“The Set Up”
January 14th, 2010
After just writing about Community’s handling of Jack Black’s guest spot by calling attention to how distracting it could be to have a recognizable guest star show up on your show, it’s interesting to turn our gaze to Parks and Recreation, where two “big name” guest stars (at least in my circles) debuted. While Community drew our attention to Black’s disruption in order to make a large meta-joke, Parks and Recreation does something similar but different in creating an extra layer of comedy for those who know that Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are married in real life.
It was a good example of how casting someone recognizable can help a storyline rather than hurt it, as Arnett was simply a fun casting choice: he’s funny, and the marriage added an extra layer to the scene, but it wasn’t dependent on a guest star, just as the show didn’t need to have Justin Theroux playing the aptly named Justin, a friend of Ann’s who Leslie takes a liking to. Both characters, despite being cast with recognizable faces (for me, at least), played roles which weren’t played as the “point” of the episode, but their performances gave them an added weight, which is especially helpful when Theroux might be sticking around for a while.
And so now we can look at the episode less in terms of who was in it, and more in terms of the episode built around them…okay, I’m going to talk some more about Arnett. Sue me.
To be honest, there were points where the characters of Chris the MRI technician pushed the show a bit too far, which Arnett and Poehler’s fun dynamic didn’t entirely help. I’m not suggesting the character goes beyond the parameters set by the writers: he is meant to be a terrible date which pushes Leslie to want something better and which forces Ann to stop “saving” Justin for herself and set them up, so his creepy and spiteful behaviour makes sense. But there were moments where the story was killing time, especially once the MRI started, that were just Poehler and Arnett riffing, which is funny (I have a soul) but which stopped serving its purpose. In the end, Arnett was never actually distracting, but there were moments where it felt like the show would have gone to another story (there were, after all, four in the episode) if not for the husband-wife dynamic at play.
And I thought the other three stories all had some great moments, so I would have been fine sacrificing some time with Arnett for more of Ron Swanson being verbally assaulted by townspeople, and April and Andy’s cute flirtations continuing to blossom, and Mark ruining the ending of movies for Ann. The episode worked really well because the stories connected in logical ways: Justin is the perfect guy for Leslie but Ann is too selfish to let him go, and April hates doing her job until she decides she likes Andy and takes the job as Ron’s assistant (getting the show around the pending end of her internship). The show didn’t need to make things come together in some riotous conclusion to sell these connections, but rather quietly uses parts of other stories (Leslie’s terrible date inspiring Mark to push Ann about saving Justin, April solving Ron’s employment crisis after Tom managed to find the white version of himself) to help bring things together. The show even got to use Andy to move things along with Mark and Ann, which kept him in the loop beyond his interactions with April.
It’s not often you see a show balance two very different setups, but using Arnett as a one-off establishment of what Leslie wants in a relationship and introducing Theroux (who I know best from Six Feet Under, but who most recently wrote Iron Man 2) as a potential long-term love interest is a nice bit of work. Arnett’s character makes Justin seem that much more sane, and I have full faith in the writers to balance another love interest after Louis C.K.’s Dave was so fantastic. I also commend them for finding someone very different: Justin is nothing like Dave, and so long as the show keeps Leslie’s crazy to a minimum in his presence (her “riding the horse” talking head at episode’s end was out of earshot, which works for me). The show has done some great work breaking down its archetypes as of late (here Ann was made out to be quite fallible, while Tom returned to his most obnoxious ways, and April showed an emotional depth while Andy showed at least some level of awareness of the role Justin plays in Ann’s life), so I’m hoping that Leslie’s relationships will continue to be a source of some nice character material.
I’m getting tired of repeating it, but still not sure what more people want from this show: it’s funny, it’s consistent, and it’s got great characters. I’m there.
- I stopped listening at a certain point, but “Fire In a Can” sure sounds like fun.
- Ron’s memo searching for an assistant (“Assistant to a Man. Low Pay”) was fantastic.
- Totally empathize with April on the idea that there are some movies that we just watch because they’re on – Swimfan isn’t quite one of them for me, but we’ve all got one.
- Note that it has officially become pop culturally responsible to ruin the ending of Marley & Me, while the show has no such interest in ruining District 9 – does a “No Spoiler” policy apply when half the world has been spoiled about it and it’s been out for over a year? I wonder if anyone out there was actually mad about that…