‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘The Debate’: Pain don’t hurt

Senior Television Writer
04.26.12 110 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Parks and Recreation” coming up just as soon as I love it when you’re needlessly disgusting…

When actors write episodes of the shows they’re on, it can be a dicey proposition. Some “M*A*S*H” fans feel the show got too preachy in the final seasons when Alan Alda was so heavily involved in the writing of it, and most “Sopranos” fans shudder at the memory of the Columbus Day episode Michael Imperioli wrote. (His other episodes were better, but still felt a bit tonally off from the rest of the series.)

In two previous outings – season two’s “Telethon” and season three’s “The Fight” – Amy Poehler hasn’t given “Parks and Rec” fans any reason to feel concerned about her annual script. If anything, her command of the show and its characters – not least of all the one she plays – has given us a reason to be excited, and that excitement is completely justified by “The Debate,” where Poehler actually pulls triple duty as star, writer and director. It’s an episode that glorifies Leslie Knope, by letting her deliver a brilliant closing argument at the debate, but also embodies her, in terms of how smart and generous and warm it is. Leslie gets the big emotional moment, but everyone else gets a chance to shine, from the cast regulars to recurring characters like Perd and Joan to minor figures like gun-loving fringe candidate Fester Trim.

Trim was played by “Friday Night Lights” alum Brad Leland, and his presence and the “Hoosiers” gag when Leslie and Ben arrive at the debate site (Ben measures the height of the podium, just like Norman Dale made his players measure the championship game court) makes plain that this entire campaign story has been structured somewhat like an underdog sports movie. As smart and talented and decent as Leslie Knope is, she has no business competing with the Bobby Newports of this world in our dysfunctional political system, but she’s plugged away and plugged away to this moment on a big stage. And though the debate doesn’t start out as the slaughter Ben and Leslie were anticipating(*), it finishes that way when Jen Barkley makes one move too many, perfectly setting up Leslie(**) to simultaneously attack Bobby and proclaim her deep and unswerving love of Pawnee. A great, Capra-esque moment. 

(*) Following up on last week’s “West Wing” discussion, Leslie and Ben’s overconfidence reminded me of how the Barlet staffers felt leading up to the Ritchie debate. Difference is that where that debate went predictably, with Barlet kicking Ritchie up and down and the stage with his erudition – and somehow not turning off any voters with anti-intellectual leanings – in this one, Leslie was nearly hoist by her own petard because she came off as the bully. 

(**) Leslie’s insistence on going off-script at the end almost seemed like a bookend to the earlier “Hoosiers” moment: it’s her equivalent of Jimmy Chitwood shaking off Coach Dale’s play and promising, “I’ll make it.” 

And before Leslie’s speech, the debate playfully lampooned not only the endless string of Republican presidential debates over the last 57 years (give or take 55 1/2 years), but political silliness in general: the way fringe candidates like Fester Trim and Brandi Maxxxxxxx are briefly elevated to the same status as the real players (and, in Brandi’s case, the way they keep trying to attach themselves to the big boys and girls), the moderators inserting themselves too much into the discussion, the pathetic attempts to seem relevant by asking Twitter questions and other fluff(***), etc.

(***) Though I have to give credit to Bobby for picking Timothy Dalton as his favorite Bond. As I said during Dalton’s stint on “Chuck,” he gets a bad rap because his movies – especially the second one – were terrible, but you stick Dalton in some of the better films of the series and he’d be remembered as a terrific 007, IMO.

Beyond that, there were so many strong jokes spinning around all the players and all the parts of the debate: Chris Traeger as a superhuman spinmaster (asked what he would say if Leslie simultaneously farted and threw up, he responds, “Leslie Knope is literally overflowing with ideas for this town!”), Ron giving another vintage Swanson speech at the donors’ party and then singing “Wichita Lineman” while (temporarily) stealing cable, and, in one of the funniest things “Parks and Rec” has ever done, Andy acting out the plots of “Roadhouse,” “Babe” and “Rambo” while the cable’s out.

That last joke is clearly a favorite of Poehler’s, as she did a variation of it – Leslie summarizes the plot of a “Friends” episode when Detlef Schrempf is running late – in “Telethon,” but here the blend of joke, character and actor was just perfection, and demands an immediate reality spin-off where Chris Pratt does this on request. (I’m told that about 50% of the “Roadhouse” bit was improvised, and 100% of the other movies were.) Can’t decide which bit was better: Andy responding to the most infamous “Roadhouse” line of all by saying, “By the looks of this guy, that was not consensual sex!” or Andy misunderstanding the way in which Dalton’s throat-ripping move was lethal.

Even the supporting actor moments had time for sweetness, like April convincing Tom to drop his stupid swagger for a while by reluctantly listing the things she cares about: “I care about Andy and Champion, and I want Leslie to win, and I like sleeping.”

This episode is what “Parks and Rec” is all about, folks. Excellent stuff.

Some other thoughts:

* Only Leslie Knope would use Sarah MacLachlan for a pump-you-up mix.

* “You are here because you gave us money. Now we will give you ribs. Also, you will watch the debate. If you like the debate, you will give us more money. That is all. Ron Swanson.”

* Ann declines Chris’ offer to get back together, which leaves him ripe for the picking with Jen Barkley, assuming she meets his requirements. (“And is his penis normal?”)

What did everybody else think?


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