“The Master Plan”
May 13th, 2010
I hate to keep driving my “Parks: It’s the New Office!” comparisons into the ground, but I want you to think back to the start of The Office’s third season (which, not entirely coincidentally, picks up right after “Casino Night,” which I compared with last week’s “Telethon”). The show took a pretty considerable risk in introducing an entirely new workplace with Jim’s move to the Stamford branch, and the idea of introducing entirely new characters and “disrupting” the show seemed like a huge risk.
However, while these new characters (Andy and Karen, in particular) were brought into the picture to help emphasize the division within the show, the Stamford branch was comically consistent with the show as a whole. While it was a different environment, and their arrival in Scranton later in the season created plenty of conflicts, we accepted the characters because they fit in with what the show was trying to accomplish on the whole.
What Parks and Recreation did tonight, however, was perhaps even more impressive: they managed to not only humanize a character who is introduced as a point of conflict, but they managed to completely integrate a fairly big star into an existing comedy ensemble with remarkable proficiency. The credit at the start of “The Master Plan” may have jokingly read as “Introducing Rob Lowe,” but both the show and Lowe do such an amazing job of introducing these new characters into this existing group that any sense of conflict within the series’ actual narrative is non-existent, and we’re left to enjoy a pretty fantastic ramping up of both new and existing storylines without seeming distracted or chaotic.
Basically, I’m deep in the pot at this point, so if you’re at all not feeling the love I suggest you leave now before I lose all objectivity.
I couldn’t help but get ahead of myself with this episode, as I knew the three guest stars who were being introduced in the episode and knew the roles that Lowe and Adam Scott (poached from Party Down) would be playing. However, I wasn’t aware of what precisely Natalie Morales’ role would be in the episode beyond the fact she worked at a bar, so when I heard that Tom was organizing April’s birthday part at the Snakehole my notes read as follows: “OMG IS MORALES A LOVE INTEREST FOR TOM?!” I include this startling glimpse into my less than elegant note-taking to indicate that despite calling it far before we actually met Lucy at the Snakehole I was so excited about the idea that Tom, lovelorn after Wendy, would be getting a love interest played by someone as great as Natalie Morales that I was completely engaged. This show has my heart on a string at this point, and they just keep tugging it every few minutes even with the very idea of stories that have yet to happen.
However, my growing fandom aside, I think the episode did a great job of balancing old relationships with new relationships, and giving new characters similar depth or quirks compared to what we know about our current characters. The episode gives us considerable time with April and Andy, which is putting The Office’s own attempts to recreate Jim and Pam to shame, while also showing some great moments between April and Ron (the attempt at comfort), Leslie and Ron (as Ron tries to calm Leslie down by getting her to countdown from 1000 by 7s while thinking about warm brownies), and Leslie and Ann (as they get drunk at April’s birthday party as Ann works past her breakup with Mark. They also show us some vintage Tom Haverford as his plan for a 43-way turns into an epic failure, so it’s not as if the show’s current characters were in any way sidelined in the episode.
Yet they still managed to give both Rob Lowe and Adam Scott a pretty substantial leg up in the series. In the case of Lowe’s Chris, it’s just an extremely funny performance with some really great material; the character is the pretty face of the operation, and so he takes gigantic vitamins, listens to ocean sounds while doing chin-ups, wants to live to the age of 150, points at people’s faces and repeats their name in order to remember it, and is just so aggressively genial in ways that Lowe is doing a tremendous job of bringing to the surface in a hilarious fashion. The episode spends just enough time with the character to keep it from feeling played out, and the character is just a great deal of fun.
However, Scott’s Ben is a much more interesting character both because he’s going to be around for longer (Lowe will be sticking around for a handful of episodes in the third season, while Scott’s more or less full-time) and because of how quickly they establish a connection between his character and Leslie. Scott and Poehler have quite a bit of chemistry in general, but the backstory of “Benji Wyatt, Wunderkind Mayor” is so perfect for their connection: it means that he used to have (and wants to in the future have) a career in politics, which means that they have something quite considerable in common. While it’s clear that the two have something of a romantic connection that we’ll probably see develop over time, I think their first interactions are nicely kept on professional grounds but with the sort of kidding around (Leslie throwing out the “Mr. Mayor” and then “Whoomp! There it is!” as a punchline) that we’ve come to expect from the show. Ben is integrated into the show’s rhythms even if he remains (for the moment) still a threat to the show’s premise as the budget cuts will be deeper than they expected.
As for those budget cuts, I thought it played out exactly as it should: Leslie would immediately reject the very notion of them, while Ron would firmly believe them to be a logical waste-cutting measure and would grin childishly when he learns that the government may be shut down entirely. I especially liked the scene where Ann notes to Leslie that this officially puts the brakes on their park project, not because I care about the park but rather because I had actually completely forgotten about it. I remember back in the first season wondering what the show was going to do when it didn’t have the park project to hold everything together, and I laughed a bit when Ann brought it up since I haven’t thought about that concern since the show returned.
It’s because of stories like April and Andy’s stumbles towards a relationship, here at their most tragic as Andy discovers that the “Half your age + 7” rules makes April six months too young and delays too long with a drunk Ann for April to be able to make her move. It’s something the show isn’t going to be able to do forever, although the age difference has been a nice way to keep them apart for logical reasons while maintaining their connection (something that The Office wasn’t able to do with Erin and Andy, to be honest). Andy’s song in the coda, humorously named “November” in another of Andy’s oafish moments that seem about 1000% more endearing now than they were last season, clearly explains his feelings, but there’s reasons that these messages aren’t getting through. I have to believe the season will end with the two of them finally getting together in some capacity, but even if it doesn’t I think the story has done such a fantastic job that the journey itself has really expanded the characters and their role within the show.
Obviously, I want them to get together, just like I want every character on the show to have their moment in the sun, so to speak. I want these people to be happy, and perhaps the greatest achievement of “The Master Plan” is how they managed to turn an episode about a fairly substantial threat to Pawnee and these characters into something which feels entirely constructive rather than deconstructive, positive more than negative. The show can do no wrong right now, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they pull the season together next week.
- Last week I had a twitter conversation with Chris Becker about Gerry and whether his mistreatment is becoming too cruel. Charlotte Howell ended up posting her own thoughts on the issue, nicely capturing the complexities involved before arguing (as I would argue) that the joke is less Gerry’s pain and more everyone else’s inability to see his positive contributions beyond their prejudice, which keeps it pleasant. This week adds to that complexities: what do we make of Leslie’s passionate speech about Gerry’s contributions to the office when Ben suggests he could be expendable? While Ron’s skeptical look evokes the ongoing mistreatment of Gerry, it’s not like we get a talking head with Leslie explaining that she got caught up in the moment. She defended Gerry like she would defend anyone else, which I think spoke honestly to his place within the office. They’re not going to throw the guy under the bus, even if they’re going to laugh if he were to harmlessly get his shirt caught in the door.
- I think Ron might eventually start defending the department, but his sheer excitement at budget cuts totally fit what we’ve seen of the character so far.
- Rashida Jones was really good in the episode, but she wasn’t particularly likable, and I like that. Making out with Chris is a fun turn of events that will get interesting as we head into the finale, but her speech about how she raised Andy from a baby into an adult and doesn’t want another woman to reap the benefits clearly places her as the villain in that particular potential love triangle, and I like that the show went so far.