This post contains spoilers through the April 26 episode of Parks & Recreation.
One of my friends pinged me last night to say that he thought this episode of Parks & Recreation was my platonic ideal for a half-hour of the show. He’s basically right. Everything from the shot of Jerry watching the debate with the nuns like he’s one of the Three Stooges visiting home to Leslie’s closing statement was precisely my cup of tea. But mostly, I enjoy episodes of the show where all the characters are working on different elements of the same, sprawling project the way they were in “Harvest Festival” or “Lil’ Sebastian,” and tonight’s was one of those.
Episodes like this work because you can shift how much time you allocate between the A, B, and C story without worrying that one throughline will get short shrift. They’re all part of the same enterprise—in this case, making sure Leslie’s debate performance is solid, her spin room is working hard, and a room full of big donors is entertained. Those three setups give the characters room to work on separate issues, like the love triangle between Ann, Tom, and Chris, which has never seemed more plausible or well-executed than it was tonight, or April’s caring about things. But they’re all really part of the same goal, which is something the show does well both because the characters have great chemistry in a lot of different combinations, and because those kinds of big-project stories are both uniquely suited to and illustrate what’s interesting about a bureaucratic organization.
The debate was an interesting moment because it illustrated a problem that Leslie’s campaign—and the show about her—have shared all season: the candidate hasn’t been able to find her stride, even though she’s clearly the most qualified person in the mix. She should be able to nail the debate: “You could debate Newport in your sleep,” Ben tells her. “I have,” she chirps enthusiastically. “I know,” Ben reminds her. “I sleep in the same bed. It’s been hell.” And her opening swipe at Bobby Newport, that he wants to buy the town, is true, and something that will be proven even truer before the end of the evening. But it goes over like a lead balloon. What matters isn’t what’s accurate, or even significant. It’s that Leslie looks mean and negative, when we’ve had four years of television episodes proving that she’s anything but. Conversely, the substance of Bobby Newport’s insistence that “I want your vote because I want Pawnee, and my Dad, to see what I’m made of” is gross when you think about it closely, but it sounds endearing (Ditto on “I guess my thoughts on abortion are, let’s all just have a good time.”), so he gets credit he manifestly doesn’t deserve. Leslie’s closing statement is a party-at-the-lake-house worthy moment precisely because she finds a way to unify the substance of what she’s saying with the style and break through to the audience. It’s the first time she’s really been able to do that since “Born and Raised.”
I think it’s important to note that there’s a difference between this kind of clarity and the belief a lot of pop culture has about politics, which is that rhetorical brilliance breaks all impasses, cows all cynical manipulators of the system, binds up our wounds and leads us into the promised land. Instead, this whole season has been about the fact that while working in bureaucracy can be relatively smooth sailing if you know how everything works and have good systems set up, persuading the public and winning elections is a vastly harder thing to do, even for someone who is essentially smart and personable. People have agendas and senses of themselves that they have precisely no interest in surrendering. This is something that most pop culture fails to grasp. It just assumes that we share values and worldviews, and when we get out of kilter, the only thing that’s required to get us back on track is the rhetorical equivalent of a whack with a wrench. That’s not accurate, and for a storytelling and character-growth perspective, it’s not particularly interesting.
In addition to that wonderful centerpiece, this is a nice summing-up moment for a number of other characters on the show. April admits publicly, or at least to Tom, that there are things she’s invested in, even if she can’t make her arms work right to clean the house in preparation for the fundraiser, confessing “I care about Andy, and Champion, and I want Leslie to win.” In return, she got through to Tom what he’s been incapable of acknowledging before: that he has to act normal around Ann if he wants to be with her, and save pronouncements like “She’s smooth, like a blended whisky,” for Leslie’s spin room. Ron gets to put his manly and musical skills to work hacking into the cable network to save the fundraiser after opening it with the bluntest statement of purpose in political history: “Hello. You are here because you gave us money. Now, we will give you ribs. Also, you will watch the debate. If you like the debate, you’ll give us more money. That is all. Ron Swanson.”
And I just love the idea both that Andy’s tremendous, perpetually-refilled enthusiasm would lead him to step into the void of the cable outage with movie retellings, and that Pawnee’s richest non-Sweetums-beholden residents would be rapt by it. This is a good town, full of good people. They deserve a good City Councilwoman. Knope 2012.