"‘Parks and Recreation Open Thread: Perfect"
This post discusses plot points from the October 25 episode of Parks and Recreation.
I got to see this episode of Parks and Recreation last week, which gave me a chance to go back and watch “The Master Plan,” the episode where Leslie met Ben when he first arrived in Pawnee as a state auditor. I’d remembered the basics of their inauspicious introduction: Ben arrived just in time to interrupt Leslie’s chance to fight for her department’s budget, and with the ominous news that she might even have to cut jobs. What I’d forgotten was how quickly he found himself compelled to reach out to her, and how well he read Leslie, even when she was angry at him. “Do you want a beer?” he came into her office to ask her. “You look like you could use a beer.”
Almost three seasons later, I cried at my desk watching Ben go down on his knee in the house Leslie thought she’d have to give up to let him pursue his dreams. “What are you doing?” Leslie asked him, overwhelmed. “I’m thinking about my future,” Ben told her. His touching proposal elicited some of the absolute best acting Amy Poehler and Adam Scott have done during Parks and Recreation‘s impressive run, but it was more than Leslie telling Ben ” I need another second, please. I need to remember every little thing about how perfect my life is right now, at this exact moment,” as she glanced around the empty house, that brought me to tears. Leslie and Ben are one of the most unusual couples on television, and they represent an archetype that touches me deeply: a pair where the man consistently makes sacrifices to help the woman in his life achieve everything she’s capable of, and where their relationship doesn’t always call for the woman to make symmetrical sacrifices.
Almost from their first meeting, Ben’s been deeply concerned with Leslie’s happiness. In their second episode together, he paid to keep her prized Freddie Spaghetti concert going even in the face of looming cuts to the department. When the exposure of their relationship threatened Leslie’s campaign for City Council, Ben sacrificed his job so she could keep hers and continue her run unimpeded by scandal. He devoted himself to running her campaign. And now, even with the great, amoral Jennifer telling Ben “There aren’t a lot of people that can manage a campaign. But you, Ben Wyatt, are one of them,” Ben is choosing Leslie.
When we met Ben, he was balancing city budgets so he could prove he was responsible enough to be in charge of government in a substantial way again, after his disastrous stint as a teenage mayor. But over the course of his tenure on the show, Parks and Recreation has had him discover something rather different about himself that’s a sign of the show’s political astuteness: Ben is actually the perfect staffer more so than he is a perfect candidate or elected official. He has good instincts. He’s good at reassuring even the wackiest candidates, like the lawyer who tells him “I guess you could say mine is the classic Florida success story. I ent to FSU law school, I was working at a small firm in Orlando and one day, bam just like that, gator eats penis. That was my first high-profile case. It was a classic Florida divorce. Guy cheats on his wife with Dan Marino’s masseuse, one day, she cuts off his junk, throws it in the Everglades…That case made my career. Now I just want to give something back.” That distinction between the person whose name is on the ticket and the people who get them there, and the skills it takes to be good at those things, is a smart thing for Parks to have teased out over the course of several years.
Given Ben and Leslie’s shared political ambitions, and shared understanding of what it meant to work your way out of big problems in the eye of a public with unrealistic or irrational expectations, it could have been easy to competition and direct tradeoffs the issues in their relationship. Instead, as they’ve grown together as a couple, they’ve also grown into genuinely complementary roles both personally and professionally. Ben may be one of the few people who can really run excellent campaigns on the national level. But why should he help a ridiculous lawyer challenge Rick Scott for Florida’s governorship when he can help a woman he believes in accomplish everything she can in a community he’s come to care about? Leslie Knope may have pictures of Hillary Clinton, but in Ben she’s found someone who will let her have the big political career first, surpassing her role model.
I thought there were a lot of other things that worked well in this episode. I think it’s been smart for the show to explore Chris’s antic fragility. Given his obsessive attention to various health regimens, it makes sense that when he decides to see a therapist, he’d conclude that “He’s very wise. I see him five times a week. He holds my life in his hand like a fragile bird.” I just hope we get to see this wise man at some point. And I’ll be curious to see how he grows while in therapy.
I also appreciate the multi-arc approach Ann is taking to establishing a sense of self independent of her relationships and, as we saw in this episode, of Leslie. In selling off the things that she bought that she doesn’t really want, she’s jettisoning a lot of literal baggage. And as much as I appreciate Ann’s relationship with Leslie, I was really glad to see Ann resist Leslie’s efforts to auction off “An evening with sexy nurse Ann Perkins. Look at her, folks. One evening with the most beautiful woman in the world! Just dinner and dancing, nothing sexual, unless she’s into it.” I’ve always thought that Ann and Chris may be meant together if Chris can shake some of his rigid assumptions, and Ann can develop some independent personality.
And I’m glad to see Tom get a win. The show almost crushed the idea of him starting a business under the weight of the Entertainment 720 storyline, but it’s in keeping with Parks and Recreation‘s optimistic core to resurrect it on a modest and practical scale. It’s always been a joke that Tom shops in the boys’ department, but rental clothes for growing teenage boys is a genuinely smart business model, and something I can see Tom succeeding at and finding rewarding in a modest, viable way.
Finally, I’m glad Parks and Recreation isn’t as meta as its lineup-mate 30 Rock. But I do dearly appreciate the show’s decision to incorporate Retta’s amazing Twitter feed into the show, especially for a gag as great as “Death Canoe IV: Murder At Blood Lake.” I will always wish Donna had more to do on this show, or that Retta herself had her own show. But for now, I’ll take Chris asking Donna “I missed the first three. Why, exactly, is it a death canoe? Does it tip over easily?” and Donna explaining “In the fifth one, the canoe is the hero. It’s a crazy twist.” More, please. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.