Parks and Recreation – “Telethon”

“Telethon”

May 6th, 2010

The last time a Greg Daniels-produced series was ending its second season, the series’ star took a crack at writing an episode; the result was Steve Carell’s “Casino Night,” an episode largely comprised of a group of small moments for each character mixed in with some major developments with the two love triangles (Michael/Jan/Carol, and Jim/Pam/Roy) which were ongoing at the time.

“Telethon,” written by Amy Poehler and one of the final episodes of another Greg Daniels-produced show’s second season, is more or less the Parks and Recreation equivalent. You have a lot of small moments for all of the show’s supporting characters, you have movement on the two main relationships currently working their way through the series, and the end result (like “Casino Night”) is a really strong half-hour of television which embodies the series’ strength this year: it’s wonderfully odd, surprisingly sweet, and nicely balancing the line between awkward and hilarious.

The biggest problem with “Telethon” is that its central tension isn’t actually tension-filled: because the show ended up casting for Season 3 so early (as they continued shooting after the second season finished due to Amy Poehler’s pregnancy), they had to announce the casting news before the season finished airing (since it would have leaked anyways, as you can’t hide that forever). This meant that we learned very early on that Paul Schneider was leaving the show (for the immediate future), so as soon as he started talking marriage in last week’s episode we knew that wasn’t going to end well. To be fair, the episode caught up with our knowledge of the event, as Mark prepared to propose to Ann on local cable access television just after she had told Leslie she intends on breaking up with him; however, we knew that was going to happen before the episode ended Act Two on that note, so it felt like an anti-climax even if we were able to revel in the awkwardness roughly the same as those who don’t have the knowledge that more hyper-aware viewers would have.

Luckily, though, that wasn’t even half of what “Telethon” had to offer. Like “Casino Night,” the episode uses a large group activity to give us great moments for all of the supporting characters. We get Jerry struggling to operate the phones and getting ridiculed for both his magic and piano skills, we get Donna making phone calls to Liberia to fill in her brother about Lost, and we get Ron Swanson re-caning a chair (and sleep fighting, of course). Tom, meanwhile, got a bit more of a showcase, but it was a showcase in the sense that we got a lot more of what we normally expect from Tom; thankfully, Aziz Ansari is very funny, so more Tom is rarely overkill, and throwing in a bemused Detlef Schrempf was definitely the episode’s trump card. It gave Tom a sounding board, and someone to comment (completely straight) on his behaviour so we could learn he got drunk on two light beers. There was even that great beat where he got Schrempf to sign an autograph for Wendy and took out some of his frustration over their divorce, which I’m glad to see the show isn’t forgetting about even if it doesn’t dominate the character.

On the relationship side, the show has officially laid the foundation for the end of Mark and Ann as a couple, while doing some more subtle work with April and Andy. The latter point was actually really well developed, as April first completely blew off Leslie when she asked about it, but then shifted into an attempt to make Andy jealous when she was on the phone with one creepy guy. For April that was meant to be simply impulsive, as I don’t think she intended for the guy to show up; when he did, however, it turns out to work in her favour, as Andy stands up to the guy and protects her. This couple isn’t about big gestures because April is too passive and Andy is taking it very seriously due to the age difference, and as I’m writing this sentence I’m thinking back to their picture from the front of the catalogue and melting all over again. The show has just done a tremendous job of building their connection, and no matter where the show goes with the story I’m along for the ride after great subtle stuff like April watching Andy play and just smiling (Aubrey Plaza, I bow to you).

And yet, what works about this episode is that with all of the one-liners, and with all of the wacky local personalities (like the return of the business software guy, the investigative journalist doing the worm, the terrible impressionist, etc.), the episode was about people putting others ahead of themselves. Despite being from 2am to 6am, everyone from the office shows up at the Telethon (except for Tom, who did arrive eventually of course); Ron perhaps said it best when he noted that while he hates charities, he’s there because he owes Leslie a thousand favours. And while Leslie is panicking, sleep-deprived and in the weeds (to use a term I picked up from Top Chef), she’s still concerned about Mark and Ann’s situation, and is even willing to pull down her pants to stop something terrible from happening. In the end, the team reaches their goal (thanks to Schrempf’s donation) for Diabetes, and Leslie still chooses to go and give Ann someone to talk to instead of going to bed herself. These characters may complain, and make fun of one another, but in the end they’re all there when they need to be not because it’s convenient for the show to put them all in one place, but because they respect one another enough to be there when it counts.

And if all of that weren’t enough, “Telethon” answered the eternal question of who wins in a battle between Ron Swanson’s moustache and a puppy: the answer is the viewer, who won a lot tonight.

Cultural Observations

  • “Aww, it’s Jerry Sex Night? That ruins Sex AND Tonight” has to win for my favourite one-liner of the evening, although the situation surrounding sleep fighting is a darn close second.
  • I don’t know if it was just because Poeher (very ably) scripted the episode, but we had a number of “runs” from Leslie about how Mark should propose, or things her grandmother says. They were all pretty funny, and Leslie remains grounded enough to pull off those kind of scenes. As for my favourite line, I think I’m going with “It’s your proposal, get as many Eagles as you want.”
  • CLIPBOARD MOUTH.
  • “One Butt, Two Seats: The Widening of America” was my favourite of the various video clip titles thrown out…okay, I lied, it was the only one I wrote down in its entirety. Don’t hurt me!
  • Have we seen the Rabid Raccoon “Technical Difficulties” graphic before? Even if so, still a great callback.
  • “Now I’m going to see how long I can hold a D-Chord” was a nice moment for Mouse Rat’s guitarist – who knew he had it in him?
  • Did I mention the adorable puppy eating Ron Swanson’s moustache? Sublime.
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