This post contains spoilers for the January 19 episode of Parks and Recreation.
All of this season, Leslie’s been in an oddly ambivalent place about her campaign. It’s the dream of her life to be on the way to elected office, but there’s always been something in the way of her complete happiness about it: being forced to break up with Ben, the scandal after she and Ben come out, trying to figure out how to make the campaign actually happen. But tonight, the show finally got her in fighting trim, by giving her opponent who offends her sense of decency and public service. Played, in a fun move, by Paul Rudd.
I’m always somewhat amazed that Parks and Recreation doesn’t do a bit more with Sweetums, given the potential for political storytelling provided by a company town. There could be labor strife! Pollution of the parks! Mass layoffs! But I do appreciate that they’ve brought the company back in the form of Bobby Newport (Rudd), the endlessly cheerful and empty-headed heir to the company who also serves as Vice President of Nougat. Bobby’s had everything handed to him and has no practical experience, but he’s handsome, effortlessly rolls out lines like “I don’t know why they call it a campaign. Because so far, it’s been a campleasure,” and hands out Bobby Bars.
He’s also smoking Leslie in the polls even with ads that feature the dog given him by “My buddy, the pretender to the crown of Alsace Lorraine,” a fact that spurs her to start cutting ads herself. Some of the best bits of this feature the team acting like an actual team without Leslie present, particularly Ben, Tom, and Jerry working together to come up with the most ominous negative ad voice they can. I also appreciated the little flash of tension between Anne and Leslie, with the latter telling the former, “Anne, I painted your garage pink!” in an attempt to sway her vote on the ads, and Anne reminding her, “I did not ask you to do that.” And the ad they ultimately cut is great, featuring a 10-year-old Leslie telling the camera, “I love Pawnee, and I want to make it even better” with, among other things, “a more progressive tax on residential properties,” juxtaposed with Bobby acting like an idiot.
And I think it’s well-done that Leslie, who wants to see the best in everyone, finally gets angry when she comes face-to-face with Bobby’s entitlement. “It was mean. You guys are mean,” he complains when he finally takes a meeting with Leslie. “My friends keep sending me links to that ad and making fun of me…It would be so cool of you to quit. Then I could win. And I’d have a big party, and I’d put you both on the guest list…I need something to do to get my dad off my back. This seemed easy.” Appalled, Leslie warns him that when they debate, she’s going to crush him. And he still doesn’t get it.
I think this is precisely what the show needs, a sense of the stakes not just for Leslie, but for Pawnee. The show’s always done best in plotlines like Chris and Ben’s arrival in town, the Harvest Festival, or Lil’ Sebastian’s funerals where it’s clear that Leslie sees something important to her city going on and fights for it, even in the face of opposition or low budgets. The prospect of a truly terrible City Councilman is a step up from any of those one-off challenges or projects. I’m glad we get to care about whether Leslie wins for a reason other than that we like her.