Parks and Recreation has long been the best comedy on network television, and only those who have failed to watch the show on a weekly basis could ever think otherwise. I can probably name more riotously funny comedies, both past and present – though the show’s 2011 third season could go toe-to-toe with just about any comedy year in terms of outright hilarity – but no television comedy being produced today is nearly as warm, heartfelt, infectiously optimistic, or rich with life and character as Parks. This is a show that makes its audience think, laugh, and even tear up on a mostly consistent basis, but moreso than any modern series, in any genre, it simply fills its viewers with pure, unadulterated joy, and in a media landscape dominated by increasingly dark storytelling, that is an extremely special quality none of us should take for granted.
This is all as true as ever before in the show’s sixth-season premiere, “London,” one of the very best episodes in the series’ entire run, and one of the best hours of television to air in 2013 to date. It encapsulates everything that makes this series wonderful, giving each and every character multiple fantastic beats to play, offering a steady stream of big, organic laughs, and following up on all the major arcs Season 5 left in play in the most satisfying ways imaginable. If there were ever a single Parks episode I could point to as one that fully embodies my love for the show, and all the beautiful, varied emotions it makes me feel as I watch, “London” would be it.
And while being this impressed by Parks and Recreation should never be a surprise, I will admit to being slightly taken aback by the sheer excellence of this hour, given not only its length – this is the first time Parks has done a double-length episode, but when The Office used to do them, those tended to be fairly weak, overly elongated outings – but also my own relative apathy about some of those aforementioned Series 5 arcs. I liked last year’s finale just fine, but none of the cliffhangers it left us with – Tom facing a rival clothing store, Ron’s girlfriend Diane becoming pregnant, and Leslie facing a recall vote – particularly hooked me. But Parks understands and services its characters just as well as any series on television, drama or comedy, and all those arcs, in addition to several others, proved in “London” to be absolutely terrific ways to continue exploring and enriching them as the series enters middle-age.
Leslie’s story in particular struck me as a wildly sharp way to test the character now that she has achieved so many of her dreams. Much of Season 5 was about the way her expectations for the City Council job were undercut by the difficulties of the position itself, particularly in regards to the sheer, overwhelming ignorance and, as April put it, “apathy” of many of Pawnee’s citizens. That has always been a point of humor on the series, of course – and continued to be here, as we heard the increasingly banal procession of citizen complaints at the start of the episode – but at a certain point, it would of course be frustrating to be in Leslie’s shoes and see all her hard work and enthusiasm be met with complaints and obstructionism at every turn.
So “London” lets Leslie Knope go to a bit of a dark place, relatively speaking, as she cannot help but vent her frustrations over Pawnee’s lack of gratitude as she accepts her prestigious award in London. It is a great, hilarious scene, but also emotionally affecting and satisfying, just as cathartic for a long-time viewer as it was for Leslie herself. But Parks is, at its core, a highly optimistic show, one that presents government and civil workers not as they are – useless, corrupt, and insular – but as they should be. And the ultimate message of London – delivered first by Ron, then hammered home by April in the hour’s emotional climax – is that while it is okay to be frustrated once in a while, giving up is never an option. The point of the job isn’t to win awards or earn thanks, but to make a difference, and whether the people of Leslie’s town uniformly love her or not, it is what she does, not how she is received, that ultimately matters. I doubt the real world will ever be nearly as idealistic as the world of Parks, but I cannot help but watch this episode and think about how much better our government would be if they took this immensely simple, and immeasurably profound, moral to heart. In this way, “London” is one of the best and most meaningful ‘political’ stories the show has ever told, and another great tribute to what a great protagonist the show has forged in Leslie Knope.
As for Ron and Diane’s impending child, “London” tackle that dangling thread right off the bat, in an opening scene that immediately entered the “Ron ‘Effing Swanson Hall of Fame.” Of course Ron and Diane would choose to get married immediately, with as little fanfare as possible – again, Parks’ grasp on its characters is unparalleled – but beyond feeling absolutely spot-on, that opening scene was just gloriously executed, a relentlessly paced, riotously funny, and amazingly emotional way to open the season. So many things are going on in that scene – Ron and Diane quietly basking in each other’s love, April being simultaneously sarcastic and happy, Leslie not knowing what to do with herself, Ethel Beavers doing her best to shoo them all away, etc. – and yet every single layer lands, from the funniest gags – Diane dryly joking about her middle-name being Tammy – to the heartfelt love that clearly underlines every character’s motivations. A perfect, symphonically rich opening, and only the tip of the iceberg, for both humor and emotion, where “London” is concerned.
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Tom’s story is, as most Tom stories are, a largely silly and comedic one, but extremely well-executed, bringing back both Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa for some of their funniest material to date, and introducing Dr. Saperstein, played wonderfully by the great Harry Winkler, as a new long-term nemesis. There is obviously much more still to come from this arc, but for now, what impresses me most is that the show has done so much good work maturing Tom over the last few seasons that, when confronted with all three members of the ridiculous Saperstein family, he organically becomes the adult straight-man of the subplot. I legitimately care about Tom and his business at this point, and I think seeing his relatively maturity contrasted with the sheer lunacy of Dr. Saperstein and his children makes for a very fresh, very funny comedic dynamic.
But the comic highlight of the hour is, of course, Andy bonding with his new, incredibly wealthy British friend – played fantastically by Peter Serafinowicz – while Ben looks on in confusion. Ultimately, this is all an excuse to take Chris Pratt off the show for a few months while he shoots Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy – also the reason this episode shot in London – but Parks has always been good at turning lemons into lemonade, and so what could have been a thin narrative workaround turned into one of the best Andy stories the show has done in some time. We not only receive a ton of great, warm laughs from the material in this episode, but also get to see firsthand the organic, understandable reasons Andy would choose to stay in London. As April says, this is an opportunity for him, and while I will be very sad to say goodbye to Chris Pratt for a good stretch of episodes, I am interested to see what this will mean for the character when he returns, and if his experiences in London change him in any notable way.
April, of course, gets the emotional highlight of the hour, as she cheers up Leslie by reading her the awards nomination letter, intercut with scenes of Ron, on Leslie’s instructions, travelling across Europe to reach the Lagavulin distillery. It is a great scene in so, so many ways – the cinematography on Ron’s European trek were absolutely stunning, especially considering this is typically a very visually modest show – not just for its moving, effective juxtapositions, but specifically because of how it positions April at the center of the scene. We have had many moments of emotional honesty from April before, of course, but I do think it is notable just how many scenes in “London” revolve around or heavily feature her particular, evolving personality – think also of the aforementioned scene with Andy, or Ron’s wedding, or multiple sequences with Leslie in London – and how crucial Aubrey Plaza is to selling each of those moments. Plaza is as gifted as a comic voice as anyone on this or any other TV show, but she is also a highly effective dramatic performer – see Safety Not Guaranteed for reference – and I love that Parks and Recreation is cashing in on that more and more these days.
Every other member of the ensemble, large or small, also gets their time to shine – Ann and Chris basking in the confusing joy of impending parenthood, Donna having Sherlock Holmes powers of perceptibility in recognizing Ann’s pregnancy, Jerry messing up by throwing a viewing party for Leslie’s speech, etc. – and from start to finish, “London” wastes not a second in using its expanded time to service every piece of this rich, beautiful fictional universe. Parks and Recreation has had episodes both funnier (“Flu Season”) and more emotionally powerful (“Fancy Party,” “Ben and Leslie”) than this, but I struggle to think of one installment that distilled everything the series excels at so perfectly. “London” is simply magnificent, and if this is what the show can still live up to six seasons in (the point at which The Office, in comparison, was careening off a creative cliff), I could not be more excited for whatever the show has in store, in whatever amount of time it has left. Six years later, Parks and Recreation has never been better.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous