Parks And Recreation Review: “Ron And Diane” (Season 5, Episode 9)

As it’s the last review of the show you’ll see this year, let me just shout out one last time what it is that makes Parks and Recreation the best comedy on television, in case there’s anyone in the cheap seats who can’t hear: THE CHARACTERS. A couple weeks back, the writers paid little more than lip service to Halloween, a staple of sitcoms and dramas alike, because they had much grander designs for their episode, one based in some major personal progression for the show’s main character. A marriage proposal can be one of the fluffiest, laziest tricks a show can pull out of its ass when ratings sag, or ideas run low, but Ben’s proposal to Leslie in “Halloween Surprise” will be gracing the “Best Scenes of 2012” lists of many critics (spoilers: mine included), because it was a big moment emotionally, not just creatively.

But the points of major change have to be earned by finding room for more frequent baby steps along the way, and Parks has mastered that ability to always keep the character arcs moving, even just subtly. Chris, who’s been sidelined for much of the season, has a huge week based around things as simple as getting a grey hair, and drinking properly fatted eggnog. By his own admission, he’s a human microchip, one that lives his life according to strict discipline, and a fear of living outside the box he’s created for himself. His slow spiral into depression, and subsequent climb out of it, has been percolating in the background for a long time, so it’s something of a shock that it comes to a head this week, during the show’s holiday episode.

The Christmas episode is so engrained in the DNA of television, that it’s hard to do anything new with it, so Parks has never really tried, succeeding at just doing its own thing, regardless of when the episode is going to air. Like Halloween, the show hasn’t had a Christmas episode every year, and neither of the previous ones were focused much on the holidays themselves, instead using the season as an excuse for being even more heartfelt than usual, and throwing in some festive decorations for fun. So yes, the first thing we see this week is Amy Poehler in an elf costume, and two of the side plots take place at a Christmas party, but “Ron and Diane” was a great episode on its own terms.

While the title might put a tune in the heads of John Mellencamp listeners, longtime fans know that putting “Ron and” in the title can only mean one thing: Tammy II is back, and all hell is going to break loose. While Tammy’s return might put Ron on full alert, it also automatically raises the bar that the episode has to aspire to. Ron and Tammy’s tumultuous saga has been one of the best things to ever come out of Pawnee, specifically for how horrifying the chemistry between the two can get, thanks in no small-part to Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally’s real life marriage. The conventional wisdom is that off-screen relationships make for bad on-screen ones, so perhaps it’s because Tammy’s influence on Ron is more toxic than romantic that makes their pairing such a comedic gold mine.

Yet, as the name suggests, this isn’t called “Ron and Tammy: Part Three” for a reason, because Diane is in the picture. As his self-described, self-appointed emotional guardian, Leslie is pleased as punch that a chair Ron made has been entered into competition at the Indiana Fine Woodworking Awards, perhaps the only award Ron could ever reasonably care about. With his swell girlfriend on his arm, his unwanted, but valued friend at his side, and woodworking legend Christian Baseboard in the house, Leslie isn’t so much tempting fate as invoking it by declaring how great a night it will be for Ron, an instant before Tammy rears her head.

Like a seasonal storm, Tammy’s yearly quest to lead Ron right back into her clutches leaves a swath of destruction in her wake, but this time it’s Leslie taking the brunt of it. Having learned his lesson many times already, and emboldened by the presence of a strong, brunette dream girl, Ron successfully repels Tammy’s advances, even when she’s literally showing off her goods while he makes his acceptance speech. Parks and Recreation is one of the rare cases where obvious censorship makes for a funnier show, because Ron referring to himself as “Ron f*cking Swanson” is much more charming with a bleep. Megan Mullally’s mosaicked cooch is less charming, but it’s a hysterical gag that’s more than a little bold, particularly for how long Mullally’s nethers are on screen.

Seeing that Ron has mastered the art of Tammy self-defense, Leslie assures Diane that she won’t be a threat, but Diane then flips the script, and accuses Leslie of being the real interloper. I was initially thrown off by this turn, as Diane hasn’t been terribly well-established since we first met her (although we do learn she’s a Harry Potter fan), and the lack of romantic chemistry between Leslie and Ron is so apparent, even they think it’s a laughable thing to consider. But she is right to feel suspicious of how involved Leslie is in Ron’s life, and as Leslie comes to this realization, we see a developing theme for the season. Much like how April’s initiative in building a dog park caused her problems a few weeks back, Leslie, for all her well-intentioned meddling, is learning that an important step in helping others grow, is letting them become independent.

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