The reality of a show running for as long as Parks And Recreation has is that there are only so many ways that it can still surprise the audience. That’s a troublesome fact, considering comedy so frequently relies on the element of surprise to be effective. This season hasn’t exactly helped itself by leaning so heavily on one kind of Leslie Knope story, in which she becomes obsessed with some small issue and overwhelms all resistance with her absurd intensity. Now, that’s always been the show’s default Leslie Knope story: I haven’t done a scientific study on this, but a quick scan of the review archives suggests that the majority of second and third season episodes cast Leslie in this role. But it used to be far more possible for Leslie to take on straight man duties for an episode as one of her loved ones—often Ben—went off the rails; hell, it actually used to be possible for Ron to say something stupid, although there typically needed to be a Tammy present for that to happen. There are also the stories in which Leslie is beset on all sides by the assembled hordes of Pawnee idiocy, and the sixth season has told a few such stories, though they tend to be undermined by the cartoonishness of the villains and the plot-heavy nature of the storytelling.
Besides, the success of the recall election means that Leslie isn’t really important enough anymore to rate political enemies, at least none that can compete with Leslie herself when she’s at her most unhinged. Outside of “Ann And Chris”—and maybe “The Wall,” where the fates arguably conspired against her—every episode that has aired in 2014 features a Leslie story in which she has been the architect of her own destruction. If Parks And Recreation were a little sharper in its long-form storytelling, I’d consider such a pattern to be clear proof that Leslie really, honestly no longer fits in Pawnee, and there are enough references to the Chicago job to suggest that that is indeed a point the show is trying to make.
Though that works on an abstract, conceptual level, the trouble is that the beats of all these Leslie stories remain so similar, even repetitive, that it’s difficult to remain invested in her ongoing career crisis. Leslie’s initial bonding with young Allison Gliffert hinted at the possibility of a different story, but the familiar plotting began to click into place as soon as Ron offered her the job at the sawmill. Whatever the merits of their arguments, Ron would be quietly, annoyingly right, while Leslie would go about proving her points in the craziest, most counterproductive ways possible. There were some funny moments along the way—I particularly enjoyed Ron’s proud reveal that the sawmill owner owed him a favor because Ron built the sawmill—but the main story proved too predictable to really succeed. Six seasons in, we all know how this story works, and for the first 29 minutes, “Prom” adhered to all of the audience’s ingrained expectations.
But then, to its tremendous credit, Parks And Recreation realized the one secret weapon that a veteran show has at its disposal: the shocking callback to a character who appeared in a single episode five damn years ago. For there was Greg Pikitis—of “Greg Pikitis” fame—standing there beside Allison, the very same shit-eating smirk still plastered on his face. The math here is potentially a little funky, considering he was established as 16 years old in his original appearance, but he’d hardly be the first 21-year-old to attend a significant other’s prom; crucially, Cody Klop may look visibly older, but everything about his appearance and clothing here indicates that Greg is the exact same teenage punk who made Leslie’s life hell. As a gag, the return of Greg Pikitis works simply as an unexpected moment. Even though Greg Pikitis is one of a tiny number of previously established Pawnee teenagers, I didn’t expect to see him back on the show after all this time, so the mere shock of his reappearance was surprising enough to be funny. But “Prom” also exploits the character-based potential of his showing up, as Leslie Knope’s sudden lurch into unbridled hatred is always good for a laugh. If the show needed an excuse to write out a seemingly promising character like Allison, revealing her as Greg Pikitis’ girlfriend is an inspired way to do it.
The real boon of Greg’s return comes right at the end, as we learn that he has stapled Leslie’s dress to the tablecloth. In “Greg Pikitis,” such antics were proof of his awfulness, a way of building sympathy for the unfairly beleaguered Leslie. But in this episode? Eh, I’ll admit that I was ready to see Leslie receive just a tiny, mostly harmless bit of punishment. Leslie crosses some lines tonight in her treatment of Allison, and resurrecting the demon Greg Pikitis allows the show to give her some just deserts, because he’s the only character still willing to do it. After all, Ron is happy to say that Leslie is wrong, and he doesn’t exactly hold back when he describes the 10-point scale of Knope insanity, but he also isn’t really prepared to take her to task when the situation so thoroughly demands it.
He observes at the outset that Leslie’s wonderfully caring nature and the fact that she quite sneakily earned his lasting friendship are just about enough to compensate for her sickening love of government service. Even if the audience doesn’t share precisely the same philosophy of government as Ron, the basic calculation he describes holds true. Leslie has built up enough goodwill over the past six seasons that she can be forgiven for her misguided transgressions. But it sometimes feels like a long, long time since the last story in which Leslie really demonstrated that she’s worthy of such constant forgiveness from Ron and the viewers at home. There are stories that Parks And Recreation could tell that would redress that imbalance. In the meantime, having Greg Pikitis prank her one last time is a surprisingly satisfying alternative.
While Parks And Recreation still struggles to extricate Leslie from the narrative rut it has dug for her, “Prom” does find some nice bits of business for the side characters. Though it remains weird that Ben so rarely talks with his wife about her latest meltdowns—even in an a scenario like tonight’s, in which they are at the same event—it’s nice to see him have so much fun getting out his old records and winning over his high schoolers with his impeccable classic rock taste, if not his poor sense of slang. At this point, Tom’s arc on the show isn’t really any less obvious than Leslie’s, but he benefits from not being the center of attention, so there’s still a bit more pathos to be wrung from Tom’s ongoing realization that he’s maturing in spite of himself. Plus, Aziz Ansari has some fun with Tom’s scientific evaluation of whether a song is sufficiently a banger, which is the kind of random silliness that Parks And Recreation sometimes struggles to find for its protagonist.
Similarly, April and Andy’s time at the prom had some amusing moments; in particular, every aspect of Orin and Champion dressing up as April’s mother and father was comedy gold, capped by Andy’s respectful goodbye to April’s three-legged canine dad. It’s no longer a big moment when April reveals her vulnerable side—it’s debatable whether she’s really even trying to hide it at this point—but “Prom” taps into an underexplored aspect of April when she strongly implies that she regrets the silliness of her high school experience, not least of which because she knows she and Andy would have never fallen for each other if they had been the same age. As Andy responds, everyone in high school is an idiot, a fact that helps explain why he so readily fits in with this new batch of teenagers. The whole thing is a funny, sweet story that plays to all of Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza’s strengths, much as the Ben and Tom story plays to Adam Scott and Aziz Ansari’s. Tonight, their side stories end up compensating for the rather mushy core story and helping “Prom” overcome its central weakness. Six seasons in, the show is still good at churning out these subplots, perhaps because such narrative vignettes can more easily succeed by giving audiences what they expect to see. It’s in the main story that latter-day Parks And Recreation too often struggles, and Greg Pikitis isn’t always going to be around to save the day. After all, there are only so many dresses and so many staplers.
- Kelly Washington, who played Allison Gliffert tonight, previously appeared in season four’s “The Treaty” as the representative for France at the Model U.N. I don’t think there’s any reason why that student could not have been Allison, but I also don’t think there was even any subtle allusions to a connection.
- “I specifically requested elliptical cartridges for the turntables. How am I supposed to keep my Hüsker Dü albums in near-mint condish?” There are few things I enjoy more than Ben being a total, unapologetic nerd. Zoot Suit Wyatt sounded pretty fundamental, too.
- I have not yet watched Expendables 2 even once, let alone 10 times, but I’m pretty sure that Andy’s analysis is accurate. And I say that as someone who enjoyed The Expendables way, way more than I probably should have.
- “It’s always better to be direct.” “Hey girl, you ready to go?” “I thought I told you to wait in the car.” “Yeah…” Even when only given a handful of lines, Donna delivers. Also, while it’s probably more logical that Donna was talking about some hot Duke assistant coach that she dated, I choose to believe that, yes, Donna used to date Coach K.