‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘Time Capsule’: Twilight time

A review of tonight’s “Parks and Recreation” coming up just as soon as a fish ends up dead in a cowboy boot…

“Parks and Rec” does many things consistently well, but the show has a spotty track record integrating high-profile guest stars. Megan Mullally was fantastic as the second Tammy Swanson, and I liked John Larroquette as the guy who got away from Leslie’s mom, but other season 2 guests like Will Arnett and Andy Samberg never quite fit in during their episodes.

Some of that speaks to the great ensemble this show has and how well the regular castmembers work with each other – I’d rather see some unexpected combination (say, Ben and Donna) than deal with an outsider(*) – but also to the show’s sweet, semi-goofy tone. Yes, there are a lot of strange people in Pawnee, but some of the guest stars come in and seem too strange even for this place – and that includes tonight’s guest spot by Will Forte.

(*) I should also say that I differentiate between one-shot guests and people in recurring roles. Louis CK was fantastic as Dave the cop, I liked Justin Theroux, and Rob Lowe has been tremendous in a role that was originally planned as an extended guest stint. It seems that the show does a better job integrating characters who are going to stick around a little while.

I tend to run hot-and-cold on Forte in general – his style is so intentionally strange that it’s going to be inherently uneven, and sometimes you’ll find one piece of weirdness hysterical and other times you’ll be baffled by another – and here I definitely kept wishing someone would cut through his handcuffs already so we could move on to other things.

And I was right to feel that way, because the instant Kelly agreed to go home so Leslie could help him impress his daughter, “Time Capsule” turned back into the show I love.

Those town forums – or, as Ron aptly calls them, “crackpot conventions” – are money in the bank every time the series goes there, and this one was no exception, from the return of Leslie’s nemesis from the gay penguin episode to the guy trying to start a chant in favor of preserving his cat’s ashes. By the time we came back from the April/Eduardo scene to see that they now were now discussing the idea of many, many, many time capsules, I had a hard time wiping the smile off my face for the rest of the episode.

And what I like is that, through Ben’s take on the town, the show gets to have its cake and eat it, too. It can make fun of the lunatics and demagogues who show up at these forums while also having Ben admire the level of their passion, which in turn inspires Leslie to come up with a solution that everyone can live with: a mostly(**) videotaped document of this ridiculous meeting.

(**) Which led to one of the better Jerry-mocking moments of late, when Leslie makes sure to complain about Jerry by name in the note to future generations. And speaking of which, Leslie’s been on quite the run of scapegoating lately, hasn’t she? Last week she tried to blame Ann for the fake date idea, and here she blames Ben for the meeting before writing the “a man named Jerry Gergich screwed up the recording somehow” note.

And I should say that I didn’t hate all of Forte. Kelly getting Tom into the “Twilight” books was a funny running gag (even to me as someone who’s deliberately ignorant of all things “Twilight”) and Forte, Aziz Ansari and Retta played off each other very well in the impromptu book club. (Anytime Tom is suddenly enthusiastic for something, it’s a chance for Ansari to shine.) But there was a marked improvement from the episode’s Forte-heavy first half to its more traditional second half.

Tom’s interest in “Twilight” also helped lighten up the scene where Lucy explains why she broke up with him. I like Natalie Morales a lot, and though she didn’t have a whole lot to do over her four episodes, I thought she fit in well and want to see her back, so I’m hoping Tom can get over his Wendy issues soon.

And the episode also cleverly dispensed with Eduardo thanks to some Chris/Andy team-up action. Outside of their shared history with Ann, you wouldn’t think  of those two as a natural duo but, again, good things seem to happen when you mix around the pieces of this ensemble, and here I liked seeing Chris’ superhuman enthusiasm levels struggle in the face of Andy’s proud, open mediocrity. And in the end, “nice” + “band” was really all it took.

Because I didn’t really dig all the Forte stuff, “Time Capsule”(***) was definitely my least favorite of the batch NBC sent out in advance, and even it had a pretty terrific second half. And buckle up for the next few because… well, you’ll see.

(***) Which, by the way, was filmed last out of the six from the spring because the plot provided so many opportunities to hide Amy Poehler’s very pregnant belly, but was always planned to air at this point in the season.

What did everybody else think?