‘Parks and Recreation’ Open Thread: Playing It Straight

This post contains spoilers through the Nov. 17 episode of Parks and Recreation.

I have a problem.

I’m angry at Leslie Knope. I’ve been worried about this for a couple of episodes, but in between railroading Ben when he shows signs of interest in someone else; having a high-school level meltdown with him and ruining a Model United Nations tournament; and tonight, stealing Ben’s pencils, engineering a protest against her own park, and aggressively talking over Anne, the show’s made a fairly aggressive turn back towards the grating Leslie Knope of Season One it was difficult to invest in. This tendency’s always been there, and it played a key role in one of the best episodes of last season, “The Fight,” in which Leslie both pushes Anne to apply for a new job and to read Freedom all in the same night. And so it seems fair that Anne calls her out again tonight, explaining that “You made me watch all 8 Harry Potter movies. I don’t even like Harry Potter…when we go to a bar, you order my drink for me.” And maybe Leslie is worth eating 10 cheesecakes to Anne, but she’s been difficult to watch and root for lately.

The show’s approach to fixing that also sort of feels like a disappointment to me. Yes, Leslie and Ben are an entirely endearing television couple. But that also means that watching Leslie make a heartbreaking choice to walk away from him to pursue the dream of her life was genuinely rewarding. It was a real sacrifice that illustrated the value of that dream to her. Resorting to a cliche Leslie-can-have-it-all narrative betrays that. And it won’t feel like real progress to me either if the choice she makes is Ben, rather than City Council and all that lies beyond.

Fortunately, tonight’s two other arcs just killed it for me, and I think they worked in part by playing very close to straight in a way that recalls what Cheers could pull off amidst the crazy because people cared so much. First, there’s Tom, who gets carried away when Chris asks him to pick a new font for the department, insisting on rebranding to look like the Apple Store or the Sopranos logo. He even dreams up a reality television show pitch for the Park Rangers. And he’s devastated when Jerry shoots him down, saying “Isn’t dreaming big exactly what got you in trouble at your old company?” But it’s Jerry who inspires Tom to come up with a retro campaign to both raise funds for and boost visits to the park — and Tom’s mature enough to give him credit. The point, it turns out, is that imitating well-established and ridiculous pop culture tropes isn’t genuinely big or creative thinking. And Pawnee can be a canvas for genuinely innovative marketing schemes. Tom may find his future in government after all.

Then, there’s Andy’s decision to try out a college class, which I thought was a lovely continuation of what may be this season’s strongest thread: April and Andy’s slow maturation into true adults. Andy takes a fairly predictable tack when he first starts course shopping, opting for a gut guitar class, then getting disappointed by a class on the science of lasers. But he’s riveted by a Women’s Studies class (and watching him get shot down by the professor at the end is delightful), and devastated when he finds out that classes actually cost money. For a minute there, it looks like that realization could cause the couple to backslide again. “My parents paid for my classes. I’ll just have them paid for yours, too,” April tells her husband. But instead of taking the easy way out, he tells her no. And Ron steps up to encourage Andy to do the right thing, telling us, “Why not? I like the kid. And I have the money. One thing I promised myself when I buried gold in my backyard is that I’d never be a hoarder or a miser about it,” and then telling Andy on his first day of classes, when he worries about not having brought books or a computer “Just pay attention to the lecture. And enjoy.” Other than Andy’s reaction to the classes, the plotline was played almost entirely without laughs, and I kind of appreciated that.

This may be a bad year for Leslie fans, but it’s a wonderful one for Ron, and Nick Offermans building an Emmy nomination reel. Ron easily could be a joke character, a cartoon conservative. But this season in particular, Parks and Recreation‘s built his worldview out beyond anti-government skepticism. He encouraged Tom to go out on his own, but when that doesn’t work, he gets him back in a job where his talents will at least be of some use. He sticks to his guns on scouting, but doesn’t react badly when Leslie first embarrasses him and then makes it up to him. And he genuinely wants Andy to better himself. Ron may be the only compassionate conservative on television.