It’s taken the better part of a season, but Parks And Recreation has finally rebalanced Leslie Knope. She herself comments on this tonight in an effort to calm her husband, who is in the midst of an all-time great Ben Wyatt freak-out. As she tells him, “Everything we have been through—the Harvest Festival, the election, the recall, the merger, Ann leaving, Larry changing his name for some stupid reason—all of it has just been preparation for this.” That last demonstrative pronoun refers to Leslie’s pregnancy, as this episode’s trip to Dr. Saperstein’s office reveals that she is expecting triplets. For the second straight week, Leslie is allowed to respond to this life-altering news like a real person would. Yes, there are still flashes of the manic Leslie when she suggests auctioning off the fish in Dr. Saperstein’s waiting room or when she pretends a woman with a diamond eye patch is driving up the bids at the auctions, but none of it matters to her the way that insane activities like finding a new best friend in “Galentine’s Day” and determining Allison Gliffert’s future in “Prom” both did. For the first time in a very long time, Leslie has found some perspective.
It’s worth taking a moment to tease out exactly what the show is trying to say here, because there is a danger in ascribing too radical a shift to Leslie’s impending motherhood. That line up above could be read as a statement that Leslie’s professional accomplishments are just the warm-up to the “real” work of having children. That’s a fairly uncharitable reading, admittedly, and both Amy Poehler’s delivery and the specific context of the line—Leslie trying to calm Ben down—suggest her point is that she has already faced so many challenges, triumphing and failing in equal measure, that the prospect of having triplets doesn’t fill her with the kind of apocalyptic terror that it does Ben. This is the latest project in a life defined by projects, and this is one that might actually require the entirety of Leslie’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy.
If there are some uneasy implications to the pregnancy storyline, they are rooted more in the fact that having children has never really been a major priority for Leslie over the run of the show. As such, this doesn’t feel like an organic development based on what these characters have striven for up to this point; hell, last week’s “Flu Season 2” had to take a fairly circuitous path just to get Ben to realize that some of his frustrations might have something to do with the heretofore undiscussed possibility that he wants to have kids. A surprise pregnancy is hardly unrealistic, and the show has had some tremendous success with swift, decisive, and unexpected developments in its characters’ live, most notably the decision to marry Andy and April after only a few episodes of dating. The key, I’d argue, is that Parks And Recreation can indeed utilize Leslie’s pregnancy as a way to give her character direction again after a season spent flailing for purpose, but it can’t suddenly pretend that Leslie’s entire life has been leading up to this point.
And, to its credit, “One In 8,000” embraces that tension in the storytelling by having Ben’s meltdown be exacerbated by just how poorly he and Leslie have planned for their future family. As he points out, they emptied their entire savings account on a romantic getaway to Paris. A fundamental difference between Leslie’s and Ben’s meltdowns is where they direct their respective insanity. When Leslie freaks out, she transmogrifies her small-scale, sometimes petty concern into some big, grandiose project; Leslie can get half of Pawnee packed onto her latest runaway train before she realizes the insanity of what she’s doing. Ben, on the other hand, tends to just rip himself to shreds. In the space of 30 seconds, the man can go from a worried statement about the accounting realities of raising triplets to an idle thought that they could get a refund from the Louvre—they barely looked at the Mona Lisa, after all—to frantic, incoherent babbling.
In the long run, I can see why it’s probably easier to build stories around Leslie’s brand of expansive freak-out than it is Ben’s more self-contained variety—though the one episode that most leans on the latter, season three’s “Media Blitz,” is a contender for the show’s funniest half-hour—but it’s a wise decision to let Ben be the one to go overboard on this occasion. I say that in part because Adam Scott’s nervous rambling never fails to amuse me, but also because of how Parks And Recreation has used Ben over the years. He’s the show’s resident straight man and typically its most grounded character; as such, his spirals tend to be caused more by the silly and the mundane—don’t get him started on the storytelling in Game Of Thrones or the correct ranking of Starfleet captains (though seriously, Ben, it’s Sisko all the way)—or, in this case, by the human and the personal. He can totally lose it while still remaining anchored in recognizable worries and emotions, and that’s not always easy to do with Leslie.
Parks And Recreation has long since embraced its unofficial status as television’s nicest comedy, a fact that’s on clear display with tonight’s terminally sweet subplot with Ron, his stepkids, Donna, and Keegan-Michael Key’s Joe, a man whom the show sets up as Donna’s Tammy and then reveals as the saintliest elementary school music teacher ever and someone who brings out the nicest, least drama-driven version of Donna. This is a story that runs on its complete lack of conflict, and it only works inasmuch as Retta and Nick Offerman can get the audience to invest in the subtle, incremental developments in both their characters; even if it does further chip away whatever edge Ron Swanson once had, I must admit that it was damn nice to see him smile so much in the face of all that basic human decency.
That niceness has felt hollow at times this season, as though the show were coasting on its characters’ past good deeds to excuse current bad behavior, but tonight’s episode earn its happy endings. In the case of Ron and Donna’s story, that’s mostly down to the charm of the actors involved—with a nice assist from Donna and Joe’s final exchange about “the red thing”—whereas Leslie and Ben’s story reaches a more hopeful note, in which all their coworkers offer some fairly substantial support, because Leslie is finally calm enough to know where to go to find the help that she needs. Besides, “One In 8,000” knows when to cut through the sap, as Craig to shows up to offer his loud, half-hearted, and mostly self-pitying congratulations to the happy couple. I know I have rather more tolerance for Billy Eichner’s performance here than do some viewers, but this strikes me as a particularly perfect deployment of Craig. Just as the Parks department rallies together once more like the big surrogate family that it so obviously is, Craig is there to remind us that other people are busy living out their own silly little stories, and all of this only matters as much as we’re all willing to say that it does. With episodes like “Flu Season 2” and “One In 8,000,” Parks And Recreation is closing out its sixth season with some strong reminders of why Leslie’s story—and Ben’s, and Ron’s, and Donna’s, and that of everyone else at the Parks department—mattered to us in the first place.
- That said, it really was dreadfully rude of Craig’s cousin Winona to get into that car accident the night his one-man show opened. Why must all his accomplishments be overshadowed!?
- There wasn’t really an obvious place to point this out in the review, but a big reason I enjoyed “One In 8,000” is how much it draws from its extended Pawnee cast. A whole bunch of recurring players are here in bit parts or even glorified cameos, and it adds some nice depth and quick bursts of comedy to the episode to see all of them here: Kyle, Dr. Saperstein, Councilman Dexhart and his several illegitimate children, Jeremy Jamm, sketchy pawn shop owner, asshole doctor, that one random guy who shows up at town meetings and is played by former Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully, which I only know because I’ve listened to way, way too many Simpsons DVD commentaries. They’re all here!
- “Oh, and there’s another one!” “The baby has two bodies?” This wasn’t a big punchline or anything, but I love that line as the genesis point for Ben’s freak-out.
- “It’s what we doctors call—and I don’t mean to be insensitive—a ‘going-out-of-business’ sale.”
- “Half of my tuition was paid for by the Indiana Scholarship for Pretty Blonds Who Like To Read! It’s now called the Virginia Woolf Prize… different time.”
- As the photo up top indicates, there was also a subplot featuring Andy and April. It involved Andy keeping a huge secret from April, and April inadvertently being nice to Larry. It was fine. Mostly, that whole business was worth it for the final sight gag of Andy trying to camouflage himself inside the conference room; honestly, he showed way, way more talent for camouflaging himself that I think we could have reasonably expected. Plus, Larry’s story about swallowing his wedding ring really was the most Larry thing ever.
- Hey, did anyone notice that Tom wasn’t in this episode? Me neither.