September 17th, 2009
“Everyone is just who they are”
Leslie Knope was the problem, and Leslie Knope was the solution.
When Parks and Recreation struggled to get off the blocks in the Spring, there were plenty of excuses. The show was rushed to get into production before the season began, and had a strange road from would-be Office spinoff to a show unconnected to that universe but staffed by the same people and even featuring Rashida Jones, who spent time on Greg Daniels and Mike Schur’s other show. So, when the show took some time finding its footing, I was willing to give it plenty of chances because the show was confused about what precisely it was going to be.
It was a show that had some strong supporting performers (Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Christ Pratt, Jones), and a promising premise, but it was really let down by its inability to pin down Leslie Knope, our central character. It wasn’t that Amy-Poehler wasn’t charming or engaging, or wasn’t up to the task of making us like this character. Instead, the writing just didn’t know what they wanted her to be, and as a result the show seemed to flit around aimlessly as it was content to coast on a pre-set storyline and let the character go with the flow.
But in the season’s final episode, “Rock Show,” and in “Pawnee Zoo,” Leslie Knope is a finely tuned character designed to entertain us as a viewer and, more importantly, to drive stories. The storyline from the premiere is driven by Leslie’s well-meaning mistake, but what comes afterwards is made funnier and more complicated by her desire for people to like her and also her unwillingness to back down. The character felt, as it did by the end of the first season, consistent in both the writing and in Poehler’s performance, a perfect harmony of script and performer which allows the show to move forward with its great supporting cast to provide a great half hour of comedy.
I won’t say that it’s reached its full potential yet, but this is a show where an initial identity crisis is ancient history, and where things are finally looking up in Pawnee.
There’s a moment in the episode where Leslie comes to terms with the fact that April has a boyfriend who has a boyfriend (“Derek is gay, but he’s straight for me, and Sam is in love with Derek, and I hate Sam”), and we cut to Leslie: “The thing about youth culture is that…I don’t understand it.” There is no long awkward pause afterwards, or any sort of funny look – instead, it went right back to the scene. It wasn’t a joke so much as it was a statement of fact: Leslie doesn’t get youth culture, and the show isn’t interested in finding comedy in her attempting to figure it out. Instead, Leslie is self-aware of her areas of weakness, and her goal is not to solve them but instead to embrace them. Leslie didn’t attempt to make a social statement by marrying two male penguins, but because the resulting position as a social activist results in her being both a) popular and b) in close proximity to really good dancers, she runs with it while completely ignoring the representative from the Society for Family Stability Foundation. It isn’t that she forgot about the threat from Cynthia, or about the fact that she never meant it as a protest, but the positive benefits are so high that she just keeps on belting out Lady Gaga.
The difference for me between the Leslie we have now and the one we saw back in the pilot is that her determination is drawn from an internal sense of self-respect as opposed to an external lack of respect for her and her work. The reason she was so committed to the Pit as a project was that she didn’t want to be a failure, and that this was finally her chance to do something. While there is something entertaining about someone thinking that a committee likely years out from ever making a difference (note that the pit is still a pit) is a huge step forward, the whole small fish who think they’re a big fish scenario, it never really went anywhere. Here, Leslie defends herself in a humorous fashion without necessarily having to be fundamentally delusional: when she is asked why else she would ever marry penguins but to make a social statement, she says that “I firmly believed it would be cute – and it was!” She was doing her part to improve attendance and public pride in the public zoo (graduating chimpanzees, having birthdays for parrots) and was actually successful (attendance was up), but in the process her enthusiasm hit a roadblock and she’s left defending herself.
Leslie Knope, of course, doesn’t want to be on the social edge politically speaking: she insists to Paul that she really is part of the mainstream, an insistence which is necessary in her position but not entirely true. But rather than become a social delusion which drives the show’s comedy, the episode finds humour in Leslie’s mediation of what the mainstream should be. If the mainstream is Pawnee Today, which attacks her for making an honest mistake and refusing to back down from it when threatened by a group of religious fundamentalists, then she wants nothing to do with them. She is her own person, and perhaps her true sense of self is dancing at the Bulge and belting Boom Boom Pow as loud as she can. It’s not that Leslie is clueless, but it’s that she follows fun and adventure and happiness and doesn’t realize how far she’s gone. I loved her “That was Me!” after Ron notes that he just heard someone say that she was “Queen of the Gays;” excitement gets the better of her, but she doesn’t back down on Pawnee Today, and even when she’s forced to move the penguins away she finds a place where their marriage will be legal (and still gets ADD on the road when she wants to take them on waterslides to Six Flags.
Leslie is still going to do silly things (like put penguins into car seats and transport them herself, or break into an epic “Parents Just Don’t Understand” instead of responding to Ron’s note about someone on fire in a park), but the show isn’t about her doing silly things. Nor is it about the pit, although we do learn at the end of the episode that Andy (a most welcome Chris Pratt) has been living in it. Instead, it’s about this group of characters: Mark, who we learn struck up an increased flirtation with Ann during his recovery from hitting rock bottom (as in, rocks at the bottom of the pit), Ann, who is now Leslie’s close friend as opposed to a civil activist in her own right, and of course Tom and Ron (whose roles remain largely unchanged, and thus largely hilarious). The characters were all there before, but shoved into the framework of the Pit project and with Leslie’s character a bit all over the place it just didn’t seem like it was coming together; now, things felt really secure, like they were finally comfortable with the show’s direction and were able to really let loose.
And as someone who was always a believer in the first place, it’s a welcome turn of events and a worthy (or, more worthy than it was before) addition to NBC’s Thursday comedy lineup.
- Aziz Ansari is a great actor, and I like what they’ve done with Tom. He is essentially just an enormous shit disturber: when he’s at The Bulge, he’s the reason Leslie has no choice but to give in, feeding the crowd’s enthusiasm and forcing her from the microphone. It’s a great thing for Ansari to play, although I also like that Leslie is confident enough to be able to knock Tom down a peg as well (observing him as effeminate, and pointing out his peach shirt before the peach Bulge shirt conveniently arrives).
- It’s a really easy joke, but the little girl calling about how much she loves the zoo and then (delayed) telling Leslie she should resign was played out really well.
- I like how the show actually gives Leslie some intelligent observations to voice, such as how you can never win in politics, or how we’re just animals and don’t know anything about love…or, on second though, I like how they can have her voice absurd and quite intelligent things in the same episode and Poehler can pull them both off without a hitch.
- A lighter episode for Ron and April than the others at City Hall, but I will say that I was really happy to see them add some new peripheral characters to the group. They didn’t get much screen time, but it made it seem more like an actual TV show and less like a pilot thrown together without proper time to hire extras/other staff.
- As for the Amy Poehler-enhanced Weekend Update leading into Parks, it allowed SNL to get some mileage out of Joe Wilson while it was still relevant, and the show chose to focus on another VMA moment (with Kristen Wiig performing a parody of Madonna’s eulogy for Michael Jackson) rather than the infamous Kanye interruption.