Recently, a whole lot of people have told me how much of a disappointment season four of Parks And Recreation has been. Like, a lot—people I know who watch the show along with me, people who find out I like the show, crazed strangers who think I have a “look” that screams “I recap this show for The A.V. Club and want to hear what you’re thinking please don’t pee on me.” They say a whole lot of things like, “Tom and Ann are totally unbelievable as a couple” and “Ron hasn’t had any amazing lines in a while.” It basically boils down to, “I don’t think it’s as funny as it used to be.”
I guess I agree. But I definitely don’t care. Was the show funnier at one point? Maybe, but funnier in a different way. Earlier seasons impressed me with their ability to take shells of characters, figure out what’s funny about them in a hurry, then play right to that, over and over. They were surprising, with the humor coming from a totally unexpected place. After all, how much did we really know about Donna? Season four’s humor isn’t measured line-by-line, or really even episode-by-episode; it’s the result of chemical reactions that occur when two powerful molecules bash into one another at full velocity.
Having exhausted everything I learned in high school chemistry—wait, 6.02 X 10-23 okay now—what I mean to say is that the humor of this season comes from a deeply familiar place. We all know these guys by now. It’s going to be hard to draw laughs simply from an off-the-cuff remark; the humor’s going to be situational and the result of things that may have happened a few episodes ago, or way back when the character was first created, or whenever. It’s a slow burn, a richer kind of comedy than it used to be.
I love this season, and I loved “The Debate”—written and directed by Amy Poehler!—because it mines even the most extreme tension for laughs, and everyone plays a part. Leslie faces off against Bobby Newport in the much-hyped debate, televised on Pawnee stations and housed in an 800-seat theater thanks to Newport’s celebrity status. Sure, she’s sharing the stage with gun-enthusiast Fester Trim (Buddy Garrity!), porn star Brandi Maxxxx, and nefarious animal enthusiast Manrico Della Rossa, but as Ben points out beforehand, there are really only two contenders in this city council election, and the debate will surely be the moment Leslie takes control. This is right in her wheelhouse—a Detlef Schrempf-like slam dunk is guaranteed.
But if there’s one thing Leslie should be learning on her road to the Sweetums-sponsored city-council chamber, it’s that no matter how well you think you know the rules, they’re always waiting behind you to kick you in the balls (the logistics of this move are known only to the rules themselves). By normal-person standards, Leslie trounces Newport. Her opening remarks declare that she’s earned the vote of Pawnee citizens, whereas Newport thinks he can just buy them. His counterargument: “You’re being mean!” That’s the substance of his statement, but the crowd coos its sympathy. Joan Callamezzo (newly single!) and Perd Hapley are distraught over Leslie’s comments. She’s forced to ease back.
Poehler deftly directs the following debate scenes—a flurry of out-of-context comments from each of the contenders, serving to highlight just how ludicrous the people of Pawnee can be. Brandi Maxxxx talks about her films, Fester Trim mentions his guns, Manrico touches on his furs, and Newport brandishes empty platitudes about life… and stuff. Leslie looks on in horror as if she’s at home viewing Parks And Rec the way we do, horrified at the stupidity and fickle nature of Pawnee’s townspeople.
I’ve often wondered why Leslie cares about politics. There are times when she’s the only one who does, even. She’s brilliant in a way that only few people in Pawnee can truly recognize. Her work is appreciated by few and underappreciated/ignored by so many more. Last week’s “Live Ammo” was about doing good despite the anger of those you have to wrong. In “The Debate,” Leslie doesn’t just hear about the people who are upset with her; she stands before them and tries to impress them. And they are not impressed.
The fact that Leslie wants to continue despite all this information telling her to stop means she has a sickness, sort of. She’s wired so that she literally cannot do anything else in her life. She’s driven in a way that would scare most people. In the words of Ron Swanson, she’s Leslie Fuckin’ Knope.
I got a sense watching “The Debate” that Poehler, situated in the center of the Parks And Rec madness for four years, has developed an awareness of who the rest of the characters are and how the actors playing are best used. Chris, the perpetual optimist, is part of the “spin team” along with Ann and Tom—who are donezo ever since Tom inadvertently mocked her in a radio dedication. As Chris puts it, he’s the best at delivering bad news; if there’s one person he’d like to hear he has cancer from, it’s himself. So Poehler puts the character in a place where he’s forced to be nothing but positive, and then crushes his spirit—the comedy of opposites. He asks Ann out again, who shows some interest, then decides dating him wouldn’t be a good idea.
Meanwhile, Chris must endure Tom’s endless badgering as he constructs ridiculous, seemingly non-spinnable scenarios for Chris to thwart. Tom’s upset about the breakup, but completely incapable of expressing his feelings in an adult way—by going up to Ann, without pretense, and simply telling her how he feels. Fittingly, it’s April who finally shakes Tom out of his malaise. Poehler, like Leslie, has a lot of faith in April, or Aubrey Plaza depending on how you look at it.
There’s plenty of Poehler-isms at work in “The Debate,” the most prominent one being the comedy of “yes, and.” It’s a well-worn improv comedy trope that nothing funny has ever come from disagreement or putting down someone’s ideas. So when the TV’s not working at the campaign headquarters, and Andy decides to act out his favorite movies in lieu of showing the debate, nobody in attendance looks at him funny or mocks him. At least not for long. After a few movies, he gets to Babe, and the audience is riveted. “You should all go see this movie,” Andy says, to which Donna replies, “I feel like I just did.” It would have been easier to make Andy into a fool, but by having the donors fall in love with his antics, he seems like a genius. And when Ron volunteers to fix the cable (after giving a fittingly noncommittal speech to kick off the proceedings, like he did at Jerry’s art opening), he hops up the telephone pole outside, singing to himself as he works diligently. Nobody commits to anything half-assedly in “The Debate.”
We all have those things in our life that nobody else understands. “Why don’t you get a real job?” my family says to me when I talk about freelance writing. Sometimes, it’s my own voice talking to me, too—louder than anyone else I come in contact with. “The Debate” affords us the opportunity to watch Leslie Knope silence those voices with one amazing speech. It moves everyone watching. It moves us watching at home. It moves Bobby Newport himself. It inspires Andy to kick over his TV. The writers of Parks And Rec have slowly built to these kinds of moments, patiently, over the last few years; and now that the show’s characters are at the top of their game, the real fun can begin.