This post contains spoilers through the February 23 episode of Parks and Recreation.
I hate to say this, because I adore Parks and Recreation, but increasingly, it feels like it’s showing its seams a bit. While the show’s exploration of how Leslie’s campaign is making her grow up and recognizing her limitations, and it’s finally found a way to turn Chris into a real person beyond his goofy quirks, the depiction of Ann’s become thin and inconsistent to the point that I dread it when she comes on-screen. When this show was hitting its stride last season, it was doing really nice work across the character spectrum. And I’m not sure why it’s lost that touch now.
Let’s take the good stuff first. While I agree with some of you that the way the show exposed Leslie’s insecurities during the campaign earlier in the season could be a bit hit-or-miss, I thought this episode was note-perfect. Leslie’s insanely competent, but it would be unrealistic for her not to have a breaking point at all. And campaign work and agency work use very different parts of your brain. And working through that realization brought out the best in the Leslie-Ron relationship—and for once, let Ron be right. “There’s an old lollipop that’s been stuck to the back since Tuesday,” Ron tells Leslie when she first tries to put off the idea of taking a sabbatical. “Thats the style now, Ron,” Leslie protests lamely (but ever-adorably). But after Leslie’s messed up everything from the maintenance report, to her campaign signs, to Jerry’s birthday, Ron gives her a heart-to-heart. “I used to work in a sheet metal factory,” he explains. “But then, a job came along at the tannery. the hours were better and I would get paid. Also, I have a chance to work with leather before and after the cow, which had always been a dream of mine. I didn’t want to give up my sheet metal job, so I tried to do both jobs and finish middle school.”
I thought there was a wonderful and subtle gender role-reversal at work here. Leslie is normally more professionally ambitious than Ron, a fact that’s generally a factor of her belief in government and his libertarianism, though it could also be explained as an inversion of the ambitious-dude, personal-life-oriented-lady dynamic. But here, Ron is counseling Leslie to find something approaching work-life balance. And he doesn’t let her negotiate up even five hours on maintaining her Parks Department commitments. We normally see Ron getting swept along on the force of Leslie’s enthusiasm, but here, he’s absolutely correct about what Leslie needs to do.
Then, there was Chris’s love affair with Champion. Parks and Recreation has done something wonderful with Chris in heartbreak—it’s rare in romantic comedies, or really any medium, to see a guy who’s been built up to be this handsome and talented be presented as also this vulnerable and slightly weird. And the tiny detail that he took Champion’s obedience class in German is perfect: a completely normal thing to do with one decidedly off-kilter element that makes the whole scenario fresh and funny. Seeing Chris be wildly enthusiastic about something other than fitness or government is also utterly charming. “He is a wonderdog!” Chris declares of the dog that even Andy’s sunny view of the world can never quite elevate. “He’s a mutt. Half amazing, half terrific.” His joy is sort of transformative—Chris has brought April out of her perpetual sulk, and now, he’s turning Champion into a better dog because of his faith in him and willingness to invest time and money in this poor three-legged dog.
Things that are not amazing or terrific? Ann’s relationship with Tom. Whether a couple cares about Ginuwine, or thread counts, or Paul Walker movies is totally irrelevant when there is absolutely no other plausible reason they would like each other as humans, much less date. This subplot is making me hate Ann, and like Leslie less for having her as a best friend. Especially because there are so many other things the show could be having Ann do. She is, after all, working in City Hall, a position that could put her in the way of valuable inside information for Leslie’s campaign. When the show isn’t doing campaign subplots, it could have the parks and public health departments work together. But the show has boxed Ann in, insisting that she’s totally incompetent when it comes to anything related to the campaign, marginalizing her jobs, and making her romantically pathetic. One of those choices could be a coincidence. Taken together, they feel like contempt.