Did you read that study about how partisanship has increased in the United States? Among other things, the study states that the split between Republicans and Democrats is now worse than whatever animus exists between black and white people and that it grew exponentially between 2008 and 2010—nearly as much as it did between 1960 and 2008! The findings were based on asking people questions like, “Would you be upset if your child married someone of the opposing political party?” and the study concluded that this measure has grown from five percent who would have been upset in 1960 to around 40 percent—50 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Democrats—in recent years. Obviously, it’s impossible to conclude this is absolutely true from one study, but don’t you feel it in your gut? Don’t you feel that polarization all around you, at your workplace or at school or on your Facebook wall? Politics has become a no-fly zone for many families, something that’s avoided because the divisions between us on these issues are growing intractable.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons Parks & Recreation has always struggled with finding a larger audience. The most obvious explanation is that people tuned into the pilot, didn’t like what they saw, then avoided it on every opportunity since that episode. But NBC has given this show great timeslots, and the critical acclaim for it has been so all-encompassing that you’d figure audiences would give it another chance. But with every season, the show gets more and more mired in its current audience, to the point where it almost seems like viewers have a weird spite for the show. Theoretically, this is a series that should play to just about every American, a big, brightly colored series about people who fundamentally like each other and are fundamentally likable. Yet its low ratings become like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let me suggest this, then: Parks & Rec flies straight into that no-fly zone with a smile on its face and a song in its heart. It’s a series that’s about how politics doesn’t have to divide us, about how government can be a useful tool or a wasteful fraud, but the people who work there are doing their best to make sure it skews more toward the former, even if they’re just standing in its way, Ron Swanson-style. It’s not a liberal or conservative series, though I’d argue its satire skews toward the left. It’s an optimistic series. It’s a show that says that even if we have a serious disagreement over an issue—like a soda tax—if we’re good friends or family members with someone who disagrees with us, it shouldn’t matter. We can learn to agree to disagree, maybe even give someone the advice they need to follow their convictions.
The political satire on Parks can be very broad. That’s often the case with tonight’s soda tax storyline, which involves a scene where Leslie and Ann meet with a representative from the Pawnee Restaurant Association who insists that local restaurants—including Paunch Burger and something with the words Slough Trough in its name—aren’t harming anyone with their giant-sized sodas. By the time Leslie was pulling out a 512-oz. cup labeled “child” (because that’s roughly the size a child would be if the child was liquefied), I was ready to sigh at the over-obviousness of the gags, something that dragged down several episodes of last season for me. But I ultimately didn’t mind them here because they weren’t just satirical gags for the sake of satirical gags. Like it or not, Leslie’s support of this soda tax stands a good chance at making her some powerful enemies, because that’s what happens when you’re in politics. You have to take a stand eventually, and when Leslie goes with her gut and votes for the tax, she does so knowing that the restaurant owners may fire 100 people and blame it all on her for introducing the bill and casting the decisive vote. Governing ain’t easy.
Though I wouldn’t call “Soda Tax” a great episode of the show, it’s exactly the kind of thing I want when I tune into Parks & Rec, and with last week’s terrific season premiére, it suggests the show has done the necessary work of reintroducing stakes into the show’s universe. Leslie’s choice pisses some people off. Ben being the boss drives a wedge between him and the college kids who work for him, as well as a wedge between him and April. Chris is realizing that his dedication to a life of perfection may have had some glaring oversights. And Andy’s working toward becoming a cop because he wants to provide for April. Not all of these stories have equal stakes—the Leslie and Ben storylines have much weightier issues at play than the other two—but it’s just nice to have the show realizing that you can’t be nice to everybody all of the time. All of the characters reach moments where they have to put up or shut up, and they finally grit their teeth and do what they need to do.
That’s particularly true in the Ben storyline. Any time a show strands two of its characters over in a storyline where they can’t interact with the rest of the cast, it can be a cause for concern. But Greg Daniels and Michael Schur were around when The Office did this very thing with Jim Halpert back in season three, so they know what they’re doing in this regard. Just as his girlfriend finds, Ben learns that you can’t please everybody all of the time and that the best way to win favor with the relatives of his college interns—who all have powerful Washington connections—is to just do his job as well as he can and win the campaign. Seeing Ben try to win over the young people working for him makes great use of Adam Scott’s ability to hold a smile just a second too long, so you can see just how much he’s cringing on the inside, and the final gag—that everybody thinks April is Ben’s daughter—is hilarious.
The “Andy trains to be a police officer” storyline is not as satisfying as the other two, even if it provides ample opportunity for Chris Pratt to engage in wild physical comedy, which is always one of his greatest strengths. The issue is that after a full season in which Chris Traeger confronted the fact that he could feel sad, we’re heading back to that rapidly diminishing well all over again. Chris collapsing at the track when he realized he didn’t have love in his life or wouldn’t leave a mark on the world might have been funny if we hadn’t just gone through a whole season of gags about that very thing. As it was, it was mostly a bust. That said, it’ll be fun to see if Chris’ time in therapy results in some breakthroughs for both the character and the writers in regards to what to do with the character, and I really liked Tom tricking out the pace car.
It’s that Leslie and Ron scene at the end that sells the episode, though. It could feel diminishing to the character of Leslie to have her always turning to Ron for advice, but somehow, Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman find ways to play these scenes perfectly, so you’re always aware that Leslie respects Ron’s opinion but doesn’t feel the need to take it if it’s completely insane. Ron, for his part, is the perfect example of what those people who lived in the pre-polarization America would have been like. He doesn’t like the soda tax—or any tax, really—but he knows that to be true to herself and her principles, Leslie has to fight for what she believes in. He hands her a compass to point the way, that she might always know to stick true to who she is, a woman who so annoyed Ron that he nearly had her fired four times before he realized he’d rather work with someone with conviction than someone without. Ron and Leslie may come at problems from different points on the political spectrum, but the show says that so long as they respect and like each other, that doesn’t need to be a problem. It’s a pity that can’t reflect the world we live in today, but in an age with so much shouting, maybe it was inevitable.
- I really liked the actress playing the restaurant association spokeswoman. I didn’t catch her name in the closing credits (because April’s rant at Ellis was so great), but I hope she does become a sort of recurring villain for Leslie. I also hope the restaurants aren’t just bluffing about having to lay off 100 people. Watching Leslie have to game out the consequences of her votes should be fun.
- That said, I’m not sure I buy the citizens jumping so quickly on the recall bandwagon. I know that one of the jokes this show frequently makes is that the residents of Pawnee are easily swayed by just about anything, but this felt like several episodes too soon to play that card. Everything else about that town meeting was great, though, particularly the idea of a tax on women’s vaginas.
- Andy immediately taking off his clothes and flopping down on the track after running two miles roughly approximates the entirety of my exercise career.
- Ben just wants April to give 15 percent. She offers 12. “This isn’t a negotiation!” he says. After all, he’s just asking for 15 percent.
- Awkward exposition with Aubrey Plaza: Andy’s sent her a three-legged stuffed dog to “remind you of our three-legged dog, Champion.” Obviously, Andy would just say, “Champion,” in reality, but the show needs to remind us who Champion is. So Plaza gets to awkwardly do so.
- It is impossible to determine whether Ron's order from Paunch Burger sounds kind of appetizing or unbelievably gross. Hmmm... perhaps this is why I have trouble losing weight.
- Steve will be back next week. Thanks for letting me crash!