Parents can be the worst, a fact just about everyone clues into right around the time they hit puberty, but don’t really understand fully until later in life. Sure, they support, love, and even just put up with you, but the older you get, the less you see your parents as caretakers put on this earth solely for your benefit, and the more they start to look like a funhouse mirror reflection of yourself, warts and all. While still basking in the afterglow of their engagement, Leslie and Ben have to face that they’ve taken a big step towards becoming parents themselves, despite both coming from non-traditional families. Leslie’s father has been dead for who knows how long, and Ben’s parents… well, they wouldn’t necessarily mind the demise of one another. A party brings the Knopes and Wyatts together under one roof, but as the title of this week’s episode of Parks and Recreation suggests, “Ben’s Parents” are the ones responsible for delivering a graduate thesis on familial tension.
Despite how humbling running your hometown’s economy into the ground must be for a sixteen year-old, Ben’s timid nature was always going to trace back to his childhood. The seeds for the reveal were planted more than a season ago, with Ben proudly explaining he learned his passive-aggressive problem-solving from his parents. “And they’ve been… divorced for thirty years.” It’s the kind of imprint parents make that is the most frustrating: you can see their flaws bright as day, but can’t help but to repeat them yourself, because that’s what they taught you. It can seem almost impossible to undo the kinds of habits you pick up from people you’ve spent most of your life with, but the best way to fight them is by letting someone else rub off on you.
Leslie Knope is the person to inspire such change. Among the many things truly special about her is her ability to positively shape people around her for the better. Every member of the Parks department has grown over the show’s run because of being around Leslie, whether it’s Ron getting involved in the personal lives of his co-workers, or April wearing a dress unironically. She’s such a positive, unstoppable force of nature, even her own mother, who was first introduced as doubtful of her daughter’s capabilities, has softened under her influence. Leslie exists to fix things, be they problems or people, and who’s spent more time with her lately than Ben? The Knope gene for backbone infected him enough to make Ben propose, so how bad could the meeting of mama and papa Wyatt really be?
As it turns out, a complete disaster, seeing as Ben’s mother (Glenne Headly) is a soft-spoken and snippy shrew, and Ben’s dad is Mike “The Cleaner” Ehrmantraut. Okay that’s not actually the name of the character Jonathan Banks plays (I think it’s Steve), but for millions of Breaking Bad fans, he’ll always be that same, grim hitman from Albuquerque, and rather than try to change that image, Parks embraces it. There aren’t quite so many direct homages to his previous role the way clever nods hinted at Bradley Whitford’s West Wing career last season, but with that same deadpan delivery and gravely voice, a line like, “we’re a Twizzler family,” makes the character unmistakably like Mike.
Luckily for Ben, Leslie isn’t the type to deal in half measures, so her plan to keep the engagement party running smoothly is to divide and conquer, keeping Mrs. Wyatt busy with Marlene Knope (Pamela Reed), while distracting Ben’s dad with white, Minnesotan-worthy chatter. Failing that, Leslie’s industrious arts and crafts expertise will save the day, in the form of a unifying family quilt, with squares representing every important family member (and HBO series) in the Wyatt-Knope alliance. For a moment, it looks like everything is going to be alright, until the two heads of the Wyatt family finally collide, along with an uninvited guest, in the form of Steve’s new wife, Ulani.
The maelstrom of sniping and insults is about as horribly awkward as you’d imagine, and “Ben’s Parents” plays the conflict pretty straight. You know almost as soon as you see Leslie’s beautiful quilt that it won’t survive the night intact, and sure enough, its destruction causes Leslie to uncharacteristically admit defeat, with the announcement that Steve has gotten Ulani pregnant being the last push she needs to accept Ben’s escape plan: get into a cab, and head for Australia. But in another seemingly uncharacteristic turn, it’s Ben who refuses to run away from the problem, forcing his parents to sit down like something closely approximating adults, and admit that their own years of bitter contempt won’t poison the new loving ones he and Leslie plan to share.
Ben’s parents don’t leave him with much wisdom as to a happy marriage during his big day, but doing everything he can to not follow in their footsteps is the boldest, best move he can make, and he gets the courage to do so because of Leslie. In the same vein, Ben’s meekness has caused Leslie to develop into less of a bulldozer when it comes to making sure everything is perfect, and accepting imperfection is vital to any relationship. Through this symbiosis, and the lessons she’s learned from the happy, yet too short marriage of her parents, they’ve got a real shot at not going down the path of the elder Wyatts, because, as Marlene Knope puts so elegantly, they’re both on the same team.
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And while Mrs. Knope’s belief that screwing is a good way to reconcile differences may not be such useful advice for Tom and Jean Ralphio, what accounts to the closest thing to a fight between the two gets resolved by someone else having a big influence on Tom, Ron. Despite Tom’s impish swagger and frequently terrible business ideas, no one has supported his entrepreneurial spirit more than Ron, a guy who can appreciate wanting to make a success out of yourself through sheer hard work. But as fun as it is to have Jean Ralphio back, and to see Tom once more pitching his ideas like the P. T. Barnum of the MTV era, the fact that they’re back in business together isn’t encouraging, considering the spectacular failure that was Entertainment 720.
After Tom’s dreams crashed and burned around him early on in season four, the show couldn’t find much to do Aziz Ansari other than to stick him with Ann. Part of what made that relationship frustrating was that it seemed he had learned nothing; yes Ansari is at his funniest when acting like a total player, but it became hard to invest in Tom as a character when it seemed like he was the only one refusing to develop. That’s why the sight of him sitting at his computer, struggling to come up with the right pitch for Ron, was such a subtly sweet moment, because the Tom of last year would have gone off to the clubs with Jean Ralphio as soon as the million-dollar idea didn’t come together on its own.
Ron has plenty of reasons to despise (and toothpick stab) Jean Ralphio, the biggest being how enabling of Tom’s more immature instincts he can be. The only time Jean Ralphio seems capable of tact is when he’s being shot down, which is often. Tom does his best to get a solid night’s work out of his poofy-haired partner, but he ends up having to strike out on his own when it’s clear he’s the only one pulling his weight. It’s a very Swanson thing to do, something Ron recognizes, and rewards, by giving Tom the investment money needed for his Rent a Swag business. Despite having no children of his own, Ron has given Tom fatherly advice again and again, and now that he’s really listening to it, Tom’s got more resources at his disposable than all the NBA players and IPads Entertainment 720 could muster.
The other major character to go through a lot of change this week does so in frequency, as Chris’ therapy leaves his mood swinging like Mike’s granddaughter (last Breaking Bad call-out, I swear). While a funny diversion, Chris hasn’t found the right person to make his evolution seem organic instead of incidental, and that seems to be the point. Could Ann be the one be the one to save him? They’ve already tried being a couple, but Ann’s been building character since they split up, so maybe she’s ready to affect the sort of change in him he caused for her during their first relationship.
Dining on the details of these personal arcs might be emphasizing the long game too much, but at this point, that’s what I come to Parks and Recreation for. “Ben’s Parents” had plenty of great bits in it, as well as a few duds, but after so much time spent with these characters, the investment is in watching them grow and gain depth, not just waiting for them to make me laugh every week. It’s what makes Parks and Recreation the most joyous show on television, in addition to usually being the funniest.
- Stray Thoughts
-A stare down over the last bacon-wrapped shrimp between Mike and Ron is every bit as intense as you would hope.
-I side with the Knopes on the Red Vines vs. Twizzlers debate.
-Here’s hoping we get a flashback episode detailing the great Donna/Jerry Parking Spot Feud of 2006.
-Andy’s Macaulay Culkin-esque reading of, “again?!”, proves just how much Chris Pratt can do with his body and one just one word.
-Andy and April’s competing lists of good and bad things in the world is the perfect distillation of why they’re such a great couple.
-Breaking Bad Cross-over Theory: Mike’s granddaughter is the offspring of Ben and Leslie. Ben is the one who knocks (up Leslie).
-Adam Scott and Amy Poehler are starring in an upcoming movie called Adult Children of Divorce, where Poehler is playing Scott’s mother-in-law. That makes me sad. And a little creeped out.
-Leslie and Ben’s relationship survives the meeting of the parents, but its greatest test will be Joe Biden’s guest appearance next week.Previous