I’ve alluded to this before, but just so we’re clear, I really didn’t like “The Comeback Kid,” the 11th episode of Parks and Recreation’s fourth season, and the first to premiere in 2012. Seeing as season three is about as flawless as TV comedy gets, the comparative minor missteps of the first half of season four didn’t seem like that big a deal, but “The Comeback Kid” was the first time I ever worried about how much longer the truly great period of Parks would last.
The episode centered around two tropes I hate in sitcoms: building stories around a single event that must go absolutely perfect -but inevitably turns out to be a disaster- and characters being written as if their major personality flaw is their only trait. While the madcap ice-capades almost salvaged the entire thing, it was accomplished via everyone fail spectacularly in trying to help launch the Knope city council campaign, by acting like caricatures, instead of real people who care about Leslie.
The whole episode felt off, wrong even, until I found out that Simpsons veteran Mike Scully was the writer responsible for it, and when I watched “The Comeback Kid” again, as if it were an animated show, things went down smoother on the second try. Yes, Ron blindly admitting to a cop all the ways he’s breaking the law with his overflowing truck of campaign equipment is cartoonishly honest, even for a guy as allergic to bullshit as Ron, but in a cartoon, everything that can go wrong, will. How serious Pawnee’s relationship with reality is week-to-week can vary subtly every episode, so perhaps “The Comeback Kid” felt overbearingly zany because it came on the heels of “Citizen Knope,” an episode with plenty of goofy interactions, but one with a strong emotional undercurrent throughout, and a heartwarming finish. Had Scully written a one-off episode with the same energy and less plot importance, I probably wouldn’t have minded, but treating a big turning point in Leslie’s career like a farce seemed uncharacteristic for a show that values the treatment of its characters so highly.
Parks and Recreation is always at its best when working in screwball territory, something the writers learned when trying to give the show an identity other than just “The Office clone.” The situations can be weird and crazy (like say, a season finale based around the funeral for the town hero, an unusually tiny horse), so long as the characters show awareness of the craziness, and the clash between those who get pulled in by it, and those who don’t, makes for great comedy. Unfortunately, when a show has been running for a long time, letting the characters get swept up in the madness can be the easiest thing to write. “Pawnee Commons” pushes the loony button on just about everyone this week, with serious provocation only in one of the three stories, and while the whole cast acting a little (or really) unhinged is amusing at face value, it’s not funny and rewarding the way Parks normally is.
That’s a really roundabout way of saying that Crazy Leslie comes storming back this week, and the results are as mixed as ever. The fact is, Amy Poehler’s comedic talents encompass so much more territory than a character like even Leslie Knope can deliver, that Crazy Leslie is basically her secret identity (a Bat…Man to her Bruce Wayne), one that can do the sort of jokes Normal Leslie can’t. Her menacing warning to a bunch of snooty Eagletonians was a gut-buster, mainly because you’d never imagine Leslie as being capable of a threat so grave, and a register so low. And if you’ve seen any of the gag reels, you already know that Poehler saying sorry a bunch is hilarious, so having her physically struggle to apologize, without apologizing, is entertaining.
But it always feels like a cheat to have someone as smart, and self-assured as Leslie default to such immature behaviour, no matter how energetic the results may be, or how awful Eagletonians are. It can wind up hurting the stories, as it becomes increasingly unreasonable to assume that Eagleton’s primo architect, Wreston St. James (SNL alum Brad Hall), would put up with Leslie’s endless distrust, despite how willing he is to design a park for Lot 48. Being the personification of good feelings and sunshine that she is, Leslie hating anything is a foreign emotion, which naturally puts her off her game when dealing with Eagleton, but having Leslie shower Wreston with shaving cream in broad daylight stretches the believability of what even Crazy Leslie is capable of, especially now that she’s a city councillor.
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The bigger problem with “Pawnee Commons” though, is that it lets the mania infect just about everyone, but does so while also retreading a lot of old ground. Andy has his first shift working the City Hall beat as a security guard, and when it proves to be even less exciting than Paul Blart: Mall Cop, he calls in April to keep him company, and as an excuse to goof off. This leads to the return of one of the all-time great alternate personas in Parks and Recreation, Burt Macklin, F.B.I. Normally, Burt appearing would be cause for celebration (especially since he died after fatal exposure to Snake Juice in “The Fight”) but April and Andy’s role-playing didn’t click the way their escapades usually do most other weeks.
Admittedly, Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza improv-ing various cliché cop archetypes and film noir vamps makes for a better show than 90% of what’s out there, but setting Andy’s Burt against April’s Judy Hitler (the fuhrer’s only surviving daughter) felt like a rehash of the same shtick from “The Fight”, only broader, and more strained in its joke generation. Andy running into the Parks office and asking, “have you guys seen Hitler,” should be a riot, but feels more deliberate and forced than how usually smooth Pratt is at shouting out a barely in-context comment. As hokey as finding a lost kid in city hall might be, it ultimately saves the plotline by having April and Andy realize that Burt Macklin can’t come out to play whenever they’re bored, and that Andy will actually have to mature a little if he wants to become a cop. Their dramatic retirement of Macklin in the city courthouse, complete with a 21 gun salute, was the exact sort of scene I wished all the others had been; a delightfully silly distraction, but one more assured of its purpose than just being a time killer.
The third plotline is arguably the worst offender in its familiarity, as Tom roping all his non-occupied coworkers into helping him setup his Rent A Swag store was nearly identical to when he had to move houses back in season two, only now with Ron in tow, and Chris taking the place of Mark (remember Mark?). The biggest difference is in how Tom treats everyone: he still works harder at bossing people around than actually doing anything himself, and is as stingy on providing food as ever, but this time, it’s because he’s trying to be a smart business man. With the lessons from Entertainment 720’s collapse perhaps a bit too fresh in his mind, Tom has gone from a mogul to a miser, and it’s only when Ann reminds him that Tom’s swagger (in moderation) is his best asset, that he upgrades his store from frugal dump, to fly wardrobe hotspot.
Tom’s storyline was typical in structure, but got mileage out of showing how trying your best not to fall back into old habits can cause you to lose sight of what are your truest qualities in the first place. Andy hanging up his shades as Burt Macklin certainly doesn’t mark the end of his infectious immaturity, but he’s going to have to grow up someday, even if his much younger wife has to lead by the hand to do it. The eradication of Crazy Leslie entirely would be more of a loss for the show than the character, because Parks and Recreation exaggerating character traits for the sake of a cartoony laugh can be a beautiful thing. When it’s not though, it can make you worry about season ten, when Leslie’s first act as president is the converting of Eagleton into the world’s biggest dog park, and Ron does nothing but talk about woodworking while wrestling a bear. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch that, but it wouldn’t be the Parks and Recreation I know and love.
- Stray Thoughts
-Crazy Leslie had me trying to spin connections to Carrie Matheson from Homeland all episode. Maybe it was brought on by a sample of WVYS’s “Jazz Plus Jazz”, which sounds an awful lot like Homeland’s intro music, and was by far the biggest laugh I had all evening.
-Eagleton always seems to bring out the cartoony side in Leslie, no doubt because it so often seems like the Shelbyville to Pawnee’s Springfield. Lil’ Sebastian would be the equivalent of the Lemon Tree.
-I love you Amy Poehler, but a mock ad for Canada Dry Ginger Ale is still an ad for Canada Dry Ginger Ale, and it felt horribly out of place.
-“Oh Hitler, you sexy bastard, no!”
-If you go to Eagleton, don’t try the Pawnee caviar.
-We will have to see the “Many Surrenders of Pawnee” mural at some point, it’d be a crime not to.
-Ben and Leslie’s wedding is scheduled for May. Save the (sweeps) date.Previous