I’m so glad I don’t have to review this show every week.
Don’t get me wrong. Like any right-thinking American, Parks And Recreation is one of my favorite shows currently running. But the more I sit here and think about a really fun episode of television, the more trouble I have saying anything other than “I liked it!” To me, this feels like a show where, the more you pull it apart, the less fun it is to poke around in. I don’t really know how Steve Heisler does it every week, to be honest, and I know that if I were reviewing this show, you guys would find me more insufferable than you already do. Because it’s so easy to look at this and say, “Well, this was just a touch off, and this joke was a little bit off, and this romance feels forced, and this is a big repetition of stuff the show has already done,” when, honestly, all the show needs to do to succeed is create that swelling feeling in your heart that comes when you round the corner and head for home, the sense that everything is going to be okay as long as you’re here.
“Operation Ann” provided that in spades, even when I was nitpicking about certain things here and there. By and large, I think season four has been a small step down from season three, but season three was nearly perfect, so you had to expect something like this. I’ve loved lots and lots of moments this season—that closing montage of April and Andy driving to the Grand Canyon, the trial of Leslie Knope, the absolutely hysterical slow walk across the ice with Gloria Estefan belting away—but there’s been something niggling at me just a little bit. I think it’s a sense that the show no longer calls Leslie Knope on her bullshit. She gets to have the guy and the campaign. Everybody talks about how wonderful she is. Everyone will drop everything to run her campaign.
That’s all great, actually. It’s nice to have characters that believe in your protagonist, and I think the show has slowly started to figure out a way to navigate around this problem by making Ben her campaign manager and having him force her to compromise with her values just a bit. (While we’re griping, I really wish Leslie’s main opponent were even 10 percent more competent.) But at the same time, I miss the Leslie who used to fuck up every so often. Now, we’re left with a relentlessly perky force for good, and while Amy Poehler plays the hell out of her (and makes her far more likeable than she has any right to be—this is a good thing), the can-do optimism has gotten a little wearing for me this season.
That said, I think the show’s been really strong in the new year, particularly as Leslie’s campaign has actually gotten started. The best thing a show can do to a can-do optimist is send that can-do optimist up against insurmountable odds, and the series has done a good job of making Leslie’s campaign for city council an uphill climb. One of the few things this show does that can sink particular episodes is in making the supporting characters too cartoonish. (Ron isn’t just a very masculine dude; he’s the paragon of masculinity itself. Chris isn’t just a very positive person; he’s Little Orphan Annie-level optimism. And so on.) But by dragging everybody into Leslie’s campaign—by giving them all something tangible to fight for—the show has made almost all of the characters sharper in the second half of this season.
A good case in point is “Operation Ann,” I think, even though it has nothing to do with the campaign. Here’s an episode where Leslie, ostensibly, fails. She doesn’t manage to find someone for Ann to date, and when April actually does, it’s Tom. I like that the show hints at a Tom and Ann pairing throughout—to the point where you wonder if it’s actually going to go there—before just five seconds with Tom kills any interest Ann might have ever had. It’s a good contrast between Tom the human being—the guy who helps Ann through that long succession of weird dates—and Tom the cartoon—the guy who shows up for the date and very obviously puts on a performance that Ann finds at least somewhat grotesque. I always like the show best when Leslie’s trying lots of things and sometimes failing, only to find one of her friends has succeeded anyway. I don’t know that Ann is the best utilized part of the ensemble—she sometimes seems like a vestigial organ from when this was supposed to be an Office spinoff—but I find her relationship with Leslie very sweet and convincing. This was a good use of that central relationship.
One other nice thing the show is able to do at this point in its run is start tossing the characters into new and different groupings. Here, we get a story that’s all about Ron, Andy, and Ben running around town, trying to follow the weird clues that Leslie has left for Ben, meant to guide him to their Valentine’s rendezvous. (Is this show taking next week off? Is that why we’re getting a Valentine’s episode a week early?) Unsurprisingly—given that the plot involves Ron and Andy—this is the best part of the episode. I loved the clues Leslie had left, the way that Ron got giddy at the idea of following them all over town, and the way that Andy tried to play along but wasn’t quite up to it. (My favorite gag: Both Andy and Ron suggest “fuck” for the word Ben must use to unlock the code device. Second favorite gag: Andy accidentally breaks the glass case with the raccoon in it. That was a Simpsons-level example of playing around with expectations.)
At the same time, we have everybody over at the couple’s dance, and I liked the way the show kept tossing them into new pairings, just to see what would happen. Have there been a lot of Tom and Ann stories on the show? Not really, so let’s see if they spark. Can we do a story where April’s nice to Ann, even though the two have history? Why not! Can we have Chris as the world’s saddest DJ? Of course we can. (Best bit: Tom telling him that the music he was playing sounded like the end of a movie where a monk commits suicide.) I’m still not sure where the show is going with the whole “Chris and Ann” thing, but I’m glad it’s not forcing the issue. I’d be disappointed if it got dragged down into yet another storyline about two people who’d like to be dating but aren’t allowed to for work reasons.
And, of course, the episode was funny. Hysterically funny. Even when the plotting and characters aren’t working as well as I’d like, Parks remains perhaps the single funniest show on TV (give or take an Archer). There’s a really fun number of jokes in every episode, and the series isn’t afraid to play around with all kinds of jokes, from character-based gags to slapstick things to the occasional pop culture reference. Plus, the show has gotten back to reining in the moments when it would push the characters just a touch too far for the sake of a joke. As I mentioned earlier, I think this back half of the season is sharpening the characters much more, and that sense that everybody’s been pulled back just a hair is really working.
All of which brings me back to that beginning: I’m so glad I don’t review this show every week. Being able to just watch it and enjoy it—often on a Friday night—is such a delight at the end of a hard week that even when I have problems with the show, I’m still more than willing to forgive them, just because it’s this show. There are times when you know a series is coasting, but you don’t really care, because everybody working on it knows exactly what they’re doing. It happened all the time on my favorite sitcoms ever made—Cheers and Mary Tyler Moore—and while I’ve felt it happening times this season here, like I said, I don’t care. It’s just a pleasure to hang out with these people in this world every week, and it’s a pleasure to get to watch this show at the height of its powers.
- Leslie’s ideals for Ann to date: Ryan Gosling, Joe Biden, Sam Waterston.
- Best line delivery was probably Nick Offerman’s reading of “I love riddles.” I love gleeful Ron, and Offerman always plays him so well.
- Second best line reading was Aziz Ansari’s ridiculous read of “bunnnnnnnnnies.”
- Leslie needs to find Ann love because she’s a “beautiful spinster.” This sounds like exactly the phrase Leslie would use.
- I very much liked the cold open, with Leslie and all of her friends (and mother) gathered for “Galentine’s Day,” which she emails Congress about making a national holiday.
- I dunno, you guys. I would really like to see an episode where Ann and April’s creepy friend Oren fall in love.
- I think every episode should feature a long gag where Andy empties a can of whipped cream, then reappears with the cream all over his face.