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.
The scene which sums up “Freddy Spaghetti” is our goodbye to Mark Danbranoquitz, as Leslie and Mark sit on a bench on what was supposed to be a park and which has become an empty lot where children’s concerts can be held. It’s a sweet little scene, as Mark gives Leslie a parting gift of some designs for the park she dreams of building and tells her that if the entire government was filled with people like her he probably would have stayed. However, the government isn’t filled with Leslie Knopes – and if it was it probably would have gone bankrupt a lot sooner – so Mark is taking a buyout and moving to a private firm. This decision isn’t played out as a dramatic shift, nor does it awaken any dormant romantic feelings between Leslie and Mark; rather, it simply leaves the two characters to think about their futures, to accept that their dreams may not match up with reality and they’re set to go their separate ways.
The characters on the show are capable of being two things at once, and are capable of making decisions in one direction while remaining entirely connected with what would seem to be an entirely different personality. Ron Swanson loves the idea of cutting budgets, and will do everything in his power to cut government expenditures, but if Benji thinks that he is going to allow him to try to fire Leslie Knope he has another thing coming. Ron may revel in the government being cut, but he knows how important Leslie is, and how much her enthusiasm (albeit tempered by his enforcement of the bottom line) makes the department and the government work. No matter how far they are down the food chain of government departments, Ron Swanson isn’t going to lose his Leslie Knope, as no other department has a Leslie Knope to lose. It’s a fantastic moment for the character, and a sign that Nick Offerman can play powerful statements of loyalty just as well as he can eat a turkey leg wrapped in bacon; he’s even willing to give up what he loves most (and what gives him a semi just talking about it), sitting on the task force for the spending cuts, so that Leslie can be there first hand to protect what she loves most.
As for Ben (I only call him Benji when he’s being a douche), the character clearly has respect for what Leslie is trying to do: his job is to be fiscally responsible, to refuse the cash the cheques which Chris tells people he wants to cash so that the auditors can seem like they’re at least paying attention, but you can tell that he admires Leslie’s dedication, and sees in her what he once had. Adam Scott is tremendous at showing both annoyance and respect in the same performance, so I loved his early Talking Head where he seems to be judging Leslie for trying to make 13 meetings but can’t help but crack a smile at the sheer determination of it all. I don’t know why he saves the Freddy Spaghetti concert: is it that he respects Leslie, likes Leslie (clearly evident from their chemistry), or was he trying to do her a nice gesture before he’s forced to eliminate her position? I don’t really care, because the end result is another character who makes tough decisions and who at times feels antagonistic to Leslie’s cause but never feels antagonistic to Leslie herself. The characters may be placed into opposition with one another, but rarely does that opposition stem from an extreme dislike, nor is it ever insurmountable.
Take, for example, the “love triangle” between Ann, Andy and April. April and Andy clearly like each other, but standing in their way is a rebounding Ann who clearly has a thing for Andy and who remains an important figure in Andy’s past. While I am a strong advocate of the two characters getting together, and was in some ways frustrated when April didn’t immediately agree to a date and eventually storms off when Andy tells her of Ann’s kiss earlier in the day, it all feels natural. It doesn’t seem like these characters have betrayed one another or that they have forever changed their relationships, but rather that their situation is complicated by human emotions. I have faith that the show will work through these struggles, and that April and Andy will get to capture the sort of romance that the front of that summer catalog represented, but the show has this way of creating obstacles for its characters which come from complex interpersonal conflict as opposed to sudden shifts in characters’ actions or desires. They’ve spent a lot of time building to this particular moment, with both Ann and April ready to make their move, and yet rather than disrupting it through Andy doing something stupid we see Andy as someone who knows what he wants, and who is done in by his honesty and April’s insecurity about Ann rather than some broad error on his part.
In some ways, the other “love triangle” in the episode was considerably more dramatic in a shocking sort of way: buried in the coda, we learn that Ron Swanson is sleeping with Wendy, Tom’s green card wife. Not only does this further the theory that Ron works because he can embody the duality that many of the show’s characters have, but it also continues to show the ways in which Tom’s character is as insecure as April in many ways. I was wondering why the show had rushed Tom’s relationship with Lucy (who we just met last week) to the point where he was sleeping with her already and introducing her as his girlfriend, but it was so he wouldn’t be entirely crushed by the idea of Wendy dating Ron. It becomes less of a betrayal and more an awkward circumstance that complicates their relationship (and Tom’s relationship with Lucy, since he was obviously in love with Wendy in a fairly messed up situation), which is something that will only benefit the show moving forward. We’re happy for Tom that he has a new girlfriend as hot as Natalie Morales, but we’re also sad that he’s having to see first hand the fact that his wife never loved him back, and the end result is that we’re completely engaged with this character who played an entirely supportive role in the episode.
Parks is also a show that tends to get the little things right: Rob Lowe is still hamming it up as Chris, but he’s pretty damn good at playing the smiling face of government cutbacks, and his talking heads remain just crazy enough to avoid feeling like a parody. The character is clearly broader than the others, but the show isn’t trying to humanize him or place him into broad situations with other characters: pairing Chris and Tom might be pushing things too far (as Tom tends to lean towards the broad), but Ron’s response to his massage train was priceless, and his attempts to woo Ann allows for the most normal person in the show’s cast to respond to him as a normal person – a little creeped out, perhaps, but still a bit charmed. Similarly, Freddy Spaghetti threatened to feel gimmicky, but few song titles we got (“Yellow Polka Dot Linguini,” “Penne and the Jets”) were just perfectly funny, and the disgust within the group when they learned he booked a gig at a library was one of the biggest laughs in the episode for reasons entirely dependent on the show’s weird little universe.
And the episode, for all of the conflict it creates, cements the strength of the bond of fellowship within the department: when Leslie sends out the call to help pull together the concert using donated materials, everyone shows up. And while Leslie still takes Gerry’s assistance for granted (celebrating his arrival until the arrival of someone more exciting arrives), she appreciates everything these people are willing to do for her, and the event’s success depends on everyone coming together even in an episode where over time they split apart through either a new career path, a romantic entanglement, or simply the struggles to meet the bottom line. None of those barriers feel like they change the central bond between the show’s characters, and there is no evidence that any of the interventions introduced late in Parks and Recreation’s second season will in any way burden them in their third.
It’s frustrating that we have to wait until January, especially knowing that the first episodes of the season are being filmed now, but “Freddy Spaghetti” is a fine reminder that Pawnee is going to be right where we left it when it comes back, and that’s calmed my frustration for the time being.
- I don’t miss the focus on town hall meetings, but I like seeing bits of the townspeople like in “94 Meetings” or here, where we get such wonderful questions as “Who’s going to stop Al Qaeda?” Also, Ron’s face during the entire meeting just cracked me up: Nick Offerman has better episodes to submit, but he was ridiculously good in this one.
- I don’t want all of the bullets to be about Ron, but running into the concert site and slipping on the grass trying to warn Leslie? Highlight reel.
- I enjoy that Leslie in some ways can’t handle someone like Chris: she needs the antagonism that someone like Ben offers, as she was so prepared to make an impassioned argument about the concert that she becomes untied at Chris’ quick agreement. It’s why she has so much chemistry with Ben, as those situations are where Leslie is the most confident.
- “I like you in a romantical kind of way?” Pretty frakkin’ adorable.