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Parks and Recreation: “The Debate” (4.20)

TV Reviews Parks and Recreation
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Parks and Recreation: “The Debate” (4.20)

Amongst the many changes that occurred between the first and second seasons of Parks and Recreation, one of the larger ones was that the show gained faith in the government. While this went hand in hand with its most substantial flip, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope transitioning almost immediately from a ditz to almost a superheroine of civic progress, it’s also gone beyond just the show’s central character. When it first aired, Parks and Recreation showed a department riddled with incompetence, and the jokes seemed to be kind of like those of Reno 911, centered on how bad the department is. Since then, though, we’ve seen that it’s a group of people who can get things done when it comes down to it, despite (or perhaps because) of all of their eccentricities.

What the show became, essentially, was an optimist, and this has touched every part of Parks and Recreation, including its view of Pawnee. The city, we’ve learned, is filled to the brim with irritating people, who put their own insane interests before anything else, but it’s also a city that’s worth working for, one where ultimately the people do the right thing. As much as the show likes to ratchet up the campaign’s tension, the competition between Leslie and Bobby Newport is essentially a question of whether, given all the information, they would pick wisely, and the show has shown us that they always would.

With that in mind, the writers made a particularly wise choice in having Newport blackmail Pawnee. Newport threatens that should he lose, Sweetums, which is the largest company in the city, will close shop and be moved to Mexico. This causes some real tension. Without cheating, Newport never stood a chance in Parks and Recreation’s optimistic society. With it, who can say?

The actual debate itself was wonderfully entertaining, particularly in the way it fleshed out the weird, less relevant candidates. But while the show always sees the glass half full, it also considers the voting public to be more than a tad dumb, and the display of how they reacted to Newport’s stupidity worked really well. Parks and Recreation never forgets that although there’s a lot at stake, elections are fundamentally a popularity contest. As for Newport himself, it may not be Paul Rudd’s subtlest performance, but it’s hard to imagine a better actor for the part, and I particularly appreciate how sparingly he’s used. A guest star can dominate a show, but Rudd’s presence is always peripheral, just another member of the ensemble.

As for the other parts of the episode, while the gears of the show’s machinery were on view the whole time, making it clear that the writers just needed to make up things for the cast to do, that doesn’t mean they weren’t interesting to watch. Tom, Ann and Chris finally cleared up their love triangle, but the much more exciting b-story involved the fundraising at Andy and April’s house. When things go wrong, Andy exuberantly acts out various movies for his captive audience, who are stunned by his entrancing performances, if a bit disappointed not to watch the debate. Still, things end up okay in the end, with them watching Leslie’s dramatic closing speech, and while the election’s conclusion is by no means clear, the episode ends on a happy note as usual.

There are funnier episodes of Parks and Recreation, but few with as much sheer heart as “The Debate,” and that’s saying something for a show that’s managed to combine earnestness with humor so well that it almost feels avant-garde. It’s an episode that perfectly encapsulates what the show wants to say about the world, and it does so without becoming didactic or forgetting the jokes.

Stray observations:
•This episode was written and directed by a certain Amy Poehler. She did, unsurprisingly, an excellent job.
•The things April believes in: “I care about Andy and Champion… and I want Leslie to win and I like sleeping.”
•The Gunbelievable Gun Emporium..
•The existence of a twitter question is my favorite joke of the episode.
•Gotta admit, I had no idea what film Andy was acting out until he said the name. But now I have to go rent Road House immediately.
•”Once again, people: grenade launcher.”
•Wait, why was Jerry with a bunch of nuns? Where did that come from?