This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 6 episode of Parks and Recreation.
Before I get into the specifics of this episode, let me just say what a pleasure it is to watch a show with characters and politics this good to be at the top of its game. Parks and Recreation is so good, and so warm-hearted that it’s not remotely work to watch it. And I desperately hope Amy Poehler wins an Emmy for this season so we can see her give an acceptance speech as Leslie a la Emma Thompson when she won her Golden Globe for Sense and Sensibility.
I think the show could have easily messed up tonight’s A plot, in which Leslie, who has claimed that she’s born and raised in Pawnee in her new book, finds out, to her horror, that her mother actually gave birth to her in Eagleton because “Pawnee hospital was overrun with raccoons at the time…did you expect me to give birth to you in an infested, disease-filled room?” Because the stakes here aren’t nearly as high as they’d be for President Obama, and because the investigation is motivated by Joan’s perpetual and personal enmity for Leslie rather than institutionalized racial animus, the plot doesn’t work without making us feel the stakes for Leslie, and Poehler pulls it out brilliantly. When she moans, “I wonder who else was born in Eagleton. Voldemort, probably,” her anguish is palpable. I didn’t particularly love last year’s “Eagleton” episode, but seeing the payoff here makes it all worth it.
And the show does a nice job of satirizing all the people who have set Leslie up to be exposed without falling too far into a partisan divide. The reason the question of Leslie’s birth is important is not because of conspiracy theories, but because she made it important, using it as a peg to hang her book on and the crux of her campaign. So the people who question her are trying to answer a legitimate question they have about her honesty, rather than pursuing a nonsensical theory in hopes of subverting the democratic progress. It’s also in keeping with what we know of Joan, a vindictive schemer whose heart is presumably permanently cold and dead now that Lil’ Sebastian has passed beyond this vale of tears, so when she declares perkily, “We will pull out the world map and speculate wildly,” then rocks out to the Gotcha Dancers, it’s consistent rather than unrealistic. When one attendee at Leslie’s reading yells at her, “That sentence was confusing! You might as well be from China!” he might be stupid, but the situation is legitimately kind of confusing! All of this works beautifully within the world of the show while also showing why the actual birther conspiracy is so completely ridiculous and damaging.
Parks and Rec was also on fire tonight with its dead-on cultural parodies. It starts in an NPR office where programming is sponsored by “Sweetums Cares, a non-profit that puts umbrellas on homeless people when it rains,” and where the host admits of “lesbian Afro-Norwegian funk duo Nefertiti’s Fjord,” “Yes, they’re quite awful. But they are lesbians.” Then, there’s Joan’s book club, which includes a novel Leslie describes as “A heartwarming story about a caveman eye doctor who travels to present-day Cincinnati and can see everything except love,” which I would read the hell out of. I have a weakness for juxtapositional humor, which is why I like 30 Rock‘s lists so much, and these mash-ups are just pitch-perfect and plausible enough to be uproarious. And when, in the B plot, Ben and Tom ended up at lunch with an increasingly drunken Joan, I particularly liked that the sloshed anchor decides she wants to take Ben home as well as Tom when he talks Star Trek to her (after Ben tells Tom “Nerd culture is mainstream now. So, you know, when you use the term ‘nerd’ derogatorially, you’re the one who’s out of the zeitgeist.”). “I like Tribbles!” she mumbles loopily as they put her to bed.
The one part of the episode I didn’t particularly like was Ann’s attempt to schmooze April and Ron. Ann and April have had their issues, but they’ve essentially worked through them, and there’s no particular incident that would have April shutting her down. And she and Ron don’t have much of a relationship at all. If the balance of this had been a little different, it might have been a good little part of the ongoing mentoring relationship between Ron and April, but from Ann’s point of view, this was essentially dull. I think the show needs to figure out what it’s doing with Ann in an affirmative way this season. If Ann’s only working in City Hall to give Ben and Leslie a place to sneak off to together, or to deal with awkward situations, that’s not enough. She got this job in one of the funniest episodes the show’s done. It shouldn’t be all downhill from there.