‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘Soulmates’: Me and you, Boo

A review of tonight’s “Parks and Recreation” coming up just as soon as we get in my go-go mobile…

I would say that 99% of “Soulmates” worked, and worked spectacularly well. It may not have had the sweetness of Andy and April’s wedding, or the scope of the Harvest Festival episode, but I think I laughed louder and more frequently at it than any episode so far this season other than maybe the flu episode.

The title story about Leslie being understandably horrified to be told by a dating website(*) that Tom is her ideal man was a wonderful showcase for both Amy Poehler and the long running gag that is Leslie’s bad luck in the romance department, and for Aziz Ansari, playing Tom at his most spectacularly douchey. Every time I thought Tom had become more horrible in this episode (“Fried chicken is ‘fri-fri-chicky-chick,” or his third wish being “They remake ‘Point Break.’ I play both roles!”), he kept piling it on. Ansari’s one of those actors with a real gift for somehow becoming more likable the worse his characters behave, and Tom’s delight at running with this particular joke at Leslie’s expense(**) was infectious. I could have watched many, many more scenes of Tom pretending to moon over Leslie, call her “Boo,” continue the jingle about Leslie wanting to date him, and generally gross out her, Ben, and the rest of the staff. And I loved Leslie’s ultimate solution – not just calling his bluff with an impressive kiss (“She knows what to do!”), but then deciding that the way to shut Tom up in the future is to send someone – her, Donna, possibly April in the future – to kiss him and freak him the hell out. Much, much fun throughout.

(*) Hoosiermate.com. Great fake website name. (Which NBC has of course turned into an actual fake website.) Possibly better than many of Andy’s band names.

(**) As I’ve talked about before, the second season tweaked Leslie’s character a bit, but just as important was how it tweaked other people’s reactions to her. Tom and April in particular seemed to take great pleasure in mocking Leslie behind her back in that brief, problematic first season. April has certainly come around, as evidenced by her declaration of love last week. As for Tom, the writers and Ansari have done a good job of not selling out his inherently selfish, lazy qualities while still finding a way for him to like and respect Leslie. It’s mainly because Leslie’s superhuman work ethic enables Tom to be Tom, but the relationship works, and that in turn allows for an episode like this where he mocks her at every turn, because it’s a real rarity these days.

The cow vs. turkey battle between Ron and Chris was similarly great: predictable as hell(***), but perfectly-executed. As with Tom pretending to be in love with Leslie, I could have easily watched an entire episode that was just about the field trip to the Whole Foods-esque Grain ‘N Simple, where Chris tried in vain to school Andy on the finer points of food (“What is this?” “A peach”), while Ron and April got to stand around and mock various and sundry. Similarly, the spartan Food And Stuff was the perfect Ron Swanson store – utilitarian in every way, down to it being equidistant from his home and office. And the resolution to the contest was classic Swanson: he doesn’t even need to try, because he understands that beef is just inherently so much tastier than a turkey burger that no effort is required.

(***) And I would say the one thing the show needs to guard against next season is letting Ron’s awesomeness swell to the point where he enters superhuman Fonzie territory. We’re not there yet – and hell, Fonzie was an awful lot of fun in the early years of “Happy Days” – but there was no point at which I didn’t believe Ron would wipe the floor with Chris.

So what was the 1% that didn’t work? The Ben/Leslie story – or, specifically, the reason for why it’s going to be drawn out. The actual flirtation between the two of them, and Leslie’s reaction at learning that Ben also likes the wildflower mural, was sweet and fun and demonstrated the usual chemistry between Poehler and Adam Scott. But putting the whole thing on an extended pause because of Chris’ strict anti-fraternization policy is just silly, the sort of thing that I hate on shows that draw out Unresolved Sexual Tension scenarios because they’re afraid of what would happen next. And it’s the sort of trap that Daniels and Schur have largely avoided, both on this show (where Andy and April had some obstacles, but nothing this artificial) and on “The Office” (where, again, there were natural reasons for Jim and Pam not to be together for a while).

And while I can appreciate the desire to be cautious with the show’s new budding romance now that Andy and April have been married off, I really don’t think it’s necessary. I think there’s enough built-in reluctance to Ben Wyatt as we know him so far that there doesn’t need to be an outside impediment. I’m sure he’s been burned by dating a co-worker in the past, or he’s freaked out about staying in one place for the first time in a long time, or something else that’s both inherent to his character and somewhat logical. Whereas doing it this way just screams, “You know they’re getting together eventually, and we know you know, so please just look the other way for X number of weeks.” And when you have to resort to that, you may as well just put ’em together now.

Still, that was one tiny part of another hysterical episode of what’s been a tremendous season so far. But so much of this season has been so perfect that the rare imperfections stand out even more than they would on a weaker overall comedy.

Some other thoughts:

• “Parks and Rec” has gotten a lot of mileage out of characters uttering profanities that then get bleeped, like Joan’s reaction to Li’l Sebastian, or Andy’s reaction to Ron’s shoeshine moan. Here, we got needle-averse Leslie cursing out Ann over the cholestorol test. The version of the episode I saw hadn’t finished post-production yet, so the curse went unbleeped. And while I’m usually a believer that this sort of thing is actually often funny with the bleeping (see “Action” on DVD, or “Arrested Development”), the shock of hearing Leslie Knope actually curse was so startling and funny that I hope some episode, at some point in the future, is available on DVD in a bluer version. (Ideally, it would be a random episode so no one would know it was coming, but then you risk people hearing it who shouldn’t, I guess.)

• Good to see Ann finally back on the dating horse, seemingly with a different guy in each scene, usually fitting some kind of macho archetype like her cowboy friend.

• Joe from the sewage department is the gift that keeps on giving, here with his “Toilet Party” nickname for his own office, then with him telling Leslie his standards for women: “She can’t be in a wheelchair. No canes, no grey hair.”

• The trip to Grain ‘N Simple had some amusing low-key follow-ups to the wedding, with April’s deadpan, amused “That’s my husband,” followed by her practically having to play mommy to her man-child hubby by telling him to get the pinwheel.

• Given Jerry’s increasing prominence, I’d started to wonder if the show had room anymore for a second punching bag in frequent shoeshine customer Kyle. Then the show had the genius idea to put Jerry and Kyle on the same hamburger contest judging panel, so we could finally witness Jerry in the position to be scornful of someone else. Poor, poor Kyle.

• Loved Tom’s incredulous description of his own Tom N. Haverford dating profile: “His favorite movie is books!”

What did everybody else think?