‘Parks and Recreation’ Open Thread: Bananas

This post discusses plot details from the October 18 episode of Parks and Recreation.

After a couple of rocky episodes that made me feel like Parks and Recreation was recycling old material rather than moving forward in expanding the world of the show or demonstrating how Leslie’s new job in Pawnee and Ben and April’s stint in Washington would affect their existing relationships with Pawnee figures. But I thought this episode was, if not a revolution for the show, a step forward, bringing new information about familiar characters and featuring a number of characters acknowledging problems that will drive plotlines further in the season.

Parks and Recreation is often at its best when Leslie is forced to compromise or violate her values, which was the case tonight when she starts teaching a sex education class and gets shut down by town scold Marcia, who points out that a city law prevents Pawnee employees from teaching anything but abstinence education. The fact that it’s seniors makes Marcia’s position a transparent farce, especially since, in keeping with Pawnee’s slight surrealism, it sounds like Pawnee’s retirees have more active sex lives than most people in their twenties. “I have two partners, often at the same time,” one older lady tells Leslie. Others, naming the risks of unprotected sex, list “Heart attack,” and the rather pragmatic “Partner dies on top of you!” The team is on the case—and good Lord do I want to see Donna finish putting a condom on a pineapple and explaining what “this scenario” is—when Marcia shuts them down, with a regretful assist from Chris.

There’s an extent to which Marcia’s obviously gay husband Marshall feels like a bit of an obvious piece of information to reveal about Pawnee’s main moralist. But in a way, it works, because the way Marshall’s presented suggests that Marcia may not be denial so much as she is avoiding sex herself. “Perd, we strongly believe in teaching, and practicing, abstinence,” she says on television. And Marshall, in an abstinence-focused redo of Leslie’s initial workshop, raps “I waited until marriage and then some to do it / If you decide to sin, you’ll rue it / Word.” In a way it makes me like Marcia a bit more to imagine that what makes her happy is hanging out with her fabulous husband, cooking up trouble for all the people in Pawnee who are more obsessed with getting laid than they are, as an asexual prankster rather than a true believer.

And I appreciate that Marcia and Marshall, with an assist from Chris and Perd, who tells his audience “There are some statistics I would like to share with you now, and they are numbers,” get to Leslie. “The people support this. I couldn’t fight this even if I wanted to. It’s political suicide!” Leslie tells Ann, who is disgusted with her best friend for refusing to use her power as a city councilwoman to work to get a patently ridiculous law repealed. It’s fun to watch her suffer through what her compromise means: “Chapter Three: There’s a Party In Your Pants And No One Is Invited,” she reads grimly from Marcia and Marshall’s pamphlet. This is how this kind of thing happens, when one side is more willing to tear down a priority like meaningful, useful sex education than the people who ought to defend it are to stake capital and energy on keeping it alive. But I’m glad Leslie wised up and did the right thing, breaking the law, explaining reservoir tips on condoms, and earning a censure she pins proudly, if clumsily, to her lapel. I don’t doubt Leslie will sell out or make a major error of morals at some point—we’ve seen over and over again that she’s susceptible. But it’s going to be crushing when it happens, and it should be over something where we’ll really feel it.

In a way, April and Ben’s storyline in Washington was a nice little bit of commentary on the kind of flexibility Leslie showed off tonight. They finally get a chance to meet the Congressman who they’ve been working to reelect, and it turns out, he’s a little…rigid. “This morning he got in, sat down in there, and has been staring ahead doing nothing ever since. He’s a robot,” April cautions, and all more reasonable explanations prove false. He appears to have programming that limits his conversational variation to “Stay cool! Hot one out there today.” And he’s perfectly capable of delivering a slightly menacing stump speech, telling his constituents “We won’t just survive these dark times. We will thrive,” only to switch to a near-affectless “Cool beans. See you guys later,” when he’s told he doesn’t have to be on anymore. This way of campaigning may be a terrific means of preserving energy in the crushing Washington political environment and national campaign culture. But wouldn’t you rather have a representative who gets so passionate about an issue that when you look over her drafts of bills, she warns you “You’re going to have to take out a lot of cursing, because like I said, I am very fired up.”

The other subplots tonight were slighter, but they got a lot of work done. Ann, after going on a Western clothing kick after a trip to a dude ranch with her new boyfriend, realizes how tiresome it is to subsume her identity in a string of boyfriends who have no chance of lasting. And Tom, in a fit of honesty, perhaps inspired by his purge of internet ephemera to Ron—”There’s even a little Indian guy, but he has a turban on, which I think is racist.”—confesses that he’s been distracting himself with the internet because “Recently a lot of stuff in my real life isn’t going that great.” Last season, these two characters bided a lot of unproductive time with each other. I’m glad to see that they’ve kicked themselves loose and in the direction of future character growth, and that Parks and Recreation as a whole seems to be moving in the same direction.