Episodes that focus on Pawnee’s government are a necessary evil. They’re not elegant, or showy, but they’re essential—not unlike Pawnee’s government itself. “How A Bill Becomes A Law” isn’t my favorite episode of Parks & Recreation, nor is it even my favorite of the season thus far (MYSTERIOUS OPEN-ENDED STATEMENT IMPLYING ONE OF TWO EPISODES!). But I know that it’s necessary. For the most part on this show, form follows function. In this case, function dictated the form, and that form included Ron Swanson wearing make-up with some sort of orange sticker in his mustache, so most is forgiven.
Despite its name, “How A Bill Becomes A Law” has nothing to do with that Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just A Bill,” though file that one away for the inevitable musical episode. (Hey, even Scrubs squeezed one in.) It focuses on a single whirlwind day at the Pawnee City Councilman’s department, beginning with a tour of Leslie’s new office, inspirational pictures of herself in tow. She gives Ben a FaceTime—or whatever the Windows equivalent of that is… DOS Moving Picture Communication?—walk-around, which inadvertently includes a shot of Jon Glaser taking a dump on her private toilet, pixelated junk and all.
This is, from what I seem to understand based on what the character’s say, Councilman Jam, who is also a dentist in the community and the kind of guy who feels no shame in taking dumps wherever he’d like, be they metaphorical or not. Leslie’s been pushing for her Fun In The Sun bill to pass; it should be mindless, as it basically extends pool hours during the summer so the local swim club can practice for longer. But Jam won’t pass the bill on principle, despite not even really having a principle to fall back on. Truth is, he simply wants something from Leslie, namely her private bathroom. He can’t believe she’d get one just because she’s a woman. This is the Pawnee we live in: Sweetums can do no wrong, and open misogyny goes unscolded.
Last season was full of Big Important Lessons About Politics. Leslie got into the council race, and bore witness to the dirtiest parts of politics: lying, backstabbing, media slandering, and scandal-making. Now she’s working for the people, and it’s not those she represents that are getting in her way, but those she works alongside. And they are all so radically and comically different than Leslie. The so-ancient-there-are-cobwebs-in-his-cobwebs Councilman Milton is in it because he’s been in it since 1948, when he ran on a platform to de-integrate Major League Baseball. Jam is just in it for what I imagine is a bit of poon. The people they’re delegating for? Who the hell cares? That’s this season’s big lesson in a nutshell: Red tape wins out over all else.
“How A Bill Becomes A Law” is the story of Leslie Knope caving to the demands of a bully (who was probably bullied himself as a kid for his wacky hair, though likely not for his love of sandwiches and skins bars) while maintaining half of a non-Ann-approved perm. But to the show’s credit, there’s nothing defeating about the episode. Leslie very quickly realizes that fast compromise for her constituents is better than letting them down, that getting the office with a view of Tom across the courtyard is far superior to the one with the private bathroom, especially if it means pushing Councilman Jam into the pool—which I’m sure was a fun scene to shoot, and they only got one shot every 30 minutes. This isn’t the Leslie Knope of season four. This is stone-cold fox Leslie Knope in season five, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Why should others define her pride when she can define it herself, and the history books can help paint that picture when they’re not painting murals of horrendous Native American slaughters? She is the Walter White of polite reconciliation, subbing numbers in bacon with an excess of waffles.
As a nice balance to Leslie’s Terminator-like determination, Ron Swanson, usually such a straight-shooter, is unusually timid. Things start out just fine. As part of a new program, he and his department start a 311 service for concerned citizens to lob complaints in the government’s direction. He realizes the service is completely ineffective, as nobody’s answering the transferred calls, and because Jerry is working. So, he takes matters into his own hands and heads down to help one particular citizen with a pothole problem.
Well, that citizen turns out to be none other than Lucy Lawless, trying audibly her darndest to hide her thick New Zealand accent and blend into “middle America.” Meanwhile, Andy is acclimating himself with the locals, which means letting Lawless’ kids throw a princess party and adorn the lovable rapscallion with pink rouge and what appears to be a boa headband. Ron is the super macho guy with the jackhammer and the shovel; Andy’s getting his face colored upon. All is as it should be.
Except Ron obviously takes a shining to Lawless’ Diane. And Diane obviously takes a shining to Ron. He likes her for her nerves of steel; she likes him for his way around the manliest of manly man things (which is probably why Nick Offerman will forever remain in our hearts). But, for whatever reason, Ron just won’t do anything about it. Andy is always the meddlesome one, and he’s not shy about storming Ron’s office—normally a big no-no—and demanding he ask Diane out, especially if he can make with the K-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. But Ron shrugs him off.
This is the part of the review where I throw my computer in disgust, breaking my television in the process and swearing vengeance upon the entire state of Indiana despite its many spice store owned by my cousins. Not really. But this is the first time we’ve seen Ron shy about asking out a woman, right? I mean, he went for Tom’s ex-wife, no problem. He went for his own ex-wives, no problem. He went for Andy’s teacher, right after Chris struck out. I suppose this is the first woman in a while that Ron’s been excited about, and I suppose he’d be a bit nervous about that, but this entire plot point feels like something that’s been shoehorned in to add a few more scenes where Andy can give Ron a pep talk, or a way to add more vulnerability to Ron’s character. I mean, I liked him just fine before, and the show’s charismatic enough that this kind of thing doesn’t bother me too much.
But as far as absolutely nailing characterizations, the Ben/April subplot is an excellent example of how two disparate people can find common ground by sticking to the dossiers already laid out by earlier episodes. Remember when Ben was depressed and was April’s roommate? I barely do. The Ben of today is confident and more anal-retentive than ever. So, April springs it on him that the two should drive 10 hours to surprise Leslie and Andy in Pawnee for the weekend. They get in the car, get blocked by a presidential motorcade, move 40 feet, and run out of gas. The entire story of this “road trip” involves April making fun of Ben’s “Summer Times Cool Jams Mix” by mugging a ton to the camera. But in a weird way, the proximity itself brings them closer together as friends. Ben sees April as an overzealous girl who misses her husband. April sees Ben as a dorky guy who’s taken enough crap in his life to deserve a break here or there.
And I think we can all agree that the only character on this show who deserves to take crap is Councilman Jam, in more ways than one.