All good comedies need high stakes—characters working towards things that are very important—and for its entire run, the high stakes on Parks & Rec were, for the most part, character-based. Everyone wanted to do a great telethon because, if not, they would be letting Leslie down. When Leslie and Ron went to Indianapolis and dined with Chris, there was (later falsified) evidence that Chris was cheating on Ann, Leslie's best friend. And with the pit filled and the Pawnee government no longer in danger of being shut down, the show was able to focus entirely inward. The government was officially a backdrop for character comedy, and with all-stars like Ron Swanson and Andy Dwyer (and Jean-Ralphio), there was plenty of character comedy for all.
And I was content.
"Lil' Sebastian," though, was the best Parks & Rec episode thus far. For the first time, I felt like I was watching a show that was bigger than any individual slot in NBC's Thursday night. I mean, those shows are all pretty great, but the cliffhanger, and many of the bittersweet moments leading to it, were tonally similar to nuanced comedies like Freaks & Geeks. There were some real stakes coming into play, from the unstoppable outside force known as politics. There were moments of true catharsis as the town paid tribute to Lil' Sebastian—a horse introduced only earlier this season but already someone we'll never forget. And there was "5,000 Candles In The Wind."
Remember when this was a dumb little laffer (to use Variety speak that no one else ever uses) about a loony woman trying to build a park? Look how far we've come. It's possible you guys don't love this show as much as I do, but then again, why else are you here?
"The Bubble" was also an excellent episode, though much of it served to flesh out Leslie and Ben's relationship—a set-up for the spike in "Lil' Sebastian." Leslie and Ben are enjoying their newfound romance, sneaking around the office so no one finds them out and reports them to Chris. They're both so mindlessly happy that when Ben's about to have a meeting with Leslie's mom, Leslie is so scared of bursting the bubble on their relationship that she first lies, then freaks Ben out. His first meeting with Leslie's mom is a disaster. Determined to earn her mom's approval of her new boyfriend, Leslie does what she always does when things seem beyond her control: She attempts to control them, training Ben until he's no longer the pushover he was in meeting one. Problem is, he impresses Mrs. Knope so much that she makes a pass at Ben. Bubble: burst.
And while Leslie is trying hard to keep things as they are, Chris is shaking as much up as possible. Chris sends Tom and Andy to the fourth floor for some menial administrative task, replaces Donna's keyboard with a space-age one, gives Jerry far too much responsibility, and replaces Ron's desk with a swivel-y one, ousting him from his office and thrusting him into the center of the action. It sucks for everyone: Jerry, thrust into the spotlight, "shrinks up faster than an Eskimo's scrotum." (Other bad things happen, but none as funny as that one.)
"The Bubble" is pretty standard office place comedy: Routine is established over many episodes; someone threatens to break up said routine; much hilarity ensues, and things go back to the way they always were. Parks & Rec isn't one to sacrifice a character moment for the sake of resolution, though. Ron's determined to wait these changes out—none of these shakedowns ever stick, he says—but after fielding enough complaints, Ron decides to take rare action and offer Chris a compromise: He'll keep his swivel desk, as long as everything else goes back to normal. There are few clean cuts on Parks & Rec, and the frayed edges are the things that keep the show compelling until the very end. The episode played with the visual gag of Ron turning in his chair to avoid making eye contact with anyone who wanders in, and it closes with Leslie warning Ron of another visitor, and Ron quickly swiveling the other direction. There's a similar untidy ending to the Ben/Leslie/mom storyline: Leslie comes forth and admits she's dating Ben, and Leslie's mom laughs right in her face. It's an uncomfortable moment, but in the immortal words of Bill Watterson, "Uncomfortable moments on Parks & Recreation make for more comedy down the line." (Truer words have never been fake-spoken by an imaginary tiger.)
P&R walks the fine line between having its characters behave consistently, yet still surprise the audience. Thus we get the awesome conclusion of "Lil' Sebastian," when Leslie does something I wasn't really expecting.
To be clear, I certainly would have predicted that Leslie would hide love for the sake of politics. These three seasons have put some chinks in Leslie's armor; she seemed like a pretty put-together person at the beginning of the show, but she's eased up and therefore made mistakes for personal reasons. She's a go-getter, but she's an incredibly loyal friend and thrilled when she finds something special in her life (see: Officer Dave). It's just that I had no idea she felt so strongly about Ben. She clearly likes him—likes kissing him Ruth Bader Ginsburg-style and Eleanor Roosevelt-style—but her proclamation at the end of the episode suddenly made her relationship with Ben far more serious than I was ready for. I know Claire Zulkey reviewed this show a few weeks ago and said she didn't really get how the two would be attracted to one another, but I see it. They're sweetly dorky in all the same ways; they might not have a ton in common, but they're clearly operating on similar frequencies.
One of the biggest things they have in common is that they keep their cards very close to their chests. Leslie's proclamation of, "I have nothing to hide" is the boldest thing she's ever said on the show. Not just because, well, it's a lie, and she's saying it to people who want to place her higher in government. But because she's admitting her feelings to us, the audience, totally freely, via that lie. All signs on the show pointed to her liking Ben very much, yes, but enough to potentially screw up her entire professional career? I definitely wasn't expecting that. She's incredibly vulnerable now, and we have to wait until next year (though thankfully not until midseason) to see what's next.
But holy hell, did we ever get an incredible episode to send Parks & Rec into the summer. Lil' Sebastian has passed away, and the department has agreed to let Jean-Ralphio, aka the production company that "goes around the world, twice", run the entire memorial service. There were so many unbelievable moments in this, I fear I have to interject a list, so as not to forget something (though I still might):
- The mural of Lil' Sebastian still has the penis drawn in.
- "He's doing what he always did: eating carrots and urinating freely."
- "Half mast is too high." Damnit, I loved how broken up Ron Swanson was about the whole thing.
- "Which one floats your penis?"
- "He was anything but lil'"
- "Your eyes are about to piss tears," said to Donna by Jean-Ralphio just before the video montage—which featured Tom doing a terrible British accent. When are J-R and Donna gonna get it on, already?
- "If you know one thing about me, it's that I prefer laying wreaths to lighting torches."
- Ron crying twice: Once when run over by a school bus as a child, and once now.
The funeral sets up a few things for the next season—besides Ron Swanson's new, terrifying look. Chris, for the first time, is forced to face death, and realizes he'd like to be with someone, potentially Ann. ("I'd rather do 5,000 push-ups with a wonderful woman. Sitting on my back for added weight.") Tammy shows up briefly, but Ron is strong—that is, until both of them realize Ron's other ex-wife is waiting in his office, and they both cower in fear. And Tom does such a great job producing the memorial that Jean-Ralphio brings him into his multiplatform media conglomerate to watch Detlef Schrempf shoot baskets in an office with incredible overhead. A lot of what's set up in "Lil' Sebastian" could come crashing down at any moment—the stakes are incredibly high—but that's what keeps me coming back to Parks & Rec, and it's what I'll miss for the next few months.
Until then, stay away from the sun tea.
"The Bubble": A-
"Lil' Sebastian": A