When “Parks and Recreation” started out, it was “The Office” 2.0. Whether comparisons were fair or not (they did share producers/writers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur) it was a comedy founded upon the idea of hilarious interaction in the workplace. And once we came to know these characters and the dynamic they shared, the show was heralded by critics. It’s only natural then, that the TV critic community might would become weary of the potential for shaking up a successful formula. Leslie Knope is running for office, and as her adoring fans we would like to witness her triumph. But what would happen to the gang if she was a city councilwoman? For now, they are diligent phone operators and fundraisers, but how long can that last? Will it feel like the gang is playing second fiddle to the LesBen power couple?
This episode scoffs at that notion. Much of this episode’s charm was in the the B- and C-stories that showcased two of the most facially gifted, delivery-nailing comedic actors out there, Nick Offerman and Aubrey Plaza. Offerman’s Ron Swanson is not only my favorite character in current comedy, but he is a cult figure for his love of meat and breakfast food, his staunch libertarianism, and his intolerance for girlish men. Plaza’s April Ludgate has epitomized the ironic youth of today. She is the sarcastic observer who wants chaos to unfold so that she may mock its meaninglessness. Both not only execute their fan-favorite quirks with deadly accuracy this week, but they reach beyond themselves in moments of growth (eh, maybe baby steps) that provided payoff and pathos.
LesBen and the “Knope We Can” campaign kick off a series of focus groups in order to gauge Leslie’s appeal. Many seem to feel off-put by her perceived elitism. The snob in me would wish to defend Knope by pointing out that just because these folks have a fourth grade education does not make Leslie an elitist, but I will refrain from generalizations as I am above that. Damn, still pretentious. Well, at any rate, one comment particularly gets under Leslie’s skin: “She doesn’t seem like someone I would want to bowl with.” With a target in her sights, Leslie locks on Derek, or “Bowling Comment,” as her binder full of research describes. Ben, as boyfriend, teases her relentlessly about her obsessiveness. After multiple insistences that he can ask Ron how good she is at bowling he asks, “So I’m not sure I believe you’re good at bowling is there someone I could ask?” As campaign manger, he tries to reel her in. Strategically, the one vote doesn’t matter, and if she fixates on him she could lose votes instead. So, Leslie’s compromise is to sponsor a bowling night where she can schmooze with the voters and prove she is laid back (and a good bowler as Ron can attest too, apparently).
As Leslie tries to establish her public persona most of the gang is making calls to raise money. Jerry, for Twilight Zone-like reasons, has been put in charge and April, Andy, Donna and Chris are under his leadership. To liven up the “phone party,” Jerry incentivizes the task by offering the winner two movie passes for who ever raises the most. Chris’ eternal perk and knack for flattery seem like assurances he will win, but once he begins to celebrate his lead in the standings, April resolves she must win to “make his happiness go away.” Her efforts include creating a down-home country-fried southern belle voice, and she appeals to the Latino voters with her fluent Spanish (she is Puerto-Rican) through shouts of “Mira, mira, mira!” The competition is interrupted, however ,when Jerry lets it slip that his daughter Millie will break up with Chris. The unflinching optimist is unaware, believing they are about to move in together. When Millie comes over to take Chris “for a walk” the gang who has grown to care for him, even though just a year ago he was an outsider and threat to the Parks department, tries to warn him of the impending heartbreak, but unassuming he laughs off their subtle forebodings.
Ann, Tom and Ron join LesBen at the bowling night, much to Ron’s delight. The restaurant inside the alley is his favorite in Pawnee. It serves only hot dogs and hamburgers, but Offerman’s glee shrouded in mustache suggests that is all Ron truly needs. In contrast, Tom (Aziz Ansari) arrives with pomp and circumstance. For all my cinephiles, he dons a black version of the satin scorpion jacket sported by Ryan Gosling in “Drive.” Ron continues to relish in his simple values, regardless (referring to Ann, as “Girl” was particularly authentic). Tom shakes that foundation to the core though when he bowls two-handed, “granny style,” and scores a strike. Ron is outraged that such an embarrassing display could result in success.
Despite Leslie’s spinning her inability to “let go” into a popular event, she hadn’t buried the hatchet. She sent Derek an invitation in the mail and when she spots him, she immediately swoops in to challenge him to a friendly game and a hot plate of wings (she creepily smiles at the camera saying she totally knew he’d loved them, pointing at her binder). She lets the man win, and even strokes his ego along the way, which in itself seems very anti-Leslie, but this guy really got under her skin. She outlines her issue with Ben saying that she can’t control being a woman, or being short, or blonde, but she can control her perception. She NEEDS Derek to perceive her as fun. Once Derek wins with only a mediocre score, Leslie springs on him the question about his vote. He still won’t vote for her. Leslie, then tries to earn his vote saying that if she can beat him fair and square he will guarantee his vote. Ben, during this whole fiasco, is extremely frustrated, wishing Leslie would take the opportunity to face-to-face with more people, but what makes him perfect for Leslie is he says his piece and then falls back, letting his love make her own mistakes.
Once she absolutely slays Derek in bowling she tries to be civil and say, “Hey, seriously it’s been fun, and I hope I can genuinely count on your vote.” Then, Derek replies, “Sure, I’ll write-in Bitch.” Outraged, Ben goes COMPLETELY out of character and punches the man in the face. He instantly apologizes, but Leslie is impressed! And who can blame her? Despite her feminism and opposition to violence, she found out her love can protect her and that’s not something she should regret, it’s something she should cherish. But in the public eye, it’s something she should apologize for. To avoid Derek pressing charges, she intends to save face (pun intended).
Here begins the laundry lists of reversals the episode elicits. Although, “Bowling for Votes” is brimming with jokes that hit upon specific beats as opposed to hitting on a level of general wit and charm, our quirky and even lovable friends in Pawnee don’t remain static. They learn from their mistakes, they feed off the emotions of their friends, and they realize that who they need to gratify first is themselves.
For Ron, “Bowling with two hands is embarrassing” Swanson, Tom’s inevitable victory is not an option, it is an aberration that should be ignored, but for posterity’s sake he must prevent it. He sabotages Tom by jamming his “fing-y” between two bowling balls. He suspects he won’t be able to bowl the last frame. When Tom perseveres and hits enough pins with just one hand, Ron is visibly distraught. In the very last scene, he takes his baby steps by showing up in sunglasses, marking his name as “Man” and bowling Tom’s way. In hilarious, yet predictable manner, he bowls a perfect game. The manager asks for a photo to put up on the wall, but Ron assures that he was never there and walks off. Of course, he shouldn’t have been embarrassed for the tremendous achievement, but to acknowledge that another’s way might be better is like asking Ron to change his entire fabric of being. It’s progress Ron can’t possibly sustain, but memorable for his effort.
April, likely surprised the most when, in a moment of weakness, she offered condolences and a gift to Chris. In the aftermath of the breakup, Chris never came back to make calls and April won the movie tickets. Feeling as though he might need support, and perhaps feeling guilty that she wished for his happiness to go away, she approaches him reticently. Once at the office, he represses his pain. He tries to dip into his well of positive thinking, but comes out empty and dry. “But here’s why it may be the greatest thing that ever happened…” When he just stands there, she offers him the tickets out of pure kindness, suggesting maybe he use them to join her and Andy at the movies someday soon. Nobody with any sense of April would believe she didn’t care about at least some of these people, but to see her take a shine to her emotionally polar opposite (the man who loves all vs. The woman who is always “meh”) was quite a departure. Both Ron and April have these facades, these masks they wear for their own amusement and protection, but here the masks are removed and the likable, decent folk emerge.
Leslie’s reversal occurs to her in mid-apology. She shouldn’t apologize for something she’s deemed awesome. She may admit too much in revealing how much they “made out after,” but the message is understood. She loves Ben, and when Ben stood up for Leslie by clocking a jerk who called her “her second least favorite word for a woman” she felt protected and honored. Turns out, the focus groups love that kind of gusto to stand up for what you believe in while risking that others may not stand behind you. This may seem like an all-to-easily-swayed voting population, but stranger and more arbitrary aspects have won a candidate elections before. Most importantly, Leslie gained a better understanding of the sort of candidate she wants to be, separate from what is “electable.”
Leslie’s arc can largely be viewed as a metaphor for the show. No one can ever accuse the ensemble of “Parks and Recreation” of being inauthentic. Some weeks Andy may seem too much of an idiot, Tom may be too showy, and Leslie can be too manic about a project (Ron could never be too much of anything, it’s all gold). And while moderation, range and/or subtlety are great practices in human behavior and in television, what make the Parks gang a fun group to be with is that they never disappoint. They are flawed, but they never fall shy of expectations in the terms of being themselves. If the campaign trail doesn’t change Leslie, than why should we worry the show’s essence will change. With no “wow” factor in terms of a slapstick tipping point, and without much of the electricity of of other recent episodes with joke frequency this might come off as an off-night. But for allowing Leslie to rediscover the personality and spunk that made that made her such an unstoppable public servant and a compelling candidate while shining the spotlight on Ron and April, two of the show’s more distinct contributions to the comedic canon, I can unapologetically call this episode “awesome,” an A-.
L.O.L.Ls: Laugh Out Loud Lines:
– “Oh I don’t know Jerry. It’s Sunday night, I’m making phone calls to strangers and you’re in my house. My night couldn’t be worse.” —April
– “I choose to support Team Knope. Because they’re the best. Everyone’s the best. We’re all winners.” —Chris
– “When I eat, it is the food that is scared.” —Ron Swanson
– “Son, people can see you!” —Ron Swanson
– “You can’t eat the biscuits if you don’t pay for the flower!”
– Andy, in response to hearing Jerry say Millie is going to break up with Chris: “Wow, that’s gonna be super weird when they move in together.”
– “I’d like to introduce you to my good friend, anyone else.” —Ben
– “What Champion? You need to go out now? Oh, sorry he hates awkward situations.” —Andy