This post contains spoilers through the January 26 episode of Parks and Recreation.
All season, Parks and Recreation has struggled to shift the cast from running Parks Department events to running Leslie’s campaign while maintaining their core identities. We’ve had the incompetence of the ice rink rollout, which didn’t really make sense given their competence on low budgets previously; Leslie acting petty instead of professional when in pursuit of her greatest dream; the awkwardness of trying to figure out how to handle Leslie and Ben’s relationship in a new environment. But last night’s episode made me feel like the season is genuinely, finally back on track.
I thought it was very smart of this episode to root itself in a scenario where Leslie behaves in a typical way — and actually learns that it’s undermined her. A focus group is probably a nightmare for her, though it’s another nice opportunity for Tom to leverage his Entertainment 720 experience for good. “What do you like about her? What don’t you like about her? Her ideas? Her clothes, probably,” he asks the crowd. And typical Leslie, when a genuine jerk emerges from the crowd, declaring, “She seems a little uptight. She doesn’t seem like the kind of person you could go bowling with,” Leslie just has to win him over, seeing him as a symbol of the entire electorate. “That’s so sexist!” Leslie grouses when Ben points out that her vast store of knowledge sometimes makes her seem like a snob. “Would they say that about Disreali?” So she tries to win over Derek with beer, with wings, with Ice Road Trucker references, with losing to him at bowling, only for him to call her a bitch, Ben to punch him, and the cop who’s called to the scene to explain, “When we write official reports, we refrain from using words like jerk or awesome.” Ben tries to get Leslie to disavow him, but she stands up for him at her press conference, telling the assembled reporters that “This guy was drunk, and he was aggressive, and he was foul-mouthed, and he called me by second-least favorite term for a woman…Derek hates me and I don’t particularly like him.”
And in doing so, she finds the emotional heart of her campaign. “I like that that guy punched the other guy and she stood by him,” a voter tells Tom in a new focus group. I think there’s something important going on here. Leslie’s never had any trouble convincing people that she’s brilliant when it comes to policy. But unlike when she was at the Parks and Recreation Department, where it was easy for Leslie to root her policy ideas in a passionate but loopy adoration for Pawnee’s green spaces, Leslie’s had a harder time communicating where her passion is rooted on a larger scale, especially when her campaign has tried to make her dignified. And the truth is, she’s kind of a weird person, someone who keeps a picture of Hillary Clinton in her office, gets off on seeing Ben punch people on her behalf, and judges her moral worth by the amount of whipped cream she’s allowed on her waffles. But that weirdness is specific, and it convinces voters that Leslie is a real person, rather than a policy genius grown in a vat.
Then, there’s the phonebank. I’ve said before that I like seeing Jerry get wins, so it’s fun to see him not just running the phone-a-thon but being the person on the inside of a secret instead of the butt of a joke. But I also appreciate these moments in the show that have the characters being themselves in new environments, whether it’s Andy telling a caller, “I don’t really think we can accept donations over $50,” Jerry cheerfully turning over his social security number, April telling a non-donor, “But I’m calling inside of your house,” or Chris gently counseling a caller, “Put the phone down, take a deep breath, and tell Stephen that you will be treated with respect. And thank you for your donation.” Most of all, though, the phonebank is a vehicle for April’s continued process of growing up. It’s typical of her to want to crush Chris just because he annoys her, but when she wins after Millicent breaks up with Chris (causing her to reflect “I wished for his happiness to go away. I might be a wizard.”), April does something that requires her to sacrifice even if it’s only $8. She shows up at Chris’s office, inquiring after his well-being, and telling him “I thought maybe you, me, and Andy could go to the movies sometime.” I don’t necessarily know where April is going on her journey to be both a grownup and a decent person, but I’m increasingly excited to find out.