‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘The Flu’: Leslie Knope and the Chamber of Secrets

My review of tonight’s “Parks and Recreation” coming up just as soon as I mist myself with hand sanitizer…

“That was… That was Leslie Knope.” -Ben

The day of the season premiere, someone asked me on Twitter what “Parks and Rec” episode I’d recommend to someone who had never seen the show before. I threw out a few options (as I recall, “Greg Pikitis,” “The Camel” and “Sweetums”), but wasn’t committed to any of them as THE episode you need to see to appreciate the show’s genius. In fact, over the next half-hour, various Twitter followers threw out other possibilities that I agreed were just as good an intro as my three choices, if not better. (Though it depends on what you’re looking for. “Ron & Tammy” was arguably season 2’s funniest episode, but was so crazy and Ron-centric that it doesn’t really convey what the show is like week-to-week.)  That there wasn’t an obvious consensus choice is a testament to the consistency of the show last season. There were a couple of episodes I didn’t love, but overall the quality level was so high every week that you could pick an episode at random and have excellent odds at finding a gem.

All of which is a long preamble towards me saying that if I was asked that question today, I would have an easy answer: “The Flu.”

And it, again, isn’t necessarily that “The Flu” is head and shoulders over anything that’s come before. It’s that it’s so good in so many of the ways “Parks and Recreation” is great. It spotlights so many different characters, has warm moments for Leslie and Ben or Andy and April, has commentary on the way things get done in small town politics… and at the same time is just spectacularly funny.

I have watched the jump-cut montage in Chris’ hospital room approximately 79 times since I first got the DVD, and I have not failed once to laugh heartily at Rob Lowe snarling at his own reflection, “Stop… pooping!” (That’s the scene I was referring to in my pre-season review that made me forgive Lowe for quitting “The West Wing.” They may, in fact, be the two greatest words of Rob Lowe’s career. Discuss.) Chris’ panic over his compromised microchip was a tour de freakin’ force for the elder Lowe brother.

Similarly, Leslie going insane from first the flu and then an overdose of flu medicine was just a superb use of Amy Poehler. “Character A is sick and in denial” and “Character A is under the influence without realizing it” are pretty stock sitcom plots – this show did a variation on it last year with the Poehler-scripted “Telethon” – but the execution was flawless, from Leslie licking Jerry’s stuff as revenge for being quarantined, to her silly walk when she thought the wall and floor switched, to her addressing the poster with “Good evening, everyone. I’m Leslie Monster, and this is ‘Nightline.'”

And what made all the hallucinatory silliness work was that there were real stakes to it. Leslie was being ridiculous because she’s Leslie, but also because there’s a crisis, and she’s best-equipped to solve it, and when the time came for the actual presentation, she drew upon her superhuman energy reserves and knocked the speech out of the park, Kirk Gibson-style. Chris vomiting in drawers and begging for electrolytes was just a goof (albeit a hilarious goof), but the Leslie stuff mattered – both for the Harvest Festival and for the evolution of her relationship with Ben, who finally seems to understand just what it is Ron and everyone sees in this daffy lady.

(And that in turn inspires a scene that explains, for at least a little longer, why the two budget experts will be sticking around Pawnee even after their work is allegedly done.)

But beyond the huge laughs provided by our two flu victims, “The Flu” gave most of the cast a chance to shine in both sweet and funny ways.

It was a strong episode for Rashida Jones, as Ann had to both suffer April’s bitchiness and take perverse pleasure out of Chris’ suffering. And April’s sickness in turn brought Andy and Ron together(*) for a storyline that brought out the goofy side of both men (“You had me at ‘Meat Tornado'”) as well as Ron’s need for some actual male companionship in a department with a lot of women (“…and that includes the men”). We’ll see if that carries over in the future, or if Andy’s hug ruined it.

(*) Alas, without any mention of the awkwardness over Ron’s third shoeshine of the day in “The Camel,” which prior to “Stop… pooping!” was the show’s most enduring laugh-generator for me.

And given all the other wackiness, I can see Tom’s end of things get lost in the shuffle, but that was a nice little collection of scenes not just for its understanding of the charm of Aziz Ansari, but for showing that Tom does, in fact, provide value to the department, even if he seems like nothing but a lazy horndog. In a town like Pawnee, you need your Leslie Knopes to work and work and work (fueled by $1000 worth of waffles, which I imagine is tastier than $240 worth of pudding) to get things done, but you also need your Tom Haverfords to grease a few squeaky wheels, you know?

Just a strong, funny episode on virtually every level. Last week’s ratings were, unsurprisingly, a series high, and I can only hope that word of mouth spreads and more people realize they should leave NBC on after “The Office” ends because man, is this show cooking with gas right now.

What did everybody else think?