‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘Campaign Shake-Up’: The woman behind the curtain

Senior Television Writer
03.01.12 56 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Parks and Recreation” coming up just as soon as I eat egg salad with Colin Powell…

After last week’s misstep, “Parks and Rec” was back in fine form with “Campaign Shake-Up,” which suggested my problem with “Sweet Sixteen” had less to do with the campaign itself than how it was used.

Because Paul Rudd isn’t available every week (though he’ll be back for three episodes at the end of the season), the show needs a surrogate figure for Leslie and Ben to deal with on a more regular basis. And Kathryn Hahn – available after the quick cancellation of “Free Agents” – as Jennifer Barkley makes an excellent stand-in villain. Jen is much smarter than Bobby – and Leslie and Ben – but she fulfills a similar moral role. She’s not evil, just unapologetic in her desire to win at all costs, and her utter cynicism serves in excellent contrast to eternal optimist Leslie. As hyper-competent as Leslie is, it’s fun to see her and Ben have to struggle against a more talented foe – so talented, in fact, that she starts helping out Leslie just a little to keep things interesting (and to mess with her head) – and to be in a clear underdog role once again. The way “Campaign Ad”(*) ended, Leslie had a pretty clear path to the win against this spoiled nincompoop, and now it’s very much an uphill climb again.

(*) I thought it was a nice touch that one of the first things Jen does is to turn the brilliant ad from that episode on its head.

That story also gave us a few fantastic minutes with the great Carl Reiner, who’s still got it even as he approaches his 90th birthday. The whole bit about his brother Leslie who survived losing the middle third of his body in a motorcycle accident was largely improvised by Reiner, and I’m told that Amy Poehler and Adam Scott couldn’t stop laughing at the phrase “good-looking flat man,” which is why that bit cuts away so abruptly. As Ben says, senior citizens are the real power bloc in this kind of election, and if you need a funny senior citizen, it’s hard to do better than Alan Brady himself.

Meanwhile, if the B-story had given us nothing but the never-not-funny running visual gag of how the citizens of Pawnee drink from water fountains(*), it would have been enough to invoke my old Dayenu rule and make it a success. But beyond that bit of silliness, it dealt semi-seriously (before getting wonderfully silly) with the state of the parks department sans Leslie, and it continued this season’s touching stealth arc about April being reluctantly pulled into adulthood. It also gave us a brilliant Ron talking head about his sixth birthday (“They were delicious”), and Ron having to pretend to like Ann when convenient (“Nonsense. We are close friends”). Water balloon fights are kind of inherently funny when they involve adults, but this was a particularly well-orchestrated bit of mayhem, with lots of amusing little touches (Donna hosing down a miserable Jerry, Tom hiding under a desk and screaming “Everything I’m wearing is suede!” over and over) before we got the payoff of Chris’ Andy’s kamikaze attack on Chris.

(*) One of those people, seen in the background of Ann’s talking head about the phenomenon, was Jesse Heiman, a very busy (and memorable) professional extra who spent five years in the background of “Chuck” as silent, creepy Buy More employee Fernando.

Some other thoughts:

* I liked the callback to Leslie’s Joe Biden fantasies from “Operation Ann,” but that episode established that her celebrity sex list has at least two other names (Ryan Gosling and Sam Waterston) on it. In addition to Leslie getting flustered and weird while discussing Biden, there was also a fine running gag about Leslie either being turned on by Ben’s small body (his “taut, narrow frame, like a sexy elf king”), or else trying to convince herself that size doesn’t matter.

* Running behind both Bobby and Leslie in the polls: Brandi Maxx (the porn star who appeared on Perd’s show with Leslie in “Jerry’s Painting”), Fester Trim, and Manrico Della Rossa. As mentioned in my “Bowling for Votes” review, the writing staff spends a lot of time coming up with fake names.

* Speaking of silly names, is this the first we’ve heard that Perd Hapley is actually Perderick L. Hapley? Either way, his idiocy – he is to Leslie and Ben as they are at this point to Jen Barkley – and literalism continues to delight, here with him marveling at the concept of “a foot in a mouth?”

* Loved “The Graduate”-style shot of Ron through Chris’ upside-down legs, and Ron’s discomfort with everything having to do with Chris’ exercise regimen and need for physical contact.

* Based on previous results, I’m still not in favor of the Ann/Tom relationship, but if they can limit it to 15 seconds or less of Ann hating both him and herself for dating him, I can live with it.

What did everybody else think?

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