March 17th, 2011
Parks and Recreation is like Li’l Sebastian. For those who don’t know better, it’s just another Office-like NBC comedy, just as Li’l Sebastian appears to be just a pony. For those of us who have become devotees, however, Parks and Recreation is more than a pony – it is a mini horse, a mini horse which inspires the kind of overwhelming emotions which drive even characters like Ron Swanson and Joan Calamezzo to…well, to lose their shit.
After a few weeks off, Parks and Recreation is back with the conclusion of the Harvest Festival arc. This is actually the first episode that I’ve watched live, and thus the first episode that I’m reviewing without having watched numerous times. As a result, this review is less likely to run those the episode’s finest jokes, but I don’t think “Harvest Festival” depends on particularly strong one-liners. Instead, it relies on moments: moments like Joan losing control over herself at the presence of Li’l Sebastian, or moments like Tom and Ben rekindling their Star Wars battle as if they’ve been having it on a weekly basis since we last spent time in Pawnee.
It’s all remarkably consistent, and all predictably charming given the series’ strong third season. The production hiatus between “Indianapolis” and “Harvest Festival” did nothing to kill the show’s rhythm, once again proving itself one of the most delightful mini-horses on television.
Even if it just looks like a pony to most of America.
February 24th, 2011
Of the first six episodes initially sent to critics, “Indianapolis” is the most subtle. It’s a straightforward pairs of comic setpieces: a dinner party and a night out at the Snake Hole have the characters moving away from the Harvest Festival in order to get some time to focus on the characters themselves. While the commendation for the Harvest Festival technically draws Leslie and Ron to Indianapolis, the episode investigates what happens after the ongoing storylines which have dominated the show since Ben and Chris’ arrival start to come to a close.
This is actually the last episode that I screened in advance, and it’s also the last episode to air until March 17th, but I think it’s a very strong note to go out on. Without a major guest star, and without a standout “scene” of the likes of “Stop. Pooping” or Ben’s breakdown on Ya Heard with Perd, “Indianapolis” is just a very funny episode of what is clearly a very funny show.
And yes, that’s apparently the extent of critical analysis that a show in this much of a groove inspires.
February 17th, 2011
When he first arrived, Adam Scott appeared to have been hired to play the new straight man. Ben Wyatt seemed a replacement for Mark Brendanowitz, someone who could react to the madness around him. Just take the moment in “Time Capsule” when Ben reacts to the idea of someone handcuffing himself to a pipe in order to get Twilight into a time capsule: it’s funny, but it’s funny because it’s a sane response to an insane situation.
“Media Blitz” is the moment when Ben Wyatt becomes subsumed into Pawnee culture. It is the moment where Ben Wyatt is let loose, where he leaves the confines of City Hall and steps into the spotlight. The result is a really tremendous showcase for Adam Scott, allowed to dig deeper into the character’s past while simultaneously tying him into what appears to be the character’s future.
It’s also the most concerted effort yet to set the table for Ben’s relationship with Leslie.
February 3rd, 2011
When pre-air reviews of Parks and Recreation’s third season emerged, Matt Zoller Seitz’s column at Salon stood out for me. This is due not only to its quality, which is top notch as per usual, but also because it focused very specifically on tonight’s episode, “Time Capsule.” At first, I was sort of thrown: having seen them all myself, the first episodes to come to mind were those featuring more character-driven humor and which dealt with ongoing plot developments, and to some degree “Time Machine” felt comparatively…small.
However, Matt’s comments were in my mind when I went back to rewatch the episode, and I think that he’s right on the money. While “The Flu” was perhaps the funniest of the first six episodes of the season, and the premiere had the most going on in terms of ongoing storylines, “Time Capsule” is very much the encapsulation of the series’ general charm. Its conclusion is just incredibly satisfying, a simple statement of what it means to be from Pawnee which resonates more strongly than any single joke. This is still a funny episode, in what continues to be a very funny season, but that it ends on something meaningful instead shows the side of the show that Matt responded to, and which certainly deserves recognition.
January 27th, 2011
“That was Leslie Knope.”
I don’t want to suck the fun out of what was the most particularly hysterical episode of those I’ve seen from Parks and Recreation’s third season, but there is a structural logic to “Flu Season” which wasn’t immediately clear on first or second viewing. When I watched the episode initially, it was a comic tour de force for both Amy Poehler and Rob Lowe, and some strong pairings (April/Ann, Andy/Ron) which tested out some dynamics which the show has not really dealt with in the past. Watching it earlier today, however, I realized that the episode is just really well organized from top to bottom, focusing around a central question from a wide variety of angles.
What happens, precisely, when we get sick? “Flu Season” not only mines the comic depths of flu-ridden characters struggling to control their mental and bodily functions, but it also uses illnesses to draw characters closer together, to further integrate both Ben and Chris into the realities of Pawnee and the Parks department in particular, and just to make us laugh for twenty minutes. It looks at how people respond to illness both in terms of broad comic efforts of isolating the infected party and in terms of basic sympathy, the latter growing into a mutual respect which continues to serve the show and its characters extremely well.
“Go Big or Go Home”
January 20th, 2011
According to Leslie Knope, the job of the Parks department of Pawnee is to “make this town fun for the people who live here.” Of course, considering that the Pawnee government was shut down at the conclusion of the series’ second season, this is a more difficult job than it used to be – there’s only one program, and the rest of the department is in “maintenance mode.”
Leslie Knope does not do maintenance. She needs a project, somewhere to channel her earnest energy towards the betterment of her town. Leslie needs a pit to fill, a gazebo to save, or a Freddy Spaghetti concert to rescue from a government collapse. She didn’t marry two gay penguins because she wanted to make a statement, she did it because it would be cute, and because it could be something fun. What the second season of Parks and Recreation established so wonderfully was why Leslie Knope does the things she does, and that it all boils down to making Pawnee a great place to live is what makes her so likeable.
Alan Sepinwall has already written about how the storyline introduced in “Go Big or Go Home” served as a metaphor for the season as a whole, with the Parks department on hiatus much like the show itself, so I want to focus more on how this episode is structured to make this show fun for the people who watch it. Even while being “burdened” with the set up for the Harvest Festival arc, and reestablishing the series’ balance following the arrival of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, “Go Big or Go Home” is unabashedly fun in a way that signals a truly great series that continues to swing the hardest.
It’s not often I write about movies in this neck of the woods, but it’s hard not to use Cultural Learnings as an outlet for my thoughts about Toy Story 3. Not only is this a Pixar film, but it’s a Pixar film which deliberately taps into my childhood nostalgia: I was 9 when Toy Story was released, and 13 when Toy Story 2 hit theatres, so this is arriving at a time when that sort of nostalgia is both most welcome and most intellectually stimulating (as I’m considering culture and the media I consume in a much more critical fashion than I was back then).
Toy Story 3 is a solid sequel to the second film, and a wonderful conclusion to the cinematic trilogy, but I personally feel as if it is the least successful (relatively speaking, of course) of the three films when separated from our nostalgia and the emotional resonance the series has accrued over time. Whereas there are moments in this film which are more powerful than those which came before, and Pixar continues to separate itself from the pack by tapping into the audience’s emotional connection with this franchise in a fashion which has eluded Dreamworks with Shrek, Toy Story 3 is the first in the trilogy to feel repetitive, albeit in a purposeful fashion designed to emphasize key themes from the second film which become more complex in the context of the third.
Considering this is Pixar, they pick the right themes and execute them to perfection when the time comes to bring the series to its cinematic close, but there is a lack of discovery within the film’s adventure, establishing it as an extremely engaging rumination more than a revelation – what will follow is my attempt to explain why I’m not head over heels in love with the film as a whole even after being head over heels in love with its conclusion.
[I went a few paragraphs without any major spoilers, but then I sort of throw all caution to the wind, so if you haven't seen the movie yet I'd suggest bookmarking this until then, and you'll have something to read after getting back from the theatre.]
May 20th, 2010
Last week’s episode of The Office was absolutely, unfathomably terrible: it embodied the absolute worst characterization of Michael Scott (as a purposefully ignorant jerk with no self-awareness or human decency) until the very end, where it tried to claim that a moment of quiet reflection finally forced Michael into realizing what we, and the rest of the show’s characters, had known for the entire episode. It was a bizarre decision because it only frustrates me more: if Michael is inherently a decent human being, why are they forcing viewers to sit through twenty minutes of the character acting like a complete jerk when it’s not nearly as funny as they think it is?
I’m aware they aren’t forcing us to do anything, but when you’ve been watching a show for six years you have a certain attachment to it. And while I may have despised “The Chump,” at least I had some sort of emotional response to it. By comparison, “Whistleblower” was listless to the point of boredom, failing to feel the least bit conclusive and struggling to make anything out of what has been a complete mess of a season from a narrative perspective. None of what happened in the episode felt like it came from anything that we care about, or anything that was even developed adequately in early episodes.
And just like last week, a single moment at episode’s end is meant to make us feel like this unengaging exercise was all worth it; I’m not falling for it, and I may just be to the point where I’m falling out of even an abusive relationship with the series.
May 20th, 2010
When I write about the Thursday comedies, I have to write about them after I finish watching them all, as there’s too many other Thursday programs recording on the common DVR which requires I watch them on a recording device-free television set. This is normally fine, but it seemed especially tough tonight, as every other show has to live up to the level of quality that Parks and Recreation has right now.
The best comedy finales are those which find elements of conflict within elements of stability, emphasizing the reasons that we love watching the show week-after-week and the reasons why it remains lively and eventful enough to keep from becoming too familiar. “Freddy Spaghetti” is the epitome of this type of finale, delivering plenty of evidence which captures the heart and soul of this show while introducing other elements that threaten that stability without necessarily overwhelming the positivity inherent to these characters.
It ends up leaving everything in a state of flux, with very little optimism about the future, and yet the show’s characters still seem so positive about their present situation that you feel like they can rise above any potential challenges. It doesn’t actually bring any of the season’s storylines to a wholly positive conclusion, but it complicates things in such an infectious fashion that it loses none of its momentum, and heads into a (sadly too, too long) hiatus with the best season of comic television we saw this year in its back pocket.
And no seven month break is going to change that fact.