Parks and Recreation’s most recent, and most ambitious, season ended with what by the standards of this show is a “cliffhanger.” With Leslie Knope actually winning her City Council race and her boyfriend Ben Wyatt being offered a job working on a congressional campaign in Washington DC, this meant that the central dynamics of the show had the potential to be changed more dramatically than usual.
There was some very minor suspense. Would Leslie really leave her beloved Parks Department for a City Council seat? Would Ben accept the job and move away? Would Leslie and Ben still be together at the beginning of the season? etc. etc.
This being Parks and Rec, these questions were answered by slightly re-shuffling the puzzle pieces of the show but mostly maintaining the underlying character dynamics. This was something of a stunt or gimmick episode (again by Parks and Rec standards) in that most of it took place not in the purely fictional Indiana town of Pawnee, but in Washington DC, where Leslie was going to visit Ben and Andy was going to visit April, whom Ben had inexplicably hired as his assistant. I believe this was the only episode of the show ever filmed even partially on location. The other stunt/gimmick was a few cameos by real life Washington politicians: Senators Barbara Boxer, Olympia Snowe, and John McCain.
In keeping with the show’s weird, frictionless politics, there was no real satirical point to any of these cameos. Barbara Boxer is one of the more stalwart liberal Democrats of the Senate and Olympia Snowe is a moderate northeastern Republican, but the only point of them being there was that they’re both powerful, successful women (Nos. 4 and 26 on Leslie’s List of Amazing Women!) and Leslie is flustered by meeting them. Similarly, when an attractive young woman is introduced saying “I work for Eric Cantor,” the point is merely that she has a cooler job than Leslie. The fact that she’s working for the architect of Republican Congressional obstruction is incidental, continuing Parks and Recreations’s trend of becoming more and more a show set in the world of politics that makes no real comment on politics whatsoever.
The premiere also continues the show’s other big trend of taking Leslie farther and farther away from Season One’s “Michael Scott in local government” conception of the character. By this point the character is pretty much a hyper-competent saint whom the other characters almost worship. So, though Leslie gets flustered and overwhelmed a few times throughout the episode, there’s no real tension. There’s no question that by the end she’ll be making a long distance relationship work with Ben, while also singlehandedly working on cleaning up a dirty river in Pawnee by herself, because those bureaucrats in Washington are never going to get around to it.
Still, the show is pleasant enough to watch as a “hang out show,” with a diverse array of likable characters played by an able cast, and the episode delivers a few solid laughs. The first big laugh comes near the beginning when Leslie contrasts Ben’s day of high-powered accomplishment with her day where her biggest accomplishment was that she “was mistaken for Beverly D’Angelo by a Japanese tourist.”
When Leslie is freaking out she also gets a good dig in about DC’s unbearable weather, saying “It’s 120 degrees with 200 percent humidity because this is a stupid swamp town.” Seriously, it’s a town that has a lot of other things going for it but I have no idea how humans live in that climate. There are also a good number of laughs to be had with Leslie taking Andy on a serious tour of DC’s historic sites and Andy believing that all of the information he got about DC and about American history from the “National Treasure” movies is true.
Meanwhile back in Pawnee the show has to deal with the other big fallout from the way the previous season ended. Since Leslie won the City Council race and could no longer be head of the Parks Department Ron Swanson, surprisingly, accepted Chris’s job offer to replace her there. This development, and the way the show dealt with it, shows that Ron’s character has changed almost as much as Leslie’s since Season One. Early on, Ron Swanson was an astute satire of people who hold extreme libertarian views but paradoxically work for the government, and who seem to have come to those views not out of any profound philosophical conviction but mostly out of laziness at their job. Nowadays, Ron is basically just another gruff but lovable type, though played with great charisma (and an awesome mustache) by Nick Offerman.
The Pawnee plot as usual is a reference to Leslie’s hyper-competence and how much everyone around her depends on her. Apparently every summer Leslie has been throwing a big summer barbecue that her staff looks forward to with great anticipation, the Leslie Knope Employment Enjoyment Summer Slam Grill Jam Fun-Splosion. The responsibility for the summer event now falls to Ron, who can’t possibly complete with all the fun, thoughtful things Leslie brought to it, like the “gazpach-off,” and a musical called Parks and Dolls.
Ron has a more bare-bones and meat-centric approach to the festivities, refusing even to serve the customary corn. (As someone who grew up in Indiana I can tell you that this detail is completely unrealistic. Even the most carnivorous Hoosier loves Indiana sweet corn in the summer.) When Ron’s plans to slaughter, butcher, and barbecue a live pig in a public park prove to run afoul of any number of local ordinances, he drives away in a huff, the grill hitched to the back of his car still smoking. But, because this is Season Five Ron Swanson and not Season One, he’s ultimately both considerate of the feelings of his subordinates at work and deferential to his boss and unlikely friend, Chris, so he eventually serves his charges a spread of corn and (already barbecued) pork at the office. All is well.
The other loose thread from last season the episode had to deal with was Ann and Tom’s unlikely romantic relationship. The show probably makes the right call by having them be broken up, though they pretend to still be together because of a running bet with Donna. In a relationship or not, the show is still having trouble figuring out what to do with Ann and how to make her funny. Rashida Jones is an attractive and pleasant presence on my television screen, but the show hasn’t really found a good comedic angle for her in awhile.
All in all, despite the splashy cameos and change of locale, “Ms. Knope Goes to Washington” was a fairly typical episode of Parks and Recreation: charming, pleasant, and a little bit funny, but lacking any real edge.