This post contains spoilers through the Dec. 1 episode of Parks and Recreation.
Earlier this season, we discussed an uncomfortable question to raise about television’s favorite insanely enthusiastic public servant: is Leslie Knope corrupt or unethical? I was glad to see Parks and Recreation take up at least a small aspect of that question, and even gladder to see it come in a surprisingly sweet episode that moved both Leslie and Ben forward. Also, my mother used to work for Bella Abzug, so any reference to her on any show ever automatically earns a piece of popular culture a half-grade bump from yours truly, even if no reference will ever be as awesomely surreal as the reality.
The thing that worked so nicely about this episode was that it allowed everyone to pay appropriate prices for their actions, while also moving them forward to better things. A lot of this season has been about Leslie acknowledging her limitations, whether she’s steamrolling Ben or reassessing her sense of her own history. Tonight, she had to face up to the fact that she’d done something wrong, not just in the fact of hiding her relationship with Ben, but in the process of it. Even if George’s wife “said my skin was luminous,” it wasn’t okay for Leslie to buy off another city employee to keep a secret that probably wouldn’t have been a problem if she’d just disclosed it in the first place. In typical Leslie fashion, she thinks she should get fired rather than get suspended for two weeks. And she probably will pay a price for it, electorally. But the self-knowledge is probably worth it.
And I also think it’s a good thing for Ben that he lost his job. The show’s acknowledged repeatedly that he’s not necessarily professionally fulfilled in Pawnee, a little town that would have been just another State of the Public Service cross for him as he attempts to rebuild his credibility. It’s good that he’s been shaken loose, whether because he can now manage her campaign openly, rebuilding a bit more of his credentials, or because he can do what I wish Parks and Recreation had done with Tom, and used him as a basis for expanding our sense of Pawnee, a necessary move to broaden and unify the world as Leslie moves out of the Parks department.
On an emotional level, it was also nice, and well-executed, to see the hearing level Ben and Leslie’s relationship up a bit. “The first time we returned was the first time we kissed each other on each other’s mouths. It was excellent. That was unnecessary to add,” Leslie tells the ethics committee, carried away by her ability to speak publicly about the relationship for the first time. “I received adorable nicknames and amazing backrubs.” And Ben puts on the record along with on the line the fact that he loves Leslie, prompting her to reciprocate. “The official record has now, annoyingly, been reopened,” Ethel Beavers reads in the snow as a preface to Leslie’s declaration, the perfect bureaucratic soundtrack to two government nerds’ romance.
I’m also glad to see Chris get an emotional arc that plays off the hilarious set of quirks the character’s been given, but that he’s all too often to reduced to. “I admire and respect you and dragging you through an ethics trial is filling me with sadness. I have never felt so low,” Chris explains to Leslie as he set up a herbalist’s menagerie and some exercise equipment in preparation for her hearing. “I ate an unreasonable amount of Saint John’s Wort.” Chris is probably the only person in the series who loves public service more deeply, and with more cheerful enthusiasm than Leslie — Ben matches her passion, but not her demonstrativeness. And I thought “The Trial of Leslie Knope” did a nice job of bringing out the work it takes for Chris to keep himself in his normal heightened state. He’s not overreacting to the idea that he’s getting older here — he’s genuinely sad that he has to let go someone he’s worked with and cared for longer than we have.
And finally, I appreciated all the nice little Pawnee moments throughout the episode, the monstrous portrait, Sarah Nelson Quindell’s principled stand on elbow exposure, the laws governing the caning of Presbyterians and the use of the sidewalks by black people, the apocalyptic mural of Pawnee’s history. I’d particularly like to know who does Pawnee’s wacky public art. It’s part of what’s made this one of the most genuinely realized and eccentric settings on television.