May 14th, 2009
When The Office ended its six-episode first season, it really didn’t have anything to wrap up or even celebrate: “Hot Girl,” the season finale, was noteworthy for its first real sense of Pam’s jealousy of Jim dating anyone, but it was just another episode of the series in a lot of ways. Since Parks and Recreation is not only from the same creative minds but is also getting exactly the same six-episode first season leading into a normal second one, it’s hard not to compare “Rock Show” to the finale that came before it.
I’d say that Greg Daniels and Michael Schur have learned some lessons since then, as this is without question a more suitable finale, but intelligently not one that pretends this was a normal season or that we really know these characters. While the party at the center of the episode was successful in its efforts to display some humorous sides to the show’s funniest characters, and the various musical interludes let us enjoy the hilarity of Chris Pratt’s Andy, for the most part the episode shed some light on the three people who are probably the closest to being real characters, giving them each an added touch of humanity that will serve the series really well as it moves forward.
It may have taken six episodes to get there, but I think we’re to the point where Parks and Recreation has put its cards on the table, and earned its spot in NBC’s fall schedule on its own merit as opposed to that of its big brother.
After putting Leslie Knope into various Michael Scott-like situations, and not really getting anything out of them in terms of distinguishing her as a character, they finally found one that really worked: Leslie’s inadvertant blind date was interesting because she didn’t overreact, or freak out and embarrass herself. She was embarrassed, sure, but it wasn’t because she was naive or ignorant: rather, it’s because she has a mother who doesn’t respect her decision to focus on her career as opposed to starting a family, and because all of her efforts to try to get this park project off the ground seem to get stymied by the politics of life as opposed to just the red tape of government bureaucracy.
It’s a version of Leslie that views her Sub-Committee as a surrogate family of sorts, people that she can rely on and that she would only ever let down (like not being at Andy’s show) if it was in the name of the park that she has made her life mission. She isn’t, however, the kind of person that Michael Scott is, who abandons Pam’s poor landlord during his blind date and basically calls her ugly: not only is Leslie not a cruel person, but she’s also motivated by a singular purpose in a way that’s actually admirable. She has put her entire life on hold in the name of public service, as ridiculous as that might be, and while sometimes that seems simply naive other times it comes across as almost honourable: when Mark kisses her as they sit drunkenly by the side of the pit, she turns him away because she doesn’t want it to happen like this. She may have a “Make Mark Love Me and Marry Him and Have His Children” plan hidden somewhere beneath her devotion to her job, but she isn’t going to have it happen the way it was happening, where judgment was impaired and Mark more or less insinuated that it was “not a big deal.”
Everything’s a big deal for Leslie Knope, and I really believe that she would never allow for the park to be built based on a corrupt land deal, or based on some sort of government subterfuge: she may be determined to get her way, and be willing to spin bad news and negative thoughts into something positive, but she ultimately is willing to fight every piece of red tape with sheer patience and determination if she has to. This short first season didn’t do anything to tie up the story of the park, which considering Rashida Jones’ involvement and Mark’s explanation of the process will likely take a really long time, but it situates Leslie’s character extremely well, something the show had not done to this point. Amy Poehler has always been good, sure, but here she really hit on the right sides of this character, striking a more dramatic moment (which isn’t really something SNL let Poehler ever do) with the right level of innocence and determination.
Mark, meanwhile, continues to be portrayed in just the right light. Paul Schneider is a great actor, but as he showed in Lars and the Real Girl he’s often at his best when straddling that line between supportive and tool. It’s clear that Mark sits more on the tool side, pitching himself as a good guy but in reality maintaining some part of his youth in his behaviour. He ends up the 7th Wheel at the party, which is exactly where he didn’t want to end up, and so he reverts into his “old” (he says) person and hits on Ann. This has been coming for a while (and, according to Alan Sepinwall, was present early on as Mark’s motivation for getting the committee formed), but the way that Ann shut him down was perfect: she was acting both because she knew Leslie liked him and, more importantly, that he was being an overgrown child.
When he ends up with Leslie, there’s that sense that he’s still just telling her what she wants to hear, although it’s clear that he really does care about her in some way despite his predilection to being a douchebag. Their conversation at the Pit wasn’t entirely without feeling: I do like Mark in some way, and I feel like there is some hope that, like Schneider’s character in Lars and the Real Girl, he will come around to Leslie on a level that doesn’t involve a quick hookup like his one with the reporter. But in the end I can’ help but be glad that he fell into that pit, if only for a bit of karmic justice for his previous behaviour. I’ll be curious to see how this injury changes him, if it does at all, and I think the character has a lot of potential.
As for Ann, well, Rashida Jones is definitely playing the straightwoman here: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but I do think there will be a point where they are going to have to test her ability to do comedy as well. I don’t mean to suggest that the show should put Ann into Leslie’s position and let the comedy commence, but rather that she needs to find her own identity outside of blinding herself to the lunacy of those around her with the realization that these people are actually helping her, something she admits in the finale that she never expected when she first started this campaign.
The episode quite smartly knew exactly what to do with what have been its two characters that have come closest to breaking out. Ron (Nick Offerman) had his hilarious introduction of “my ex-wife Tammy’s better looking sister” (which continues the runner of prefacing Tammy’s name with ex-wife every single time), and Tom (Aziz Ansari, IMAX crusader) displayed just why he is easily the show’s most quotable character (and that for being such a womanizer, his wife is hot). “I think your boobs are dead” was lovingly childish in the way that the character can easily be, but I thought that the “Sleeping or Dead, Sleeping or Dead” gag was just so lovingly simple. He’s not quite like Dwight or Jim, really, in that he’s capable of making the ridiculous jokes and making far more observant and sly ones (like his entire conversation with Leslie’s “date”); it makes for a really fun character to watch, and between the two of them there was a lot of great little one-liners at the party.
Andy, meanwhile, needs to stick around even though the character seems to be in the dog house and Chris Pratt was only ever a guest star: Pratt was hilarious with his casts (his various songs about inanimate objects were fantastic), and perhaps even funnier with them off, listing off the various names for his band (that must have been a fun pitch session), and then breaking into the actually decent but yet also hilarious tracks of Scarecrow Boat (Or Mouse-Rat, whichever you prefer). My favourite was the epic anthem of rock and informing people about public works projects, “The Pit,” which was essentially a Pearl Jam song about a pit, which was just a lot of fun: Pratt makes Andy such a loveable tool as compared to Mark’s tragic descent into being a tool, and he’s more than funny enough to justify keeping around in some capacity next year.
When NBC renewed the show it was on good faith with the talent involved and the idea that the network has gotten lucky before by being patient with comedy – I think they’re going to start finding rewards in this setup, and even if this didn’t resolve the season thus far or even dramatically change the course of events, there were just enough tweaks to situate the series well moving into next season. In fact, I’d say I’m actually looking forward to it.
- I’ve been joking to myself for a while that another way the show will be following The Office’s pattern is that Poehler, who just recently had a baby, will probably lose some weight over the break as Steve Carell did between seasons 1 and 2. However, I want to make clear that was not a criticism of her current weight: she looked fantastic in the finale.
- April is currently a bit of a dead weight character, but I think she’s a useful one in the office dynamic. I’ll be curious to see if they start to flesh her out any further in the future.
- I don’t know which of my Andy band names is my favourite: I kind of like Punch Face Champions, but then Muscle Confusion is a real enigma.
- My favourite small moment in the episode: when a pigeon came down and landed on the cake as they were eating it. It was just really subtle, but it worked really well.
- My favourite line, meanwhile might be Mark’s: “My contribution to the government can actually be measured.”
- You’ll notice the documentary format was in full force this week, with Leslie’s elderly date (with a youngest son her age) getting a couple of clever ones, and then the camera man shooting Andy and Ann’s fight throug their windows…with perfect sound, despite the fact that they didn’t know they were there. I can see why they’d do this (it’s better early on to see those conversations, we don’t know the characters well enough), but it’s still pointing out why the documentary setup is in some ways unnecessary.