I love Parks & Recreation so much not because it breaks the mold of the typical sitcom structure like some other shows, but because it fills that mold so impeccably well. The fifth season premiere picks up from last season’s epic finale of Leslie winning the election for Pawnee city council by finding Leslie in Washington D.C. to not only make a proposal for a grant to clean up the Pawnee River, but to visit with Ben as he is running a congressional campaign there. Meanwhile in the subplot, Ron attempts to revamp the annual employee appreciation barbeque (The Leslie Knope Employment Enjoyment Summer Slam Grill Jam Funsplosion and Parks & Dolls Parks Department Regulation Extravaganza). Both stories find their leads coming to terms with their newfound positions and learning to make compromises while forging ahead. Not only did both stories share good pacing but they were connected thematically while making me laugh. Parks isn’t a show that reinvents the wheel, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the smoothest and funniest wheels on American television.
Andy accompanies Leslie on her trip officially as her administrative assistant but really it’s so that he can visit his wife April as she has joined Ben in D.C. as his administrative assistant (and expert cell phone disabler). Before the couples meet we get a few funny scenes of Leslie trying to impart the wonders of America’s capitol’s history on Andy whom is already plenty preoccupied with tracing Nick Cage’s steps from those dreaded National Treasure movies (“Nothing in those movies is accurate.”) once Leslie and Ben and Andy and April do meet at the Smithsonian, the former can’t enjoy each other’s company long as Ben has meetings all day while the latter get to do exactly what every couple that hasn’t seen each other in a long time want to do – have some alone time. I love how in love both these couples are and how that similarity unites them despite the couples being so drastically different from each other. April and Andy’s public make-outs/dry humping are at once silly and adorable, but they also serve as a great foil for the preoccupied Ben and Leslie.
After the initial meet up, Leslie goes to attend her meeting to apply for grant money to clean up her hometown’s river only to find that the representative she was to meet is indefinitely unavailable and the proposal Leslie has worked so hard on (it even comes with a CD of calming babbling brooks noises to have been played during the meeting) will merely be added to a giant pile of dozens of other proposals. On top of this soul crushing moment, Leslie learns that her Pawnee is one of several throughout the country, a seemingly small detail that actually is alluded to later in the episode when Leslie is meeting with the tall, attractive, accomplished women Ben works with at his campaign gala. Throughout the second act we see Leslie encounter disappointment after disappointment as she meets increasingly upstanding members of the D.C. political machine including two of her heroes, senators Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe (the fact that these two women, as well as former presidential candidate John McCain, make an appearance in the episode is a testament to how much respect the series must hold in the eyes of the more enlightened professional politicians, not to mention critics and audiences alike). When Leslie does meet the senators she finally cracks after a long day of ego bruising and nearly breaks into tears in a moment which is at once heartbreaking and hilarious as Leslie describes Pawnee as full of problems like “raccoon infestations and obese babies”.
The scene where Leslie is forced to excuse herself to go have a private moment (in which she unknowingly brushes off a very sweet and concerned John McCain) is what’s known in the world of literature (of which I proudly count television a part) as the plot’s climax. After the initial set-up of the conflict – Leslie paling in comparison to Ben’s high-powered fancy-shmancy professional position – and the rising action of Leslie’s increasingly humiliating encounters, the conflict reaches a boiling point. Afterward, the falling action is constituted by Andy’s pep talk in which he takes a break from making out with April and brandishing his shrimp claw to remind Leslie that she’s awesome and even though things are tough, she’s never one to give up. Somewhat predictably, but satisfyingly, we next see Leslie and Andy back in Pawnee at the river holding a press conference in which the story finds its resolution when Leslie announces that despite not getting through the Washington bureaucracy, she refuses to give up her duties and has decided to clean up the river herself (because she really is just that awesome). Then in what’s known as the dénouement we see Leslie and Ben video chatting and basically being the perfect and adorable couple that they are, but not sickeningly adorable, convincingly so. The two lovers apologize, express how much they miss each other, and then Ben shows Leslie his butt because she wants to see it (another call back to a joke earlier in the episode).
Meanwhile in Pawnee, Ron is doing his best to throw what he considers a proper barbeque which entails introducing its attendees to the pig they are to “kill, cook, and swallow,” named Tom (“Meet your meat.”) Ron is determined to replace Leslie’s usual costume and pomp and circumstance filled gathering with a barbeque which will convert the “grill virgins” and give them some true “flavorful meat love.” Hence the conflict because of course Ron’s way, no matter how metal, is not really what the day is all about, as Ron will inevitably learn. The conflict escalates as Ron’s permit to slaughter Tom the pig (a sheet of paper that simply says, “I can do what I want,”) is rejected and he’s forced to go buy provisions from the local Food ‘N Stuff. Things get worse as everyone grows hungrier and thirstier (there’s nothing for the kids to drink except watered down beer (“Why wouldn’t you just give them the water?”)) until Ron finally becomes so frustrated that he announces the barbeque cancelled and drives away literally with the giant barbeque grill attached to his car. This would of course be the climax and I liked how Ron’s and Leslie’s boiling points matched up almost back to back.
Just as Andy gives Leslie the supportive pep talk she needed, Chris gives Ron the slightly more stern one he needed to realize that in order to lead the parks department he’s going to have to occasionally lead the parks department and sometimes that means doing what’s best for the group as opposed to what he thinks is right. Ron’s plot’s resolution is nicely wrapped up as he very loudly calls everyone together to feast on Tom the pig and even some vegetables. Again, though this is the most basic and tried and true of all narrative structures, Parks does it exceedingly well and that’s more than can be said for most American TV series.
The episode even got a C-plot in checking in with Tom and Ann (“Haverkins”). Turns out the couple’s drunken proposal to move in together led them each to realize after the first day, “We’ve made a huge mistake,” but they’ve kept up the charade of a happy couple in order to spite everyone who doubted them and win a $1000 bet Tom made with Donna. Of course eventually Donna catches the couple fighting and realizes they’ve actually been happily broken up for some time, but lets it go as apparently she’s lied plenty of times about her romantic endeavors (I don’t like to think that – I’ve always enjoyed the idea that Donna is a bit of a pimp). I’m really glad it doesn’t appear as if the Tom-Ann coupling will be dragged out any longer. As I explained in my article on why everyone on the planet should be watching this show, I like that Tom and Ann serve as the sort of ridiculous flip side to every romantic pairing on the show, there really wasn’t anywhere else for them to go. Thankfully, Parks isn’t afraid to let go of a good idea once its served its function. And now we get to add Sparkle Suds ©, ™, ®, Disco Dairy ©, ™, ®, and Sparkle Skin ©, ™, ®, to the list of Tom’s entrepreneurial endeavors.
The only “shortcoming” (as I use that term very, very loosely) is that the whole gang wasn’t together, but considering that the distance between Ben and Leslie and Andy and April has to be addressed before it can be resolved, and the fact that the two major plots of the episode had such strong thematic unity, it’s easily overlooked and really only speaks to how fantastic this ensemble is when they’re together. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for everyone to be back in Pawnee together but if the episodes leading up to that point are as good as “Ms. Knope Goes to Washington”, I don’t mind at all.
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