‘Parks and Recreation’ Open Thread: Unity

This post discusses plot details from the November 8 episode of Parks and Recreation.

After last week’s blockbuster engagement episode of Parks and Recreation, I realized that I’ve been operating for some time now on the assumption that this is Parks‘ last season. Ben and Leslie’s lives are closest to arriving at the shape that will carry them forward into the future. And I’m glad to see the other characters’ storylines starting to gain momentum.

I loved seeing Leslie’s enthusiasm about her engagement, whether she’s explaining that her ring is “a non-conflict diamond”–but of course–explaining that their love story begins “In 1832, Ben’s great, great, great grandfather, Theodore Wyatt, a bastard,” or telling the camera that “I’m so happy I want to shout it from the rooftops,” only to have Ben tell us “And she has. We’ve gotten several noise complaints.” And it was both funny and good setup for next week’s appearance by Vice President Joe Biden for Leslie’s big plan to bring together their families to be a “Unity Quilt,” of which she tells Ben “Out of respect I didn’t include any images of the only other man in the world who’s as sexy as you: Joe Biden.”

I didn’t think, however, that Ben’s family worked as well as it might have. Even though the first season of Parks and Recreation was something of a mess, it was always clear to me what Leslie inherited from her mother, and how she’d grown beyond her. She got the ambition and the drive, but Leslie is a more open, joyful person than her mother. The introduction of Ben’s parents, on the other hand, was entirely oriented towards the Unity Quilt joke, towards them as bitter, obnoxious people and as a result, it felt kind of flat. Having Jonathan Banks play a Bizarro World version of Mike from Breaking Bad was mildly funny, but as a television in-joke, it felt less integrated into the world of Parks than Ben and Leslie’s obsession with Game of Thrones. And I genuinely have no idea what Ben has in common with these people, who are the sum of their fractiousness such that they can drive Leslie to flee her house, telling Ben “I grabbed all of the brownies from the dessert table and four bottles of wine. Get in the cab. We’re going to Australia.”

Some readers have suggested that Ben’s family is a metaphor for partisan gridlock, but I’m not quite sure that I agree–and if it is, I think it’s a somewhat inadequate critique of our politics. There aren’t substantive differences between Ben’s parents–they’re simply divided by old enmity. They can be reconciled to politeness and decent behavior by Leslie and Ben’s demands because they agree on their love for their son. But gridlock in Washington is driven by substantive policy differences, and where the parties do agree on desirable outcomes, major gaps on what they believe are the best methodology for achieving those outcomes. And putting Ben and Leslie outside the system as magically unifying figures would flatten reality, too. As President Obama learned in his first term, asking doesn’t get you very far with people whose professional survival depends on destroying you. Ben and Leslie are products of politics, and most interesting when they get caught up in the contradictions, compromises, and potential for selling out that their chosen field throws in their way.

Of the B and C stories, I thought this episode did a better job with Tom’s trajectory than with Chris’s. Jean-Ralphio is an amazing chaos Muppet, but it’s been nice to see Tom start to separate out the fun of having him as a friend from the misery of having him as a business partner. “You just googled ‘Amanda Bynes sideboob.’ What is wrong with you?” he asks Jean-Ralphio as they try to refine their presentation for Rent-a-Swag, the eminently sensible business plan Tom dreamed up at the benefit for Jerry. It helps that Jean-Ralphio doesn’t really even care when Tom cuts him out, but it’s a big move for Tom, who for years has struggled to understand what it takes to be taken as seriously as he’d like to be. It turns out, it’s as simple as acting seriously and soberly. I’m excited to see Tom finally succeed.

On the other hand, it was funny but a little cheap to see Chris dissolve in floods of tears. It seems relatively obvious that Chris and Ann are going to end up together–they’re both people who are working on fixing each other, which, as Shopgirl points out, will always give them something in common. But I’m not sure how long the joke of Chris’s emotional fragility will continue to be funny. He’s always been a somewhat static character, and the show, if it’s to start him on an arc of growth, it needs to make sure that progress is steady. And as much as it was funny to see April and Andy maintain his emotional equilibrium at the party by making him alternately happy and sad–“Dave Matthews Band,” “Dave Matthews Band,” was a great joke–I’m really ready to see Andy take that Police Academy admissions test. If only so we can get a spinoff where Chris Pratt and Louis C.K. solve Pawnee crimes together.