‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘The Bubble/Li’l Sebastian’: Give a little swivel

And so we’ve come to the end of a fantastic third season of “Parks and Recreation.” I interviewed Mike Schur about the season, and I have a review of these final two episodes coming up just as soon as it’s double-coupon night at the strip club…

“I don’t know. When I look at my life right now, it feels almost perfect.” -Leslie

Fictional characters only say things like this right before things about to become very imperfect. And, certainly, Leslie Knope seems like she could be headed for big trouble next season, as she ponders a run for elected office while maintaining a secret relationship with Ben.

At the same time, though, I look at “Parks and Rec,” and the show itself is pretty damn perfect. They were hitting on all cylinders as season two ended, and then we got those fantastic first six episodes of season three. At that point, I began to fear that perhaps the magic would have broken while Amy Poehler was having her baby and everybody else was on hiatus, but the 10 episodes produced this season have been pretty terrific in their own right. In the interview with Schur, we talk a little about the idea of the show being on a hot streak, but most streaks are in some sense fluky. Joe DiMaggio was a great hitter, but there have been better hitters and nobody in the modern era has come closer than 12 games to his famous hitting streak. This is not a fluke; this is a show with a lot of talented, funny people in front of and behind the camera who have all figured out how to maximize each other’s gifts. There’ll be a flat episode at some point – every great comedy has them from time to time, even during peak periods – but it won’t be a case of the creative team suddenly losing their batting eye. These people know what they’re doing.

Case in point: one of my few complaints about this season came a few weeks ago with the introduction of Chris’ anti-dating rules as the excuse to keep apart obvious lovebirds Leslie and Ben. I rolled my eyes at that, as it seemed a pretty cheap contrivance to separate two characters who seemed made for each other. But the show really only kept that going for four episodes, the last of which (“Road Trip”) had so much fun with the ways Leslie tried to follow the rule that I had nothing to object to.

And now that they’re together, these last two episodes make it clear just how much comic mileage there’s going to be in showing them trying and largely failing to keep their affair a secret.

With their focus on Leslie and Ben, “The Bubble” and “Li’l Sebastian” made a more obvious double-feature than last week’s two episodes, and I like how the scale of the disasters increased as we moved from the first half-hour to the second. In “The Bubble,” the potential damage seems contained to Leslie’s mom Marlene, who – while somewhat ruthless and also passive-aggressive in her relationship with her daughter – doesn’t seem likely to rat them out based on what we’ve seen of her in the first two seasons. There’s plenty of opportunity for both Adam Scott and Amy Poehler to be amusing panicked and/or horrified, but the potential damage is minimal. But making a falling-domino mess of Li’l Sebastian’s memorial service? That’s something that could easily turn not only the town, but the viewing audience(*) against them.

(*) It’s really amazing how well Dan Goor’s “Harvest Festival” script built up Li’l Sebastian into this well-established, legendary, beloved (and well-endowed) figure. His script for the finale felt like it was calling back to a character that had appeared in at least 5 or 6 episodes over as many years. The tension between Sebastian-worshipping Ron and Sebastian-apathetic Ben in Ron’s office (“What was that tone?!?!”) alone was worth the price of admission.

“Li’l Sebastian” felt like it had both the scope and the out-of-control but not frantic style of “Harvest Festival,” somehow mixing Tom and Jean-Ralphio’s new company, Andy’s songwriting, Chris’ mortality fears, Jerry’s literary pretentions and the Ben/Leslie secret all into a single event that escalated in both complexity and potential for screw-ups. And, in the world of “Parks and Rec,” what screw-up could be greater than burning off Ron Effing Swanson’s mustache?

But even before the memorial torch lit up Ron’s face, both episodes featured plenty of great Ben/Leslie hijinks, with my favorite probably being the two of them forced to squirm and listen to the pocket-dialed voicemail of their very true-to-Knope role-playing (“And this is how Eleanor Roosevelt would kiss…”). These two are really funny together, and though the show can’t/shouldn’t drag the secret out forever – mainly because I would feel sorry for open-book Leslie Knope to have to keep her happiness inside for that long – I think they can go quite a while into season 4 with them trying to keep things quiet. (How long were Dave and Lisa dating in secret on “NewsRadio”? A full season? More?)

At their upfront earlier this week, NBC announced that the show would move back to 8:30, where it made one kick-ass comedy bloc with “Community” last season. It’s not ideal for the show’s ratings, obviously, but if NBC is realistic in their expectations for that 8 o’clock hour, nothing will make me happier in the fall than to watch Leslie and Ron following Troy and Abed, you know?

Some other thoughts:

• Leslie prepping Ben for the meeting with Marlene felt very much like Ann prepping Leslie for her first date with Dave back in season two. I also feel that they extended the gag about Marlene trying to seduce Ben just the right length; it was funny, but it didn’t go on so long that you couldn’t believe neither Ben nor Leslie would say something, even under these circumstances.

• Loved the storyline in “The Bubble” about Chris making sweeping, stupid changes to the parks department, which not only featured an extended trip to City Hall’s disturbingly hilarious fourth floor, but a marvelously minimalist running gag about Ron swiveling away from all the citizens coming to complain to him. Nick Offerman is so brilliant at stuff like that.

• Speaking of the fourth floor, I particularly enjoyed Dana Gould (who was on the season two writing staff) randomly wandering into Tom’s office/crime scene to smash a coffee pot and declare “Tell Mort I said, ‘Your move.'”

• Oh, Jean-Ralphio, how I love you and Tom douching it up together. (Tom listing all the different shades of “black” was priceless.) Entertainment 720 is going to crash and burn for so many reasons – not least of which is because Tom has to come back to work and Ben Schwartz is doing another show – but it’s going to be fun watching it while it lasts. Plus, the return of Detlef Schrempf! (Who, of course, is still probably the only professional athlete Tom knows of.)

• Leslie’s balloon-filled welcome for Ann in “The Bubble” teaser was terrific, and it seems like we have yet another peripheral character in her frustrated her new office-mate Stuart.

• Ron’s first wife Tammy finally makes an appearance – sort of – but all we know is that she’s named Tammy and that Tammy II is scared spitless of her. Schur was pretty mum with the details in our interview; I’ll be curious to see what kind of character they go with.

• In the interview, Schur talks about the balance between reality and insanity in portraying the city and citizens of Pawnee, and I thought a good example of how the show makes that work was the scene where Chris is diagnosed with tendinitis. Chris is pretty much a cartoon character, yet when the doctor had a very real, deadpan reaction to Chris’ boasts about living to be 150, it all fit together nicely. Now, do any of you want to see Chris try to woo Ann again? He clearly seemed re-interested after contemplating his own mortality and the idea of dying alone, but he’s now unintentionally humiliated her twice.

• Of course Andy would take Leslie’s “Like ‘Candle in the Wind,’ but 5000 times better” instructions very literally. And, of course, he would do a more formal proposal to make April his manager than I suspect he did when he asked her to be his wife. (Unlike Tom’s new gig, I imagine managing Mouse Rat is something April can do while still fulfilling her duties as Ron’s assistant.)

• Is it possible that everything that is wonderful about both Ron Swanson and the show as a whole can be summed up in the line “If you know one thing about me, it would be that I prefer laying wreaths to lighting torches”? If you know one thing about me, it is that I believe that is entirely possible.

So go read the Schur interview, and then tell me, what did everybody else think?