A review of tonight’s “Parks and Recreation” coming up just as soon as “NCIS: Los Angeles” isn’t going to watch itself…
“We only have one chance to make a second impression.” -Leslie
Though “Harvest Festival” was the first episode produced after the long hiatus, it was very much of a piece of the six episodes filmed the previous spring, and the capper to what’s been the series’ creative high point so far. So “Camping” feels like the true beginning of season 3.1, and as such has an appropriately meta question at the center of it: after Leslie (and the show) has done a career-best piece of work, what in the world can be a satisfying enough encore?
And though “Camping” isn’t the farcical laugh riot that “Harvest Festival” was (or as funny as “The Flu” or “Ron and Tammy 2”), it’s still a very satisfying episode in its own right. At one point, Chris tells Ann that he’s never moved this slowly before, and it’s something of a slow and contemplative episode for both Leslie and the show – albeit one where your definition of “slow and contemplative” has room to include jokes about German muffins, luxury dog parks and the brief but still welcome return of DJ Roomba. (DJ Roomba lives!)
The turning point for this series came (in the season 1 finale “Rock Show”) when it began taking Leslie seriously as a person, and since then the writers and Amy Poehler have grown very deft at marrying Leslie the superhuman bundle of energy and optimism with Leslie the likable friend who has hopes and fears and vulnerabilities like everyone else. I thought “Camping” was a particularly lovely example of that. There are jokes about her dreaming of marrying Alf and trying to do an all-nighter with Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” on a continuous loop, but there’s also a logical explanation for why she doesn’t just go back to the plan of building a park behind Ann’s house(*), and that scene of Ben giving Leslie a pep talk – “Then you wouldn’t be Leslie Knope” – as they look at the gorgeous view generated by the pollution from the Sweetums factory.
(*) God, I remember those shaky early days of the series when many viewers were asking, “How can you do a whole series about building a park?” The show has come a very long way, baby.
And while Leslie was having her brief crisis of confidence, we got tons of funny little grace notes for the other characters: Tom living it up in Thunderdome (and explaining to Ben how he can afford all these toys), Ron trying to get out of hearing Jerry talk about his sexual history, April hating nature so much she tells a babbling brook to shut up, and Ron telling a scary campfire story with a punchline about a woman having to get her car inspected by the state. I also loved Adam Scott’s deadpan reading of, “Yeah, she died, like, 20 minutes after that” at the end of the horrifying tag scene.
And beyond that, the show brought Chris back to Pawnee in a way that felt only slightly, vaguely forced. And given how much I enjoy Rob Lowe’s presence in this world, and how the other characters interact with him, I’m good with that. Here we got more of Ann’s long, hilarious mortification, as she again failed to properly read Chris’ signals, tried to kiss him at dinner, then moaned, “I have to move, right? Yeah. I have to leave the country. Bye, everybody. Bye.”
Leslie may be worried about having to live up to the legend of the Harvest Festival, but “Camping” was a sign of the strong shape “Parks and Recreation” is in as it heads into whatever stories we have for the rest of this season. (And then, thankfully, for the season after that.)
What did everybody else think?