This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 26 episode of Parks and Recreation.
In a way, I’m glad we discussed whether Leslie Knope was corrupt or not, because last night’s episode was all about what happens when politicians and business get too cozy. The answer? Disaster, and Tom Haverford bribing the Chamber of Commerce with hair clippers to give Leslie a second chance.
But before we get to that image, it’s important to take a moment to discuss what I think is a core upcoming challenge for Parks and Recreation. The show found its stride when it stumbled upon a balance where people kept underestimating Leslie, who responded by continuing to prove herself almost freakishly competent. It became trenchant commentary on expectations for women in politics, even when the things Leslie was proving herself ninja-like at were throwing Harvest Festivals or moderating horse funerals. But what happens when people are broadly asked to buy into the legend of Leslie Knope? Will she still be bearable? If Leslie’s the kind of person who, when presented with a hagiography, declares “I’m going to watch it ever day for the rest of my life, and when I die, I’m going to project it on my tombstone,” will she be bearable anymore? I’d hate to lose my bureaucratic heroine to typical politician-like self-regard.
There wasn’t much to write home about, or to write about period, in the B and C stories, where Ben stands up to Andy and April for being the world’s worse housemates, and Ron teaches Anne how to do home repairs. And I’m a bit concerned about the broadness of the A story, even though I think it made an ultimately valid pair of points: that Tom’s business is doomed, and Leslie’s campaign isn’t going to be easy.
It’s nice to see that Leslie isn’t a perfect candidate, nervous enough to make up details about potential endorsers in the face of Tom’s insanely detailed briefing book. And once there, she makes unforced errors. “I know I should be chasing your vote,” Leslie says after insulting a salad vendor, “but I stand by my decision to avoid salad and other disgusting things.” And when the president of the Chamber of Commerce asks whether she was responsible for the Harvest Festival, Leslie babbles “It was a team effort. I held them back. They succeeded despite me…bureaucrats aren’t used to bragging about themselves.” This is going to take time, but that’s a good thing. It means plot, and vulnerability, both things that are interesting and compelling, and that Parks and Recreation does well when it tries. Also, I desperately want to shop at Enormous Kenny’s Fried Dough and Mobile Phone Emporium.
I just wish the show had been able to tone it down for Tom’s half of the story, no matter how funny the sight of Leslie wearing a suit into a hot tub is. The problem with the Entertainment 720 plot is that it’s always been too insanely exaggerated to generate any pathos. Jean-Ralphio never could have possibly ended up with that much money in his personal injury lawsuit, and he and Tom have spent it so aggressively stupidly that it’s impossible to sympathize with them. When the Chamber president tells Leslie, “I’m a frugal man, and I don’t like extravagance or showmanship. That’s why I cut my own share…If Entertainment 720 is the kind of business you trust, I’m afraid you and I don’t share the same values,” it’s hard not to agree with him. The show needs to scale down and find its way back to its heart.