‘Parks and Recreation’ Open Thread: Challenges

This post contains spoilers for the September 27 episode of Parks and Recreation.

After a strong start to its fifth season last week that laid out major themes, including Leslie’s anxieties about her new role and her separation from Ben, how Ron will handle the Parks Department without Leslie there to balance out his antipathy for government and, as Leslie put it, “feelings and emotions,” and Andy and April’s next steps towards adulthood, this week’s episode of Parks and Recreation left me feeling concerned. Leslie’s election to city council, Andy’s decision to pursue police work, and Ben and April testing the waters in Washington should give us a sense of a slightly larger Pawnee, letting us finally spend time with Councilman Hauser, seeing who Dave’s colleagues in the police department are, finding out where Pawnee’s trouble spots are other than Ramset Park. But “Soda Tax” mined old Parks territory to little effect.

Parks and Recreation is always at its best when it explores issues specific to the surreal version of Pawnee it’s set in, rather than getting too close to real-world political issues. It’s one thing for Leslie to accidentally marry a couple of penguins and set off an equal rights crisis. But watching Leslie follow spontaneously in Mayor Bloomberg’s footsteps doesn’t have much pop. Sure, the sodas in question are freakishly large: “Roughly the size of a two-year-old child, if the child were liquified,” as Paunchburger lobbyist Ms. Pinewood, puts it. But the issue doesn’t seem to come from any particular passion of Leslie’s.

And in another diversion from the usual brilliant eccentricity of the show, Leslie’s constituents seemed dumb rather than particular to Pawnee. The woman who told Leslie, “My husband started drinking those giant sodas and he gained 100 pounds in three months. Consequently, we haven’t had sex in ten years,” was typical and reasonably funny fare for the show, but the guy who thinks “we should tax all bad things, like racism, and women’s vaginas” is less clever. And having someone declare that it’s not the federal government’s business whether he pays taxes feels suspiciously like the show editorializing on people who want the government’s hands off their Medicare. It’s all a bit common for Parks and Recreation.

It’s also a problem that the show recycles the threat for a company to take jobs out of town. Last season, when Bobby Newport threatened to outsource Sweetums, his suggestion was genuinely unnerving, both because it was such a nasty thing for such a dumb, sweet man to suggest, and because the prospect of it coming true seemed real. Here, the threat is recycled, but it doesn’t carry any real weight. It would be interesting if Leslie blows off the warning and it comes back to bite her. But in this episode, it seems like the show going to the same well twice in less than a season’s-worth of episodes, to significantly diminished effect.

It’s also returning to the same well of Leslie seeking out Ron for reassurance and Anne for policy ideas. If the legislative fight had been stronger, I might not have cared so much, but how many times do we have to hear Ron tell Leslie things we know, like “you were insubordinate, a pain in my ass, and worst of all, bubbly.” Sure, it’s a difference to know that he tried to have her fired, but not enough of a rift to make the conversation feel like a standout.

What did feel new, and the major thing in the episode that worked (though I did like Andy’s training and Chris’s revelation, which could produce some awesome therapy sequences), was the scene where Ben confronted April about her slacking in Washington. Most of April’s apathy has been harmless, or supported by Ron, or jollied-through by Leslie. But this time, Ben “asked you to come here because I thought you’d enjoy it and I think you’re smart,” and she’s both disappointing those expectations and making it harder for him to do something he definitely cares about even if it’s something she’s not sure she likes yet. It was an interaction that produced an actual shift in their dynamic, and let April feel some actual shame. Now, maybe her take with the interns isn’t the actual desired end result here, though her promise that “If you don’t do it, I swear to God, I’m going to murder you in your sleep. I know where you live. 14th Street, right?” shows a better sense of DC than Hollywood normally demonstrates. And it represents forward progress, rather than backsliding, whether to what a person or a show has been, in favor of striding boldly towards its future.