the last we see of Tatiana Maslany as Nadia, so I don’t feel utterly guilty about not discussing her guest appearance in more detail. As should surprise nobody who has even vaguely heard of Orphan Black, Maslany is perfect here, as she very effectively plays Nadia as a normal person who has just been dropped into the insanity of Pawnee. She derives a lot of extra humor just from the way she delivers what might otherwise be low-key lines, such as her parting observation as she flees the Parks office that she’s not actually sure whether it was nice to meet April, because she’s weird too. It’s always difficult for a show to create a guest character who immediately seems worthy of a main character’s love, even if that main character happens to be Tom Haverford. It’s damn impressive how easily Maslany pulls that off.
- I feel like a special shout-out is in order for Kevin Symons, who has been playing Councilman Dexhart, Pawnee’s most electable pervert, on and off for the last four years. He hasn’t really been a central character in any episode since all the way back in “Christmas Scandal,” but he is great fun here tonight as Jamm’s sidekick. His best moment might just be his casual dismissiveness when Leslie brings up his pair of ongoing sexual harassment lawsuits.
- “Yeah, Tom’s your guy. He actually used to run the Parks department in his home country of Russia.” “Ha, ha, ha! This one is… mental. How could I be from Russia, with this spot-on British accent?” Truly, Aziz Ansari’s fake British accent is one of the most perfectly awful things I have ever heard.
- “Wait. What are all these symbols?” “I was right not to be threatened by you.”