Parks And Recreation Review: “Pawnee Commons” (Season 5, Episode 8)

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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