I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who feels that season four of “Parks and Recreation” just isn’t as uproariously funny as it used to be. My counterargument would be, you’re right, it’s a hell of a lot funnier.
Though I’m no student of comedy—I’ve taken a sketch comedy class, but my forte is fiction—I know that a large percentage of what makes something funny is by how much it surprises you. That would be the “I’m Ron F**king Swanson” moments. In the early going, we weren’t as familiar with these characters, but we knew what made them stand out. Then when the writers fleshed out those quirks, developed backstories and provided them with dimension, we all fell in love with the Pawnee parks department. Now the game has changed. In season four, we no longer need those shocker quotes that make us cover our mouths because the laughs are leaping out of our chests. It’s precisely our familiarity with who these people are that makes us smile for the full 22 minutes.
Was there any doubt Leslie would knock this out of the park? Hell, was there any doubt she would underestimate the simplicity of her prospective constituents? Pawnee is infamous for being “fourth in obesity, first in friendship,” but they have to be among the the worst in critical thinking as well. They are suckers, sorry to say. But that also means they can be easily swayed when Leslie finishes with an impassioned speech that felt like a desperate football coach rallying his players at halftime. Pawnee had lost their way, and Leslie reigned them back in. They are sheep, but they’re her sheep. And while reason would say she could do much better than an city council seat in this town, she is just as irrational. And dammit, she wants it bad. As Amy Poehler (who wrote and directed this episode) so eloquently phrased it, she may “care too much” and “push too hard,” but it’s only because she wants the best for her town. It angered her to see what she loves threatened, and Pawnee deserves better than to be beholden to a corporation when it’s individuals who give a damn like her, that make it great.
I could go on for days on that speech alone, not only in terms of its effect on the show but concerning its relevance to our current times. It’s one of those awe-inspiring moments you need to see for yourself to understand and appreciate. So for the love of all that’s holy, watch the dang episode if you haven’t already and I’ll guide you through what else made “The Debate,” and what makes this show, special.
Our cast is split, as has become the standard since the campaign began, into three factions. Chris, Ann and Tom comprise “the spin team” who handle all media inquiries during the debate. Chris’ enthusiasm for life makes him a superb addition to the team. He spun Ben’s hypothetical scenario that Leslie vomited and audibly farted on stage into “She’s literally overflowing with ideas. And speaking of methane have you heard her plan to reduce greenhouse gases?” Tom is less enthused to be working with Mr. Traeger since Ann and him are kaput after he gave her an inappropriate shoutout on The Douche’s radio show. As I predicted (that faint trumpet you hear is me tooting my own horn), Chris makes a move on Ann, but she seems to think he’s romanticizing what their three-month relationship was really like.
Tom sabotages his co-spinners with his negative answers and Ann pulls him aside. Obviously, he’s bitter about the breakup, but Ann’s right to call him an ass. Tom takes the advice April gave earlier and admits that it’s an act, and that he needs to “cut out the swagger” as April had put it. He speaks from his heart and shares that she makes him nervous because she’s so out of his league, but that he would do anything to get back together. By the end, Ann rejects both Chris and Tom, maybe only because she needs to stop dating for like, ever. She has had a lot of rotten luck.
The development that most excited me though was that they went back to the well of putting Tom and April’s heads together. Come to think of it, they both have fronts—Tom’s is flashy, April’s is disinterested—because caring isn’t cool. April comes clean, telling Tom that she cares about Andy, Champion, Leslie winning and sleeping, and I’d be psyched if they continue to feed off each other and grow as a result. Both are lovable when they choose to be, so it’d be great to see them open up, let people in, and expose their true selves. Reading that, it seems more sitcom-y then most “Parks” material, but when you have so many people who are easy to root for, why not give them a chance at victory.
April, Andy and Ron are in charge of the donors’ viewing soiree at April and Andy’s place. Trying to fit in, Andy makes phony claims about his “investments” and April does her hysterical rich person laugh. Ron gives a frank and deliberate introduction and Andy realizes he forgot to pay the cable bill, so watching the debate would prove rather difficult. While April tries to talk to the cable company (a nod to fellow NBC comedy, 30 Rock, their provider is CableTown), Andy reenacts scenes from his favorite movies: Roadhouse, Rambo and Babe. Of course. His rendition of Babe has his audience captivated and leaves Donna in tears. My favorite part is when Ron saves the day by stealing someone’s cable. Him strapping on his tool belt, climbing up the telephone poll and pressing himself up against it so he can hide from passing cop cars was a treat. It didn’t hurt that he sang a spirited few lyrics from “Wichita Lineman” either. Anytime Ron can show off his assorted handyman skills is preferable, in my opinion.
Leslie, however, and her fellow debaters dominate this episode. Paul Rudd does an extraordinary job of filling the role without overdoing it and drowning out small players like moderators Perd Hapley and Joan Calamezzo, and the ripped-from-the-headlines fringe candidates. Poehler’s SNL background was evident here as she indirectly parodied some of the more laughable Republican hopefuls that we’ve watched extensively over the past year. There’s Fester Trim (played by Friday Night Lights vet Brad Leland), a gun enthusiast and owner of Gunbelievable Gun Emporium who has a plan for assault rifle vending machines. Sure you do. There’s also Brandi Maxxxx, an adult film star who continually stains Leslie’s reputation during the debate by comparing herself to Leslie. Lastly, there’s Manrico Della Rossa, an animal rights activist who equates rubbing your hands on a leather jacket to murder. Poehler’s direction capitalized on the episode’s format with sharp cuts between random snippets from each candidate that out of its proper context sound ludicrous—such as Bobby struggling to pin down his favorite James Bond, “Daniel Craig! No, Timothy Dalton.”
Jennifer Barkley seems confident going in that Bobby is in a win-win scenario. Either he’s able to speak coherently and not cry and the pundits say he did surprisingly well (probably a reference to the low expectations of Sarah Palin in the VP debates of 2008). There’s also the possibility he crashes and burns and he earns the public’s sympathy. She isn’t far off when Leslie opens by saying Bobby wants to “buy your vote” and the audience turns on her when he says the soundbite,” hurt his feelings.” He follows up saying, “I want do a good job because I like it when people think I do a good job.” This gets a raucous reaction from the crowd and Ben is dumbfounded. Barkley alludes to a “surprisey wisey” and Bobby undoubtedly does deal a big blow. He claims that because Leslie has an anti-business agenda, Sweetums, Pawnee’s premier provider of candy and jobs, might move to Mexico.
Ben, as her advisor, suggests she cut her losses and not risk hurting her image anymore by attacking him. But Leslie has that look in her eye, that burning desire to seize what she wants and bulldoze over anyone that stands in her path. So as her boyfriend, Ben assures Leslie that she can crush him. And wow, did she crush him. Like his little juice box. Even Bobby can only exclaim, “Holy f**k, Leslie, that was awesome.” The most salient point he’d made all night.
Afterwards, during the celebration, Bobby runs over to Leslie yelling “We did it!” and he invites her to his dad’s lake house for an after party. When Ann, Ben and Leslie all look back at the camera in disbelief it’s an amazing comedic move that also works as an indicator of how, as always, the show reflects the audience’s investment. We feel what these people feel and vice versa. It’s a rare feat in any T.V show, but even rarer for a comedy, to achieve this level of intimacy. Sweetness may have been the strength of “The Debate,” instead of astonishing us with its onslaught of killer lines—though there was plenty of material for me to weed through for L.O.L.Ls— but it was triumphant, soulful and spectacular. It may not have been what you were expecting, but it’s just what the doctor ordered. Some of my favorite lines were more adorable than amusing. When Tom told Ann, “Vote for me, to be your boyfriend” it was too frickin’ cute. And when LesBen repeated “I love you and I like you” to each other I couldn’t suppress my “Awwwws.”
Amy Poehler’s script took an impossibly pivotal moment and surpassed any expectations with a genuinely moving and touching take on politics, and proved yet again how loyal and dutiful the “Parks and Recreation” team is to the Pawnee parks team. I am unashamed to say that even if it wasn’t the funniest, I’ve felt more during and for this season than I’d imagined I could. So while no particular scene surprised the hell out of me and made me fall out of my seat laughing, what did sneak up on me was how much that didn’t matter.
L.O.L.Ls: Laugh Out Loud Lines
– Ben: “You can debate Newport in your sleep.” Leslie: “I have.” Ben: “I know. We sleep in the same bed, it’s been hell.”
– Ben: “You are going to rip his spine out with your teeth, chew it up and gargle with it.” Leslie: “I love it when you’re needlessly disgusting.”
– “I recently invested in some shirts I got at a garage sale. Left those at Wendy’s on the way home. Ha, the economy.”
– “Hello, 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.”
– Brandi Maxxxx, the adult film star: “And just like Leslie, I know what it’s like to be in a room full of men.”
– “Little Bobby, I’m not gonna clean your room no mas.”
– “And we all know the better looking a park is, the more attention it gets from lady parks that want to have sex with it.”
– “I’m an American, my father is an American, my mother is an American. My godfather is the viceroy of the principality of Lichtenstein.”
– “I was in favor of closing the Borders bookstore, not the border in Mexico.”
– “I guess my thoughts on abortion are, you know, let’s just all have a good time.”
– Jennifer Barkley: “Quick question. Does that Chris Traeger guy have a girlfriend, and is his penis normal?” Ben: “Stop talking.”
– “How do we fix this town? I have no idea. You tell me. That’s what I’m counting on, you telling me.”