Saturday, October 15, 2011

Retroactively Looking at Five Episodes of Parks and Recreation

This blog entry is based on brief impressions of Parks and Recreation episodes on 2nd viewing. A lot changes the 2nd time around:

Pawnee Zoo:
I can’t think of any show that had characters intersect with each other so awkwardly in the first season and turned those awkward interactions around into such strong dynamics.

In particular, Leslie Knope is so annoyingly enthusiastic and wears her heart on her sleeve so much, that it’s hard to imagine her as anything more than mildly tolerable among the other department members. The show even got significant criticism at the start over the fact that Leslie Knope and Michael Scott were too similar. They were both aloof enough not to get that they are an object of ridicule.

While Season two deserves a lot of praise for gradually making Knope a more likeable person and charismatic leader without a complete retcon, the season premiere shows that the transition isn’t complete yet. More specifically, Knope’s tirade on the local TV station stretched credibility a little too much for me. Her other awkward moment, performing Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, is the most cringe-inducing thing I’ve ever seen Leslie do, but it was played with enough distancing irony that it came off a little better.

The episode also featured the introduction of April’s two boyfriends and reminds me just how ironically hip of a character she used to be. It’s amazing that even as April’s grown, those traits are still present in her character.

Andy’s relationship with Anne was originally a plot device to get Anne more involved in the pit. Now that we know more about Andy and Anne, it certainly raises the question of how Andy ever convinced Anne to go out with her in the first place.

Summer Catalog:
This episode was interesting to look at from the point of the series’ mythology and how much it expects us to realistically identify with it. In the episode, Leslie gets really excited because the four living Parks and Recreation directors are all going to meet at one place and time. Although Leslie treats these people as indistinguishable from US Seceretaries of State, it’s fairly apparent that at some point, the reality will sink in (at least for us, if not for Leslie) that these men are just ordinary guys without any pretensions of greatness.

This highlights a balancing act that “Parks and Recreation” has to achieve. The show is an exploration of the trials and tribulations of government. To be effective towards that end, the happenings in Pawnee can work as a parallel for the happenings in Washington that we read about in the news. But this only works to an extent. The people in the national news are public figures and using Leslie’s inflated opinion of her department to justify the heightened scandal-like drama in certain episodes only goes so far before it strains the show's credibility.

In this case, the fact that it hit Leslie rather early on that these guys were big jerks helped restore that balance fairly quickly.

The best two things about this episode is how quickly they established the three other parks directors as comic characters and how they didn’t overdo it. Only one of the three Parks directors (the misogynistic one) could be classified as a bona fide wacko. The apathetic director was close to normal and the pot head that pushed his philosophies a little too forcefully into conversations fell somewhere in the middle. I got the general feeling that they didn’t just treat these characters as a game of Party Quirks on “Who’s Line is it Anyway.”

94 Meetings:
It’s tough to say which episodes of a series are standout and I can’t imagine there’s ever much consensus in the same vein that great movies or TV series are more agreed upon. I suspect different plots will hit people different ways.

Personally, I thought this episode was fantastic because it was a clever plot that leant itself to a lot of great situations. At various points, the show pushes storylines beyond the realm of believability. April actually fooling a complaintant with the line "Come back at 2:65"? Or worse, angry citizens being content to meet with a nurse not affiliated with the department or the shoeshine boy.

The way that Anne is worked into plots so often is something that I think the show deals with through lampshading (defined as drawing attention a plot hole so you let the audience you know you’re in on the joke).

Both the A-plot and the B-plot are strong here. Leslie’s fight for historic preservationism is right up her alley, and I preferred the confrontation with Leslie and the former Ms. Pawnee to cold tension. Her final scene of crashing the party once more was a step backwards in her evolution. Leslie’s chaining herself to the fence would have also been a little extreme except for the fact that it had no consequences in terms of future hostility between her and the citizens of Pawnee: Her friends (combined with the nature of the fence) saved her from making too much of a fool of herself.

Just like April, I’m reminded of how little Tom Haverford has changed. Even if he’s married or has a girlfriend, he still embodies that same persona of the guy who wants to be the club VIP. He’s redeemed from being a sad character through the fact that it’s obvious he has strong friendships.

Viewing this episode, I’m also reminded of executive producer how Mike Schur's sediment that he loves romances and feels a show has to have them. Parks and Recreation has dealt with romance incredibly well. The Ben-Leslie relationship was thankfully dissolved before it started [ed. note: I must have fully not caught up to the show on itunes/netflix since this was written, because this isn't the case]. I don’t know if I can forgive the show for allowing it to be given so much focus in the first place, but it also made sense retroactively since we discover that Ben is really a shy dork which makes him perfect for Lselie. I also love how quickly the relationship dissolved.

Another good example: Marrying off Andy and April. Typical boyfriend/girlfriend relationships are a dime a dozen but newlyweds like Any and April who are barely functioning adults?  That’s another story.

Anne’s three boyfriends, on the other hand, seem to have occurred solely because the writers wanted to add a romantic relationship and she was the odd man out. She had little to no organic connection between Andy, Mark, and Chris and it didn’t further the plot along at all. One possible excuse for these relationships, however, is it allowed her to be involved in office affairs more. I’m hoping that in this coming season, she might just be allowed in Office affairs on the basis of her best friend working there. Ironically, Rashida Jones has stated in interviews that she was attracted to the show for the strong female friendship between Anne and Leslie. I could see the show functioning just as well if Anne was asexual or had her relationships off-screen.

Watching these episodes over again reminds me just how much Ben is a fish out of the water. There are a number of subtle signs to this effect that I gleamed on second viewing. He’s not sure about the culture of the department and whether he should take Leslie’s request seriously that they all brainstorm ideas. He doesn’t really know what to do with downtime on the camping trip as opposed to Tom (the guy who's most comfortable anywhere) who’s off making fondue and watching TV. .

The dynamic between Ben and Tom works really well here. Ben’s just a passive grounded guy who observant of what’s around him (he’s somewhat of an audience surrogate) and Tom’s the most ridiculous character he sees.

Chris is a little cartoonish but he worked in terms of providing comic relief and mixing things up. I wouldn’t classify him as a character to be taken with the same level of realism as the core group in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Again, the “What’s Ann doing here?” problem is apparent here.

This episode also had some really funny moments. Ron and Jerry’s conversation definitely was out there. The humor also picked up nicely in the third act (as it’s traditionally supposed to) with the bed and breakfast and the elderly proprietor's extremely early breakfast time (which April wouldn’t have any of). The episode's most memorable moment was once again comes from the burgeoning Tom-Ben bromance: The entry in journal that united Tom and Ben in a nice little moment of shared horror.

Fancy Party:
For my money, this is the high-water mark of the series. Typically wedding episodes are big and all the emotional grandeur of the wedding episode is here. When April sheds tears at her sister's speech (note to self if you ever get a chance in hell to interview Aubrey Plaza: Ask how she summoned those tears), it was a moment we genuinely felt. At the same time, the tone was small and casual. It was even a little claustrophobic.

Andy was such a sweet guy and if he hasn't won you over, how about his cute grandmother?

Even though the episode functioned primarily dramatically, in the sense that it was all about the emotional uplift, it never ceased to be funny. Tom and Jean Ralphio attempting to make the perfect toast was a high point in that department.

Also, it was Ben's finest moment to date. In Season 4, he's become the socially stunted dork. In season 3, he was the only sane man in the room and consummate outsider. A guy asks him if April is available and his reaction along with the line, "Her? She just got married twenty minutes ago. You were right here." Priceless.

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