I’m amazed at how many stories a typical episode of Parks And Recreation can tell. There are character stories of course, deepening the relationships between the people we’ve come to love over five seasons. There are stories about the lore of Pawnee and the eccentric characters that live there. And there are those that service the plot, with touches of character flair. Basically, every single person on this show has a role, be they a one-scene wonder, a vaguely Steve Martin lookalike, or Bert Macklin. No character left behind.
“Pawnee Commons” has all three of these kinds of stories, weaving effortlessly together like the images on Leslie’s marriage quilt. There’s the plight of Leslie and Ben, looking to find a designer for their beloved park—delving into the Pawnee/Eagleton feud in the process. There’s a love story between Andy and April, with plenty of private moments we get to witness, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re meant for each other. And then there’s everyone else, rallying behind Tom to help him get that Rent-A-Swag storefront in good shape. Parks And Recreation has been particularly strong this season, due in large part to its ability to balance all these different types of stories, and “Pawnee Commons” is an uncanny alchemy of them all, much like the double jazz that plays on Dary Merbles’ radio show.
Leslie’s address on public radio (preceded by an advertisement for The Shadows Of Seven Heads) makes for the perfect set-up to her tale of avoiding “Worm Park”: It begins the episode showing off the kinds of weirdos Pawnee has in its reserves—not even the main host of the program, off doing her one woman show about pear-shaped women. These are Leslie’s weirdos, though, and she will do whatever it takes to protect them. So when Wreston St. James comes along with a slick proposal for Pawnee’s new park, Leslie is skeptical. Because Wreston is from Eagleton, and we all know just how terrible that place is. It’s almost as bad as working for the library. Pawnee spits on Eagleton’s immaculately groomed shrubbery, unseasonable palm trees, and beautiful tree-lined streets conspicuously close to Pawnee’s major highway.
There is a tumultuous plot afoot. At first, Leslie resists Wreston's advances, despite the fact that Ben is falling for them, head over heels. I mean, he’s not from Pawnee (though technically neither is Leslie), and he’s the more logical one, finally enjoying the visceral joy he gets from Wreston's work. Ben’s logic eventually wins over Leslie, who apologizes to Wreston after warming up to it, including practicing outside. All is well. Then Wreston's employees burst in with a joke park, and suddenly, Leslie’s suspicions are confirmed. OR ARE THEY? Because Ben heads to lunch with Wreston, who assures him everything is smoothed over. OR IS IT? Because Leslie pranks the lunch and sprays Wreston with shaving cream.
There’s a pretty clear narrative in “Pawnee Commons,” though it does occasionally feel like it’s spinning its wheels. Luckily, in the meantime, the episode gives us a chance to brush up on more Eagleton lore. We walk around its parks. We see the actual dividing line between it and Pawnee (“Now Entering Pawnee: Good Luck With That”) and see the mural adorning the Pawnee walls depicting the way rich Eagleton residents turned their backs on this scrappy little town. There’s another mural we don’t see, called “The Many Surrenders Of Pawnee,” so we know what’s going to happen: Leslie will eventually see logic and hire Wreston, who’s actually willing to work pro bono. And even though this inevitable conclusion isn’t always easy to map out, it’s still an enjoyable and educational ride, like “It’s A Small World” with Pawnee and Eagleton animatronics.
Meanwhile, Tom Haverford is trying to make his mark on Pawnee as only Pawneeans can: enlisting all of his friends for a crafts project and paying them little to nothing. His Rent-A-Swag business isn’t going to open itself, so he gets the crew together at his storefront, scrounges up the cheapest yellow paint he can find, and sets them to work turning the raccoon-infested hell hole into something respectable. With Ron’s craftsmanship and Chris’ accidental craftsmanship, they’re able to pull off something halfway decent, except for the fact that it looks like the inside of one of those weird wig stores along Broadway around 26th St (local reference!). And to celebrate, he throws them the worst pizza party imaginable—lights off, total silence; it’s Ron’s dream party, if there were more food and less people.
“Pawnee Commons” had to move the plot forward a bit, but it’s the little character touches that stick with me. Tom might be dreaming big, but he’s keeping himself in check, recognizing that his extravagance is what ultimately led to the downfall of Entertainment 720, the blemish on his unimpeachable career thus far. Only problem is, he’s acting too sensibly, settling on this sad store when he needs to deliver the kind of flash previously reserved for donor presentations. And he can be both the new Tom and the old one. Because characters on Parks And Recreation don’t transform from one person into another. They change the way normal people change, borrowing bits and pieces of themselves from over the years to create a Mega Man person. And this is Tom’s moment to step up. The person delivering this incredibly nuanced piece of advice? Ann Perkins, a character in need of a purpose, going on a self discovery journey of her own.
“Pawnee Commons” is full of nice character moments that reiterate how special a place Pawnee can be. Andy’s scenes with April—role playing as Bert Macklin to kill the crushing boredom of being a security guard—contribute nothing to the plot, really, other than when Andy rushes in on a meeting and shouts, “Has anyone seen Hitler?” But they say so much about who Andy and April are as people, two weirdos who fit so perfectly together despite nobody predicting they would. April is game to let Andy live out his FBI fantasies, but willing to drop the facade just long enough to let Andy know he’s killing it on his own, not as Bert. Andy’s eager for companionship, and plays things to the nines until he accidentally scares a little kid, then does everything in his power to make things right. They end their role playing with the ultimate role play: The unceremonious departure of Bert Macklin, complete with a makeshift certificate that says, “You Were In The FBI,” which is enough for Bert.
To quote a famous ’90s stand-up comedian, “What’s the deal?” Who cares? This show just works, whether it’s an Eagleton-sized episode or a Pawnee-sized micro-focused one. Or, knowing this show, both at once.