If you were to travel back in time and speak to me around when season two of Parks And Recreation was wrapping up, and describe the events of “Live Ammo,” I’m not sure I would believe you. Think about it: April, the person who dislikes everything about her job and seems incapable of doing much other than complaining, is in charge of the parks department. Ron and Chris have struck up an odd friendship despite having absolutely nothing in common. Leslie is dating Ben, that asshole who tried to cut the parks budget, and they’re perfect for one another. Tom and Ann, the people who seem to really dislike spending time with one another (that’s true for at least one side of that relationship) are dating—successfully!
Tracking the development of Parks And Rec is a lot like watching your hair grow. Nobody wakes up every day and notices that his or her hair got longer overnight. It’s only after a few weeks that you look in the mirror and realize it’s time for a cut.
“Live Ammo” is my “I really need a haircut” episode of the show. So much of the fundamental relationships established at the end of season two (I start here to include Ben and Chris, but not Mark) have changed. But you know what? I don’t feel like I’m watching a different show; far from it. Parks And Rec is still a show about friendships that make the circus—both the political one and the one that has set up permanent residence in Pawnee, Indiana—a fun place to live. So much has changed, but really nothing has, and it just goes to show that when you do the work fleshing out your characters and grounding your show in something tangible, you can truly get away with anything.
Despite all the concessions “Live Ammo” makes to how we once viewed these characters, it’s actually a very straightforward episode of Parks And Rec, further demonstrating the kinds of complex decisions Leslie will have to make if she wins a city-council seat. In the world of Pawnee politics, there are always losers; also, no matter how good of friends you are with a person, you will likely have to disappoint them. Josh Lyman… I mean Bradley Whitford… I mean Councilman Pillner, says as much when talking to Leslie and Ben about a way around proposed budget cuts in the parks department budget. “We play with live ammo around here,” he says, lifting a line directly from The West Wing to the joy of a thousand screaming fans wearing Bartlet 1998 pins on their Knope 2012 T-shirts.
There are plenty of West Wing references in “Live Ammo,” which leads me to believe that the writers talk about that show constantly. I mean, they must, right? That show is so, so good that anything vaguely political that happens on any TV show is has to be held up to the high standards of the Bartlet administration. But “Live Ammo” is more than just a chance to geek out. Sure, Leslie and Councilman Pillner (who looks an awful lot like Bartlet with his big glasses and weathered Whitford face) walk-and-talk within moments of the episode beginning. And sure, Pillner has a napkin framed on his desk that reads, “Pillner For Pawnee,” written in what looks exactly like Leo McGarry’s handwriting. There are more than just fleeting references in the episode: “Live Ammo” is about The Greater Good, particularly as it pertains to politics, and how doing the right thing involves making a whole lot of people fuckin’ pissed. That’s basically every episode of The West Wing right there.
It’s amazing Leslie hasn’t had to deal with this issue as prominently until now. The parks department has certainly had its share of difficulties; they’re usually tied to types of meetings April leads in tonight’s episode, where crazies like Mr. Hamsterpenis and Chelsea Peretti (also the episode’s credited writer) voice their opinions on matters of which they don’t know the whole story. But there’s more of a spotlight shining on Leslie’s actions now due to her city-council run, which might not have the kind of press attention were she not running against Bobby Newport and his bulldog of a campaign manager, Jennifer Barkley.
So when Leslie realizes Pillner is about to cut some of the parks budget, she convinces him that it might not be the best idea. Fine, he relents (he’s on his way out, anyways), and Leslie walks away proud until learning that the money had to come from somewhere, and now the council is defunding the local animal shelter. Barkley goes on Perd Hapley’s show to call Leslie an animal killer in the form of a rhetorical question, and while Perd doesn’t know the answer, her tone makes him think the answer is yes. In an attempt to do damage control, Leslie corners Pillner and asks for more time. Ben’s pessimistic that Leslie will be able to find a solution to a problem that seemingly has no solution, but Leslie’s pretty naïve to the realities of politics—a common theme in this real-life campaign season. She’s not in over head, but she’s close. So she tries. And, you know what? She succeeds, finding wasteful spending in a few ancillary programs that have since been shut down. It’s the perfect solution, until Pillner goes nuts and decides to slash money from other similar programs, including the one employing Ann.
Leslie’s not cut out to play politics, but that’s actually one of her greatest strengths. When faced with the ultimate problem, Ben, who knows a thing or two about these kinds of negotiations, doesn’t see any way around letting somebody down. Leslie, on the other hand, commits “political suicide,” letting herself down over anyone else. She sits Barkley down and feeds her some strategy: Newport should use his money to refund the animal shelter, giving him a big leap in the polls. Barkley’s surprised the Knope campaign would kill itself outright like that, but Leslie’s fine. They have a debate coming up, after all, and Bobby’s gonna get creamed. That’s some confidence right there, coming from the kind of person we as viewers would love to see in office, even if in Pawnee she’s temporarily despised. Very West Wing.
Meanwhile, over in the part of “Live Ammo” that doesn’t glorify power, April is having a meltdown. She spent so much of her screentime in the early seasons distancing herself from Leslie. Now, weirdly, she’s embraced her role as the next Leslie. Faced with the thanklessness of Leslie’s job, she’s garnering a new appreciation for what her old boss had to go through. Upset over the bureaucratic bullshit, she decides to do something she can actually get behind: Host an animal adoption day in the park so the shelter animals can find homes. Jerry does his part cleaning up the poop. Donna does her part making up fake histories for the animals. Tom does his part showing up in a suit carrying an iPad. It’s not the department that’s the problem—nor has it ever been on Parks And Rec. It’s that nobody shows up, save for one little girl who picks up a dog and a woman who drops off two cats. It’s a failure; April winds up with more animals than she started with.
It’s incredible how far April has come as a character. Not only is she legitimately frustrated when her plan doesn’t go well, but it’s her plan. The only thing that would get season-two April this motivated would be a plan to avoid as much work as possible. She’s learning how frustrating it can be to care—the robot is becoming human—and no longer serves merely as comic relief. When she covers for Ron at the end of the episode, claiming he’s meditating so he doesn’t have to do what Chris asks of him, it’s a brief flash of the old April; only this time, she winks at Ron. It’s a small gesture, but one that demonstrates more empathy than the empty stares or even wry smiles she used to give.
As for Ron and Chris, I feel like this was the best example of how their dichotomy can be utilized. Chris is obsessive about doing things the holistic, spiritual, hug-happy way; Ron’s obsessive about basically everything that’s the opposite of that. But when Chris dangles the carrot that Ron might be taking Ben’s old job, Ron’s forced to invest himself in Chris’ weird ways. Dragged to a meditation studio next to a Greek restaurant, he stands for six hours, staring blankly at nothing, his mind totally devoid of thoughts. He thinks he’s failed and gotten nothing out of the experience, but leave it to Ron to secretly be great at thinking about nothing—something Chris has strived his whole life to do. Plus, while Chris starts the episode at the top of his game, he ends it by hitting rock bottom when his boss reveals that Newport, should he win, will want to install someone else in Chris’ position. Suddenly Chris has nothing to do but patiently wait for the election to be over, wistfully staring out the window at Ann. Thankfully, Ron has some whiskey that’ll help pass the time.
- Even when April’s acting like Leslie, she’s still April: “These animals should be rewarded for not being people. I hate people.”
- Tom reveals himself to have a special skill naming drinks. “The Beer-yonce Knowles”? I feel like that’s gotta exists somewhere, right?
- Andy’s in the background for most of the episode, but still manages to have some great lines. “I got the ship out!”
- And, of course, the line of the night goes to Ron Swanson: “If you’ll excuse me, there’s a hot spinning cone of meat next door, and I plan to eat the whole thing.”