Long ago, Leslie set for herself the loftiest of goals. She was going to be the President of the United States—her fifth-season jaunt to the White House was a chance for her and Ben to check out their future digs, after all—and the next step toward realizing that dream after establishing herself at the parks department would be to run for city council. Winning the election against Bobby Newport was only one tiny aspect of a much, much longer game, and yet Leslie couldn’t allow herself the luxury of a larger perspective as she campaigned; for an entire season’s worth of stories, she had to treat the race for that one city council seat as the be-all and end-all. When she actually tried to bask in the glory of her victory, she was treated as an insignificant nothing in Washington, D.C. and as a promise-breaking pariah in Pawnee. Faced with such constant existential attacks on the value of her greatest professional accomplishment, it’s not surprising that Leslie overcompensated. She attached outsize importance to a position that was really one tiny scrap of a much larger dream. Part of the reason her recall defeat hit Leslie so hard is that she had allowed her identity to be consumed by this one fleeting professional achievement. She forgot that city council was only meant to be a stepping stone.
Tonight’s story seeks to put that right by redefining Leslie’s personal and professional aspirations, but not before Leslie plots the most cockamamie of comeback schemes. As the show’s 100th episode, “Second Chunce” feels surprisingly small-scale, or at least as small-scale as an episode featuring a concluding trip to Paris can feel. A show hitting the century mark is often an occasion for splashy guest stars and returning friends—just restricting ourselves to the once mighty NBC Thursday lineup, look at 30 Rock’s “100”—or big reveals—again, look at The Office’s “Company Picnic,” in which Pam learned she was pregnant. As great as it is to see Kathryn Hahn back as political super-consultant Jennifer Barkley, and as nice as it is to learn that Chris and Ann are having a boy, neither of those represents such a special event that it couldn’t happen within the confines of a normal episode. (Again, I’m discounting the Paris trip, perhaps unfairly, because I’m just assuming they threw in the location shooting for that in with the season-opening London excursion.) By keeping the scope of tonight’s episode small, Parks And Recreation is able to pay more attention to Leslie’s big decision in her closing press conference.
After all, how many viewers expected Leslie to use that media appearance to announce her latest campaign, be it for mayor, state senator, or whatever else? Jennifer Barkley told her that she had outgrown Pawnee and that it was time to pursue higher office than the city council, and the last few seasons of Parks And Recreation have conditioned the audience to think of Leslie in terms of her latest politics-driven, plot-heavy story arc. But Leslie hears something more fundamental in Jennifer’s laudatory if brutally honest advice. The key takeaway isn’t that Leslie should dream bigger, but rather that it’s still worth it for her to dream bigger in the first place. Leslie can receive all the support and encouragement she would ever want from her friends and loved ones, but it’s something else to receive such professional validation from the outside world, from someone who quite explicitly doesn’t care enough about Leslie to bother lying to her. Leslie can move on, because she has proven herself.
At long last, Leslie has permission to stop running, in at least two senses of the word. Given a platform to tell Pawnee precisely what she plans to do next, she announces no greater plan than lunch with her husband at J.J.’s Diner, followed by a hearty session of post-waffles making out. Ben’s gift of a trip to Paris is effectively a reward for Leslie choosing personal happiness over professional aspirations; after all, the loving couple wouldn’t be able to jet off to France if they were in the middle of a scorched-earth campaign against Councilman Dexhart. Ben has become borderline saintly in his tolerance of Leslie’s excesses, and he offers only a surprised, pained expression in response to Leslie’s obliviously selfish declaration that “Anything is worth me getting back on city council!” I’d still say there’s a worthwhile story to be told in bringing the pair into more direct conflict, but Adam Scott is very good at playing Ben’s supportiveness so that he doesn’t come across as a total pushover. Leslie and Ben don’t represent one of television’s great, passionate romances, but that’s just because their love is built on something more solid than that. It’s fitting that Ben, with minimal fuss, is the one who figures out the perfect gift to snap Leslie out of her funk, and it’s even more appropriate that the gift is a consultation with someone willing to speak all the difficult truths that Leslie sometimes needs to hear but that her friends will so rarely say.
“Second Chunce” offers its most effective celebration of the show’s past 100 episodes in how it uses its vast supporting cast of Pawnee townspeople. Mike Schur and Amy Poehler’s script effortlessly finds little character moments for recurring players like Dexhart and Shauna Malwae-Tweep, with one of the episode’s funniest gags coming when the latter declares her crush for the former and her clearly insane belief that she can “fix him.” That’s an old joke commenting on an even older romantic storyline, but it generates new laughter here because the audience has gotten to know enough about both Dexhart and Shauna that the joke here carries particular connotations that it wouldn’t with just two random characters. It’s a shame that there isn’t room to fit in a public meeting and offer another round of the Pawnee townspeople’s particular brand of crazy, but “Second Chunce” more than compensates by offering particularly inspired, extended bits for Jean-Ralphio and Perd Hapley, who I’d put forward as the show’s two most consistently funny recurring characters.
Somewhere along the line, Tom Haverford became the show’s de facto secondary protagonist—I think I could call him the deuteragonist, but I’ll spare you. Apart from Leslie herself, Tom is the character most clearly striving to realize a dream that may or may not be beyond him. While people like April have quietly put together successful lives that they’re perfectly happy with, Tom is dissatisfied, and that restlessness can be difficult to sustain satisfactorily across season-long arcs. Like Leslie, Tom is in desperate need of redefinition as something greater than hustling entrepreneur, if only because the wrath of Dr. Saperstein likely knows no bounds. Because Tom is quite a bit shallower than Leslie, his great transformation remains a purely professional one, as he proposes to Ron that he become Pawnee’s official business liaison, but this still feels significant. As with Leslie’s choices, Tom’s move should open up some new storytelling possibilities, but, with the show almost certainly far closer to its end than its beginning, that doesn’t feel so important.
The real accomplishment of “Second Chunce” is to take its two most dynamic characters a big step closer to a place where they can be content with who they are. Contentment might seem like a relatively limited goal, but if April—and Andy, and Ron, and Ben, and even
Gary Jerry Larry Lenny—are any indication, contentment is pretty good. Besides, it’s when people like Leslie and Tom are really happy with who they are that they are most likely to accomplish their dreams. The moment they stop defining themselves solely in terms of professional success is when they are most likely to start succeeding. Yes, that might be an overly sweet and sentimental kind of point to make. But after 100 episodes, I’d say Parks And Recreation has earned that much.
- We’re fast approaching the departures of Ann and Chris, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about them as we near the big exit. Their storyline tonight is a fun little supporting story, a nice showcase of Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones’ frequently underrated comedic chops. But still, their scenes tended to be at their funniest when the focus shifted to the Saperstein clan, who truly are just wonderfully awful. And, with that last bit of business taken care of, let’s go to the quotes…
- “It’s like what Sir Ian McKellen said to me the day I sold my boat to Karl Lagerfeld: ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow.’” “Oh my God, what is your life?”
- “Is it done? Well how many times did he turn the paper over? Oh... that is disappointing.”
- “Well, my wife lost her job, so maybe something sad and slow. Do you know anything from the Requiem For A Dream soundtrack?”
- “Do you think Domino’s delivers to this restaurant? I hope so.”
- “I would love it if you ran an insane campaign and basically turned it the Joker. But that probably means you probably shouldn’t do it.” “Andy?” “I don’t know Leslie; it seems risky, and I’d hate to see you go through another tough fight. But I could be wrong. I haven’t pooped in three days.”
- “I don’t like French words. I do like the word ‘business.’ You may continue.”
- Finally, Chris Pratt doesn’t get to do a whole lot in his big return, but what more do you really need than a sleepy, jetlagged Andy dropping his pants and taking a big old, bare-assed whiz in the middle of the parks office? Nothing more, that’s what.