Review: ‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘Filibuster/Recall Vote’

“Parks and Recreation” came back from a short break with a double-feature tonight, and I have a review of both episodes coming up just as soon as I find some amazing new conflict-free paella recipes…

“Parks and Rec” is a fundamentally happy, optimistic show. That is an enormous part of its charm. No matter how bad the odds, no matter how ridiculous and obstinate the opponent, Leslie Knope finds a way to get things done and help people. That’s why I figured she was going to win the election two seasons ago – and why Mike Schur said he was leaning that way for most of the year, even if there was a lot of debate in the writers room – and why I assumed she was going to come from behind yet again and win the recall election.

Instead, she loses – enormously – thanks in large part to her own principles, since she insists on fighting for the voting rights of Eagletonians even after they make it clear they will be voting for one of their own (who turns out to be Ingrid) rather than her.(*)

(*) One of the bigger flaws in “Filibuster”: once Leslie announces the Eagletonians’ plan to the entire council chamber, why does Jamm insist on trying to stop the filibuster? At that point, it’s in his best interests for the motion to be tabled. 

And though it’s a downer of a result, it’s probably for the best for several reasons. First, it’s a surprise on an older show that shouldn’t be able to surprise us much at all these days. Second, Leslie’s decision in “Filibuster” makes it into a noble failure – she sacrificed herself twice over for Eagleton, and knowingly got screwed for it the second time – rather than simply a triumph of Pawnee’s more cartoonish forces of evil. (The Eagletonians vote against her not because they hate Leslie, but just because they’d rather have Ingrid.) Third, the idea of Leslie trying to accomplish a political career’s worth of initiatives in her final 30 days in office should be fuel for some fun and/or inspiring stories over the next few episodes.

And finally, while there have been some entertaining episodes built around Leslie’s job on the council (“Article Two,” for instance), overall that part of the show encouraged the writers to do too many stories inspired by present-day politics. It’s something the show had done well before Leslie was elected, and something the show has done very well at times, but on the whole, it’s been one of the series’ more consistently inconsistent storytelling devices. A spoof of the Wendy Davis filibuster really doesn’t fit here, even if it involves Leslie wearing ’90s clothes and rollerskates and inspiring all sorts of filthy Ben Wyatt fantasies. Regardless of whether a viewer might agree or disagree with the political point of view(**), it just doesn’t play to the strengths of the show, because it’s no longer really about Leslie and Ben and Ron, but about the real story being referenced and/or mocked.

(**) Let me remind you again of the No Politics rule for this blog. I’m not going to discuss the substance of the Davis filibuster here – nor the Voter ID law controversies Jamm’s scheme also touched on – and neither are you.

“Recall Vote” had a B-story that was also ripped from the headlines, albeit from outside the realm of politics, as Erinn Hayes played the Pawnee equivalent of Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, I happen to think that that Goop and other celebrity-created lifestyle services are kind of ridiculous and worthy of mockery, but it was so close to the real thing that I got the initial joke and kept waiting for the show to move beyond it. Throwing Ron into the middle of this absurd world was fun – “I regret everything” was my favorite line from either episode – but after a while, that joke wore thin, too.

The best parts of both “Filibuster” and “Recall” were character-specific ones: Ben cheering on (and lusting after) Leslie even as he missed his own party, Tom hearing Ron’s advice but forging his own path with the Rent-A-Swag sale, Ron getting addicted to Big Buck Hunter (in what I think is the first-ever Ron/Donna story the show has done, and hopefully not the last), April putting Andy back into a cab with sandwiches made with cookies instead of bread, Chris doing a terrible Andy impression to cheer up April, beautiful Ann Perkins demonstrating the place where a best friend is more useful than a husband, etc. “Recall Vote” was the more satisfying of the two because it was more focused on Leslie – and on letting both Amy Poehler and Adam Scott once again play drunk, which they’ve both done very well before on the show – while leaving the Hayes character in a subplot.

I think the place the episodes leave Leslie, emotion-wise and plot-wise, is an interesting one, and I’m very happy to have the show back for a couple of weeks (another double-header next Thursday, then off til January when “Community” is also back), but I’m hoping that future trips to Pawnee are more about Pawnee and less about offering a funhouse mirror reflection of the very real world outside of it.

Some other thoughts:

* For all the talk of the show being on a hiatus for the last few weeks, there are always a mix of reruns and pre-emptions throughout the season for a broadcast network show, and the end result here is that only 9 episodes will air before 2014, rather than the originally planned 10. And that in turn means one fewer week off in the new year.

* The delay did, however, mean that we got the Halloween episode in mid-November, and also got two episodes with costume parties aired back-to-back, which also allows for some easy comparisons. Ann as Blossom was more amusing than Ann as Red Riding Hood for instance, and while Leslie’s early ’90s gear was fun in and of itself, her doing a couples costume with Ben as Buttercup and Westley from “The Princess Bride” gets the win.

* A break in “Guardians of the Galaxy” filming allowed Chris Pratt to return for an episode, and for the show to acknowledge the very probable outcome of Andy not knowing what he’s doing with his job. The only problem with April’s “fake it til you make it” advice is that her husband is so dumb (if lovable) that there is no guarantee of him ever getting past the “fake it” stage.

* We also got one more appearance from Tatiana Maslany, in an episode that provided a stronger sense of what Nadia sees in Tom, and why they might be a decent match if she’s available to come back later in the year.

* Bravo to Kristen Bell for Ingrid’s Stewie Griffin-style pronunciation of “hwaffles.” (Bonus Stewie: “Hwil Hweaton.”)

* Big fail by me for not noticing in the last episode with Trevor that his law firm is named “Babip, Pecota, Vorp & Eckstein,” which is the sort of baseball nerd reference you would expect from a show that employs all three founders of Fire Joe Morgan (plus FJM contributor Matt Murray, who came up with the law firm name with Mike Schur). For those who don’t get it, the first three are acronyms for various baseball statistics – Batting Average on Balls In Play, for instance – or analytical tools, while the latter is gritty, gutty former infielder David Eckstein, the sort of player sabermetricians find overrated by traditional sports analysts, and who cheerfully played along with the gag, Bob Loblaw-style, in an video.

* Ann used to fantasize about kissing Cockroach from “The Cosby Show,” which led me to discover the existence of a site called Huxtable Hotness. The internet is the best.

* A disappointment from Ron’s latest stint on “Pawnee Today”: no mention of the time he filled in for an incredibly drunk Joan, and was so good that the program was briefly retitled “You’re On With Ron.”

* Garry Gergich’s office nickname changing from Jerry to Larry is apparently a permanent thing: April tells Andy to start using it, and even the scripts now refer to him as Larry. Not a fan of this particular decision; as I said when it started earlier in the season, it’s a bridge too far, even considering how mean these people already were to the guy.

What did everybody else think?