Season premiere review: ‘Parks and Recreation’ – ‘London’

A review of the “Parks and Recreation” season 6 premiere coming up just as soon as I build a scarecrow replica of you…

The Jewish holiday of Passover is way the heck down the calendar, but if ever an episode of television called out for the Dayenu treatment – referring to the folk song about all the great and miraculous things God did during the Exodus story, each of which would have been enough on its own (“dayenu”) – it is “London.”

If “London” had only featured Ron and Diane’s quickie civil service wedding, witnessed by a delighted April and a horrified but overjoyed Leslie (who calls the whole thing “a waking nightmare of happiness”)… dayenu.

If “London” had only featured Ron Swanson’s various dismissals of England (“Look! A clock!”)… dayenu.

If “London” had only featured April’s letter about what it’s like to be Leslie Knope’s friend and co-worker… dayenu.

If “London” had only featured Ron’s trip to the Lagavulin distillery, with Ron breaking down in tears as he recites Robert Burns’ “O were my Love yon Lilac fair”… dayenu.

If “London” had only edited together the April and Ron scenes into one mega-sequence of sentiment and beauty… dayenu.

If “London” had only introduced us to Peter Serafinowicz as the British royal equivalent of Andy Dwyer, thus giving Adam Scott twice as much reason for befuddlement… dayenu.

If “London” had only introduced us to Henry Winkler as Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa’s disappointed father, the mastermind behind Tommy’s Closet… dayenu.

If “London” had only given us April’s love of the Mongolian wolverine wrangler… dayenu.

If “London” had only given us Jerry’s discussion of lactation and nursing… dayenu.

If “London” had only given us the lady with the very specific slug complaint… dayenu.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Season 5 of “Parks” was a funny, sweet, perfectly entertaining year of television, but also one with the aura of a show a bit past its peak, gracefully settling in for middle-age and preparing for retirement. I was all prepared for the show to return at that level: something that made me happy to watch and write about every week, but not something that was going to provide the weekly thrill of, say, the Harvest Festival arc. And with Mike Schur splitting his time between “Parks” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” I know there was an understandable fear among the fans that “Parks” would suffer the same fate “The Office” did when Schur and Greg Daniels left to create “Parks.”

There is obviously a lot of season to play out after tonight, but “London” makes as bold a statement as possible about just how great a comedy can be in its sixth season. It is already one of my very favorite episodes of this great show, packed with so many of the things that have made me love it over the years, and with a superb balance of laughter and sentiment.
Ron and Diane’s wedding was a perfect distillation of the show’s silly-but-sweet ethos, and of just how well it understands its characters at this point, and how much joy it can mine from our understanding of them, too. We know that Ron Swanson is the kind of man who would build a canoe and his own ring box to propose marriage to his girlfriend, but also that he’s the kind of man – and Diane the kind of woman – to be completely satisfied by the world’s fastest civil service wedding. At the same time, we know just how much that Leslie Knope loves to overdo everything to make things as great as humanly possible for the people she cares about (see the trip she sent Ron on to the distillery as one of the best gifts she’s ever given), and therefore, how much it had to be killing her to have no control over this no-frills ceremony. Amy Poehler is wonderful at many things, but the way she plays comic, almost childlike, desperation is among my favorites, and it was the perfect note to keep the wedding from feeling too sappy.

And the rest of “London” very deftly mixed characters we know so well dealing with new life situations (Ann and Chris telling people about the baby), new characters blending seamlessly with pre-existing ones, personal stories, work stories, matters grand (a trip to England) with matters mundane (cleaning slugs off a sidewalk). It was able to do so many of these things because it was an hour, and because NBC gave them the money to film in England once Chris Pratt(*) committed to doing “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but hour-long comedy episodes are often half as good, rather than twice, just as vacation episodes often feel more like little more than an excuse for the cast and crew to go somewhere cool, story and jokes be darned.

(*) The show also addressed Pratt’s ripped new superhero physique with the very Andy Dwyer explanation that he just quit drinking beer for a month. (Even in the Instagram pic that set the Internet ablaze, Pratt said he stopped drinking beer for six months, on top of the usual Hollywood diet and workout stuff.) Note that in the opening scene, he is still very husky, having ballooned up midway through season 5 for a different movie role. All of Pratt’s material in that scene was filmed for last season’s finale – Andy’s mistaken assumption that Diane wants to talk to him and not Ron was a Pratt improv that was cut at the time, then reinserted here to create the illusion of Fat Andy before the London scenes (set two months later) gave us the new version.

This was something special, taking advantage of the long life of the show and our familiarity with the people in it, to tell some big emotional stories about Ron’s marriage, Chris and Ann’s baby and Leslie’s career crisis. It made me gasp with laughter at times (Jerry on lactation), made me choke up with joy at others (Ron in Scotland), and at times did both in the same scene (the wedding). It doesn’t get too sappy, or happy – Leslie’s London trip only increases her image problems, nor is her No Problem Too Small initiative doing anything but irritating the usual cranks – but there was still an optimistic belief in the world as a whole, which can encompass both the idiots of Pawnee and the cliffs of Scotland.

If “30 Rock,” “Cheers” and some other all-time greats didn’t say otherwise, I would suggest a sitcom in its sixth season (or older) has no business making an episode this good. But there is historical precedent, and I think when all is said and done, we’re going to have “Parks” in the comedy pantheon, too – along with many people discovering it years after the fact, puzzled as to why this wasn’t a big fat hit.

Instead, “Parks” has clung to life by its fingertips every season, and even awards recognition has been far more minimal than it should be. I don’t know if Schur was going for a meta comment when Ron told Leslie, “Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.” The idea of doing the work because the work needs doing fits the show’s ethos, and Leslie’s, after all. Week after week, season after season, “Parks” does its job well, whether the greater audience is noticing or not. And at times it goes beyond even its usual level, and we get to enjoy something like “London.”

What did everybody else think?