“Parks and Recreation” – Ms. Knope Goes to Washington season premiere review 3

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Sen. John McCain goofing around in a coat room.

★★★★½

Even a weathered Washington bureaucrat and rescued P.O.W like  John McCain cannot resist the infectiousness that is “Parks and Recreation.” And as much as “Louie,” has filled the void between seasons with smart, sophisticated, and occasionally uproarious comedy—it’s not the same. “Parks” like the actor and politician above, is all smiles. Even when it captures feelings of inadequacy and insecurity as it did this week, the writers warm our hearts with community and friendship till we bounce back up like one of those wacky inflatable arm-flailing tube men at car dealerships. Side note: “Family Guy” fans will appreciate this clip, and so will any human being with a functioning funny bone.

While season four ended on a triumphant note, the realization of Leslie’s life-long dream, she made a sacrifice. Ben was offered a job working on a Congressional campaign, and after receiving some whiskey-smoked wisdom from Ron Swanson she gave her blessing. She hasn’t had a low-key, cozy relationship with Ben at all really. Either there was the threat of local government sanctions hanging overhead, or they were teaming up to win an election. Now they’re stuck flirting over video chat, with a prolonged hug at the Smithsonian the only affection they share. Not to mention the amalgam of dark-haired, smartphone power goddesses that threaten Leslie’s small-town sensibilities at a swanky cocktail party. Despite Ben’s best efforts to include her—like introducing Leslie to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), numbers 4 and 26 on her list of Amazing Women (I’m guessing Boxer is #4 since Leslie leans liberal, right?)—she doesn’t belong there, yet. While I feel her idealism and work ethic would be a refreshing climate change in the toxic environment of filibusters, super PACs and self-preservation, she literally does not measure up to these towering influences she dubs “Hot Rebecca.”

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Ron Swanson has his own reality check. While as viewers, we recognize his no-nonsense, wood-carving, meat-loving supremacy among TV’s most eccentric personalities, he’s far from the cream of the crop as a government employee. And while Chris Traeger respects his stubbornness in thwarting government intrusion, he also has grown impatient with his refusal to do his job with any dedication. Ron takes a huge step by assuming responsibility for throwing Leslie’s annual Employment Enjoyment Summerslam Grill Jam Fun-Splosion. His staff seriously doubts his ability to juggle all the traditions—a popsicle-eating contest, slip and slide-a-thon, gazpacho-off, watermelon carving and a one-woman show about the Parks rules and regulations called “Parks and Dolls.” Ron has no intention of living up to Leslie’s spirited extravaganza. In fact, it frightens him. He wants to return the event to its roots—a good ole fashioned barbecue. His philosophy is barbecues entail only one thing, good shared meat. “And best of all, there will be no f*cking vegetables. Amen to that, brother.

When Leslie arrives at the epicenter of her hopes and dreams, she’s giddy to see all the sites. Her companion, Andy (who is visiting April, who joined Ben as his intern), thinks everything is a “National Treasure” clue, not appreciating its value. When they meet up with their loved ones at the Smithsonian, April and Andy run off to “Um, we were thinking…we’re gonna go have sex,” and Ben bolts to one of his thousand meetings leaving Leslie to her cherished artifacts. Their chemistry hasn’t simmered at all—he suggests she see George Washington’s farewell address candle stand, her scheduled first stop, and she flirtatiously bids adieu to his tush—but it’s stalled at every turn by obligations and separate ambitions.

Speaking of, Leslie has a mission besides visiting her man. She intends to present a proposal for cleaning up the Pawnee River to a Mr. Jepsen at the Department of the Interior. Upon arrival, her enthusiasm shrinks when a receptionist says there’ll be no face-to-face. Instead, she can just drop her proposal in a bin, where it will sit atop an absurdly high stack. She tries to stand out, describing her presentation as including background music and a DVD, but she doesn’t even distinguish herself as a Pawnee councilwoman. There’s several other Pawnees scattered across the country.

At the barbecue, Ron kicks things off by introducing everyone to their meat—Tom, the pig. There’s always been a disconnect between Ron’s customs and those of modern society, but parents cringe as he tries to recruit child volunteers to help him kill their dinner. A ranger objects, so he hands the officer a “permit” that reads, “I can do what I want.” Nonetheless, he’s breaking a bunch of health codes and three different laws, so he walks off with Tom, confusing and insulting our good friend Tom Haverford, to buy frozen meat from his local mainstay, “Food and Stuff.”

In other news, the living arrangement between Tom and Ann that was teased at the end of last season, lasted all of a day. They have kept the charade going for some months though, so Tom will win a bet with Donna. If he loses, he stresses, he will go bankrupt. Chris provides a “Feelings Update” for Ron—if i know the Internet, someone is making a Twitter account or Tumblr page right now. The guests are antsy. So, he promises to speed up his process, though he insists their ways of meat consumption are primitive, still upset that they were not willing to look their meat in the eyes and consider the circle of life.

As alluded to, Ben gets the four of them into a elite Washington soiree. There, Leslie is condescended to by the “Hot Rebeccas” about local politics. One mentions their grandmother being a councilwoman, saying it gives her reason to get up in the morning. I liked this test for Leslie. While all last season, I enjoyed the glimpse into the comic goldmine that was local elections, it was depicted as a bigger deal than I recall them being in my suburban town that is more densely populated, I believe, than Pawnee. So, while I hate seeing Leslie’s determination and zeal squashed, the relativity of her victory is important. She has much further to climb.

After Leslie tears up in front of her female senatorial idols, she dashes to the coat room to cry. She confesses to Ben, “You’re the best boyfriend ever. And if you don’t get of of here soon, I’m gonna punch you in the face.” It’s frank, but believable. One of the foundations of LesBen (bringing it back!) is that they can be brutally honest. While Ben is more passive, he is attracted to Leslie’s assertiveness. And for her to hold back would be to flood the engine of their partnership. As she’s processing her emotions, John McCain grabs his coat, hoping not to disturb. Leslie, snaps at him, unknowingly, and sweet McCain continues to console. Where was that good-hearted man in 2008?

Ron drives off after his impatient staff complains too much—to be fair, Ann’s concern about plates was legitimate. We get the visual gag of the still-on grill being towed by his truck. Back at city hall, Chris lays down the hammer. He astutely reminds Ron of the point of this whole barbecue. Not meat, not puppet shows of the most hilarious email chain, but appreciating his coworkers. And if he wants to lead the department, he actually has to lead the department. Chris can be an excruciating ray of sunshine, but he is undoubtedly, the boss. Tom comes to work with glitter all over his face, a prank Ann pulled to get back at him for ruining her clothes. Donna witnesses them squabbling and decides to call off the bet. She can appreciate schemers when she sees them. Andy supports Leslie back in Pawnee, misusing the world amalgam, but still conveying that she may not be “Hot Rebecca,” but she’s “Kick-ass Leslie,” who never gives up. Inspired by Andy’s remarks, Leslie rediscovers her power within and vows to clean the Pawnee River by herself, two hours every morning. She can also be consulted for office hours. Leslie Knope, woman of the people.

This is the “Parks” I adore. A show with largely cartoonish characters, but they are grounded in human decency. This idea of the “surrogate family” is widespread on single-camera sitcoms, but “Parks” nails it because each member of the department has persistent flaws, and yet a drive to be better for each other. Ron is still not a frivolous man. His gesture of gratitude is to place corn and seasoned Tom meat on a table and to state, “Your work is appreciated.” However, Chris smiles and the gang is grateful. People may not change, but they have the capacity to care for others. Their inclinations to look out for themselves may get in the way, but these people recognize they need one another. And not to pontificate from the pulpit, but in times of such divisiveness, it’s just the remedy I need.

As you’ll see below, there was a great deal of glee and laughter derived from this episode. Especially from lovably, naive traveling Andy and barbecue connoisseur Ron Swanson. It was a gimmick episode, that felt in sync with the universe. It was on-location, there were high-profile non-actors, but there was a serious attention to authenticity. The development of Ron and Leslie flourished, and the seeds for lovely Ben and April story lines have been sowed. Also, the Tom and Ann—Haverkins—coupling is deceased. I never thought I’d be so happy to see a death on this show. It may have been clinging to life too long, but it served its purpose. Tom and Ann learned a lot about their romantic shortcomings (Tom more than Ann), and the writers took advantage of an unexplored pairing. LesBen’s last video chat was both hopeful and ominous, giving us great anticipation for both relationship strain as well as cuteness in the episodes to come. Welcome back “Parks and Rec!” Feelings update? I’m LIT’rally all warm and fuzzy inside.

L.O.L.Ls: Laugh Out Loud Lines

- Leslie: “Romantic reunions, government meetings, self-guided museum tours—I mean, am I living the dream, or what? I don’t know. Did I also just walk past a food truck and buy myself a waffle sundae? Yes!”

- Andy (referring to the Washington Monument): “Leslie, this is a really cool penis, but…”

- Ron Swanson: “Which one of you youngsters wants to help me drain the blood from this animal? If you do a good job, i’ll give you the bladder. You can blow it up for a fun play ball.”

- Ron Swanson: “These people are soft. They’re grill virgins. But by the time the day is over, they’ll have been taken by the grill and delicately and tenderly shown the ways of flavorful meat love. Mmm, the first time is so beautiful.”

- Leslie: “These women are so successful, and pretty. And tall. Why are they all so tall? It’s like C-SPAN and Neiman Marcus had a kid.”

- Ann (mocking Tom): “I put glitter in your moisturizer. I’m calling it, Sparkle Skin. Twinkle, twinkle, big star!”

- Chris: “My nomination was Jerry forwarding his bank statement to everyone. Classic! And depressing.”

- Leslie: “There’s only one sit I wanna see (Ben begins to turn around to show his butt). I meant the Jefferson Memorial, you perv!

- Andy: “The White House…most notably where Sinbad lived in ‘First Kid.’ The Oval Office is named after Oval Redenbacher, a popcorn maker who was friends with John F. Kennedy.”