There is no more fun character on TV today than Ron Swanson—and though I didn’t love “Pawnee Rangers,” I still believe that wholeheartedly. The problem is that the writers clearly like writing for him so much that there’s an implied momentum to his character. Each new piece of information should be surprising or completely over-the-top (recall, if you will, the Swanson Pyramid Of Greatness). It’d take a lot for the writers to stray too far from reality, given how eccentric and reclusive Ron Swanson has become. But anything that isn’t pushing those boundaries feels a bit too safe to be compelling. “Pawnee Rangers” was an episode rife with Ron Swanson-ness, though it was far too middling to really have much of an effect on me.
The set-up is that Ron is taking the Pawnee Rangers—an all-boys group resembling the Boy Scouts—out on a camping trip. But, of course, Leslie has started her own group, the Pawnee Goddesses, to counter Ron’s exclusion of girls. They plan camping trips on the same day, on plots of land right next to each other, so there are plenty of chances to make comparisons between the two. Leslie gives her girls candy. Ron gives his boys beans in a can. Leslie puts her girls up in a nice cabin. Ron provides a cardboard box and a tarp, from which they must construct a habitat for the night. Leslie has a whole set of rules and activities planned for her goddesses. Ron provides a handbook with one entry (“Be a man”) and an itinerary of one activity (“Not getting killed.”) Leslie has the dour April and the shunned Ann. Ron has the bubbly Andy. Okay, in at least this one case, Ron wins.
There isn’t all that much that’s surprising about tonight’s A-story. As much as I enjoy the sight of a good tarp-box lean-to (Ron’s eventual construction), the episode introduced a few Ron-isms, then continued hammering them throughout. Comedically, there wasn’t much escalation, even when one of Ron’s Rangers decides to defect to the Goddesses. By the end of the episode, everyone is inside the cabin and Ron is sitting alone, eating his beans in his makeshift sleeping area. It was sweet that Leslie goes over to console her friend, but the moment, bereft of the momentum beforehand, elicited more of a smile and a shrug from me than anything more visceral. It was small and understated, and that’s definitely a fine thing on Parks & Recreation. It’s just hard to draw outrageous comedy from understatement, so instead lots of the jokes were at the expense of Ann—who turned into the punching bag. And if you read last week’s review, you know that I don’t really care for what Ann’s going through since the show kind of perpetually glosses over her. (It was a nice turnaround, though, to have one of the Goddesses question Leslie’s instinct to exclude the Rangers, since the Goddesses were formed because of that exact same exclusion; Leslie’s created a little army of Gertrude Steins.)
The over-the-top portion of “Pawnee Rangers” came from Donna and Tom, and their reluctant inclusion of Ben in their festivities. See, once a year, Tom and Donna spend a day together treating themselves to luxurious pampering and garish clothing. (That’s really every day, though, for Tom.) And ever since Ben and Leslie decided not to date, Ben’s been in a bit of a funk, though the show only gave us a glimpse at the end of the last episode, when he looks over at Leslie longingly. This week, he’s in full-on slump mode—“Did they cancel Game Of Thrones?”—and Tom and Donna have a cure for what ails him. “Treat yo self!” Against his better judgment, Ben lets himself get whisked to the mall for stressful acupuncture, sensible purchasing, and just general moping around in public. Then, after much pushing from Tom and Donna, Ben decides to treat himself the only way he knows how: Buying a full-body Batman suit, and wearing it out in public. It’s a moment so rife with catharsis that it brings Ben to tears—for Leslie, for himself, for a lot of reasons. I gotta say, it’s not very flattering watching Batman cry. But such is the way of comedy.
While Ben is coming to terms with his lost love, Chris is finding a new one. Jerry invites Chris out to lunch with he and his daughter, and much like anyone else in the office, Chris declines right off the bat. But then he gets a good look at her, sees she’s really cute, and decides, what the hell? Maybe there’s at least one Gergich worth spending time with. They hit it off, which leads to an excruciating series of scene where Chris goes into great detail to Jerry about asking her out, then later what they do on the date. Last season, Chris was Mr. Perfect. The microchip, as it were. Now they’re really pushing his OCD and creepiness, which is both humanizing and dehumanizing. Unlike Ben, who’s relatively stable if not a little socially awkward, it’s rare that Chris shows off any real human emotion. He couches things in over-compliments and hyperbole, or just going for a brisk 11-mile jog. I feel about Chris the same way I feel about Abed on Community: His most genuine moments are the ones where his disorder comes through, and it can be off-putting when compared to characters who are able to ground themselves more regularly.
Speaking of genuine human emotion, what’s the over-under on Jerry losing his shit in the next episode? Here’s hoping.