A review of tonight's two “Parks and Recreation” episodes coming up just as soon as I keep a local binder maker on retainer…
Unlike several other of this season's double-features, “Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer Goes to Washington” and “Pie-Mary” weren't linked by theme, or story. They were just two terrific installments of “Parks and Rec” that complemented each other by showing the very different kinds of stories the series has been able to tell.
“Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer” is another cameo-filled road trip episode, with Leslie and April's journey to Washington bringing them into contact with Barbara Boxer, John McCain, Kirsten Gillibrand(*), Cory Booker, Orrin Hatch, and Leslie's hero (and Washington BFF) Madeleine Albright. But other than Albright, the politicians are just local color, and the main thrust of the episode is a Leslie and April story. And what's what interesting about it is that it's presented largely from April's point-of-view, which allows us to see the very scary downside of having a friend and mentor as intense as Leslie Knope. There are times when the show acknowledges that being Leslie's friend isn't all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everywhere – like the episode where Ben and Ann compete to get her the best gift – but never quite as starkly as this. I felt genuinely bad for April for much of the episode as she tried and failed to muster the nerve to tell Leslie the truth, and again when Leslie got mad when she finally did tell her. (Though I was also amused that Leslie was so invested in her mentorship that she said Ben was dead to her for helping April look for other jobs.) Leslie is 95% the greatest human being to appear in any scripted TV show, but the other 5% can be tough to live with; sometimes, “Parks” tries to ignore that part, or act like it's not a big deal, but “Ms. Ludgate-Dwyer” was more effective emotionally and comically for confronting that aspect of her head-on.
(*) This has nothing to do with the episode, but given the slim odds of Gillibrand appearing on another show I review, I have to take this opportunity to link to a photo of Gillibrand and a young, helmet-haired Connie Britton as friends in college. Mrs. Coach, y'all!
Because so much time was devoted to all the senatorial cameos, it's also the rare episode with only two stories, which in this case were essentially two halves of the same story, with the gang in Pawnee all coming together to look for a job for April. I'm always happy to see more of Barney and the other accountants and their hero-worship of Ben, and if Andy shooting fireworks at Barney while wearing an April mask was on the stupid end of the spectrum even for him, the whole thing was worth it for the hilariously mortified looks on Ron and Ben's faces when they learned that, after all their effort, April didn't want the job.
“Pie-Mary,” meanwhile, was a type of episode “Parks” has had mixed success with over the years, where Leslie and/or Ben are flummoxed by the irrational anger coming from one or more slices of Pawnee life. Some of the show's most satisfying episodes have fit this mold, going all the way back to the gay penguin wedding episode from the start of season 2, but there have also been times when it feels like the show is taking too much pleasure in using a machine gun to take out an annoying fly. The various special interest groups being lampooned in “Pie-Mary” are silly to varying degrees – the Chris Gethard character complaining, “Men have had a very rough go of it for just recently!” pretty much sums up my feelings on MRA – but it worked here because of the way all the competing agendas overlapped to create an even bigger headache than Leslie and Ben were expecting. (The men's rights advocate getting annoyed with the feminist-hating woman who agreed with him was a nice touch.) I wish we could have gotten more of a payoff to Ben's calzone-as-pie conceit, but this one worked well overall. We're presumably heading for a finale where both Leslie and Ben have jobs in D.C. (her with the dream promotion in the Department of the Interior, him as a member of Congress), and the show is having some fun on the way there.
Also, “Pie-Mary” offered two separate but slightly intertwined trips down memory lane, with Ron in full giddy puzzle-solving mode – complete with that wonderful Nick Offerman grin and weird bow-legged run he does when Ron is too excited – to help April figure out where she re-hid his old office key, and Donna and Garry catching up on old times while he tries and fails to fish his keys out of the courtyard grate. The latter is pretty thin, plot-wise, but was a very sweet (and, as Garry kept dropping things, very funny) curtain call for the two long-tenured parks staffers, while the former functioned well as both comedy and a callback to the time before April and Andy were TV's strangest-but-cutest couple.
Only two weeks to go, folks. I thought I was ready, but this season has been so damn good, in the tradition of “Frasier,” “Cheers” and other long-running classic sitcoms that had a creative resurgence at the end.
Some other thoughts:
* “Pie-Mary” is the first episode of the show directed by Greg Daniels since season 2's “Hunting Trip.” Schur has been running the show day-to-day for a long time, but it's nice whenever Daniels can be hands-on with the show he co-created.
* I loved every single thing about Ron's brothers working with him at the Very Good Building Company, from Ron waving the other brothers away to keep Ben from seeing them to Don not having any idea that Ron spent years working for the parks department. And the great thing is, you can't really question if this fits into series continuity, because the Swansons are so fanatically private that any previous Ron statement about his family composition can be dismissed as a lie.
* Please tell me someone on the “Parks” crew with a musical inclination and a lot of free time actually recorded at least one song for Booker and Hatch's fake Polynesian folk band Across the Isle. Please.
* We get a second name for one of Leslie and Ben's triplets in “Pie-Mary.” The girl is Sonia, and one of the boys is Stephen – presumably named after Justices Sotomayor and Breyer. I'm told a line of dialogue referring to the other boy as Wesley – a (more traditionally spelled) “Princess Bride” tribute – was deleted from another episode, so you'll never hear the name said aloud.
* Jen Barkley's fear and hatred of the triplets remains a strong running gag, first with her being proved correct in wearing the poncho, and later with her sitting on a tarp while advising Leslie and Ben to just apologize.
* Mike Patterson is a relatively new addition to the Pawnee/Eagleton media horde, but I really like the name of his punditry show: “No, You're Wrong!” His show was also a good opportunity for final season cameos from Marcia Langman, her husband Marshall, and Leslie's frequent imitator and unwanted ally Brandi Maxxx, “star of '69 Jump Street' and '50 Shaved Old Gays.'”
* More minor characters getting one last turn in the spotlight: Harris and Brett, formerly of Animal Control, appear to be squatting in the City Hall basement, while Councilman Milton has relocated Andy's old shoeshine stand to his office.
* There should be an even longer Producer's Cut of “Pie-Mary” on NBC.com and Hulu tomorrow morning. For a taste of it, here's Ron and Craig at the Harvest Festival.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org