‘Parks and Recreation’ Open Thread: Narrative Forms In The Digital World

This post discusses plot points from the February 7 episode of Parks and Recreation.

When you’re single, the most irritating person on the planet can be the dear friend who wants you to know that you’re so spectacular that of course everything’s going to turn out fine for you. That friend means well, but their encouragement only serves to highlight the gap in between what’s actually happening for you and what they insist should be happening, raising the possibility that a) you’re doing something wrong, b) there is a fatal flaw, c) the Gods have a sick sense of humor. And on last night’s episode of Parks and Recreation, that person was Leslie Knope.

On finding out that Ann is not just dating herself as a way to have new experiences and thinking about what she wants in life, but is considering having a baby with a sperm donor, Leslie declared “You’re definitely going to find a wonderful man who loves you, and respects you, and fills your home with multi-ethnic genius babies.” It’s a nice vision, but it was even nicer to see Ann put paid to Leslie’s relentless optimism for her best friend. “Maybe,” Ann told Leslie. “Or maybe not.” Either way, Leslie’s dream for her best friend is beside the point. Ann doesn’t want to wait anymore, she isn’t being diverted into a different path from Leslie’s, she’s just choosing it.

That’s both an exciting development for a character who can be passive and malleable with regard to her personal life, and as it turns out, a nice choice for the show’s larger universe. I’d been idly wishing for Crazy Ira and the Douche to Parks and Recreation, spurred in part by the debut of the Kroll Show on Comedy Central, so I was delighted to see Howard’s return to the show last night, as one of the candidates to donate sperm to Ann. And the show had a great joke for him: it turns out, to Leslie’s irritation, that he’s a relatively decent guy. “I majored in semiotics, wrote a thesis on narrative forms in the digital world,” Howard explained to Ann when she asked about his education. Leslie, still skeptical, wanted to know “Then you became a shock jock and created the sport taintball?” He shrugged it off, explaining “I know it’s a silly thing to do, but it pays the bills.” And later, he hit all of Leslie’s buttons when she tracked him down in the parking garage. “I’ve thought a lot about having kids. It’s the next big step in this grand adventure we call life,” Howard explained. “You know, if we had a little girl, I’d name her Elizabeth, after my grandmother. She was this strong, amazing woman.”

Of course, living as the Douche most of the time has leached some of those mannerisms into Howard’s personality. Despite those revelations, he’s still the kind of guy who would contemplate naming his son with Ann OJ, who turns Leslie’s plea to him into fodder for the radio, embarrassing Ann, a woman he seems like he might actually might like, and find a way to get Leslie in a wading pool full of jello. But given the alternatives—Councilman Milton shows up to tell Leslie “I just wanted to toss my name into the ring in respect to this Indian woman’s vagina.”—maybe Howard’s a reasonable, and even redeemable choice.

It was an episode that played with compromise and identity in both of its other subplots. In Ben’s storyline, he took the other men on the show to help him figure out catering for his upcoming wedding to Leslie. “Chris loves vegetables, Ron loves meat, and Tom is a foodie, which apparently means taking Instagrams of food rather than eating it,” Ben explained, only to end up going with his gut and picking a menu that included mini-calzones—which turned out to give everyone food poisoning. The result was one of the funniest bits of physical comedy the show’s done in quite some time, with Ben and Chris rolling around on the floor in sweaty extremis—”I was dying earlier today. And I died. And now I’m dead,” Chris explained. “I had to cancel a date with Shuana Malwey-Tweep. Do you think she’ll still like me now that I’m dead?”—Ron lurching about as if he’d suddenly been Frankenstein-ized, trying to call Tom, and Tom bounding in the door explaining that he was fine because he doesn’t eat things that require him to do work, like make proper use of dipping sauce.

But they stumbled on the perfect solution, after recovering at JJ’s diner, where JJ himself refused to let Ben go home without waffles for Leslie. “You’re sure you’re cool with JJ’s diner catering what you’ve referred to as the wedding of the millenium?” Ben asked his fiancee. And of course, with a whipped-cream coated waffle in front of her, Leslie was fine with it. Leslie’s a waffle person, a woman of some basic and fundamental tastes, and it’s fine for her not to try to be anything else.

Similarly, but more excitingly, Andy found a way to convince April that she didn’t have to “lead a public forum in Leslie Knope’s Fleetwood Mac Sex Pants,” complete with Sweetums condoms, in order to do a good job of dealing with the public. Leslie’s overwhelming niceness and enthusiasm serve her well in a lot of circumstances, even if they make her the type of person who probably would stay up all night to make friendship bracelets for all the attendees at a public meeting. But April’s blunt approach has its value, too, whether she’s cutting through the assumption that the park is going to raise taxes, dealing with a constituent who is “also afraid the park will be noisy, and full of spiders, and dark at night,” or shutting down Harris, who has started a quest to turn Pawnee Commons into a topless park, telling him “There’s not going to be a topless park, Harris. No one wants your creepy stoner eyes staring at them.” Leslie’s tolerance for the kind of nonsense that creeps into public life means that she forges diplomatic solutions to a lot of Pawnee’s problems, but April’s distaste for nonsense made her meetings an idiot-free zone, as well as getting the signatures she needed. It’s a nice little parable of the public square, and a nice little opportunity for April to step forward and into her own— and to rid the world of a truly disastrous pantsuit.