“Go Big or Go Home”
January 20th, 2011
According to Leslie Knope, the job of the Parks department of Pawnee is to “make this town fun for the people who live here.” Of course, considering that the Pawnee government was shut down at the conclusion of the series’ second season, this is a more difficult job than it used to be – there’s only one program, and the rest of the department is in “maintenance mode.”
Leslie Knope does not do maintenance. She needs a project, somewhere to channel her earnest energy towards the betterment of her town. Leslie needs a pit to fill, a gazebo to save, or a Freddy Spaghetti concert to rescue from a government collapse. She didn’t marry two gay penguins because she wanted to make a statement, she did it because it would be cute, and because it could be something fun. What the second season of Parks and Recreation established so wonderfully was why Leslie Knope does the things she does, and that it all boils down to making Pawnee a great place to live is what makes her so likeable.
Alan Sepinwall has already written about how the storyline introduced in “Go Big or Go Home” served as a metaphor for the season as a whole, with the Parks department on hiatus much like the show itself, so I want to focus more on how this episode is structured to make this show fun for the people who watch it. Even while being “burdened” with the set up for the Harvest Festival arc, and reestablishing the series’ balance following the arrival of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, “Go Big or Go Home” is unabashedly fun in a way that signals a truly great series that continues to swing the hardest.
The central storyline in this episode is very meaningful: you have Ann discovering that she really might like Chris, you have Leslie and Ben continuing to mediate their respective experiences with civil service to find a balance which works towards a prosperous Pawnee, and eventually Leslie resurrects the Harvest Festival as a way to provide both the characters and the series with a sort of forward momentum. Of course, as noted above, this is similar to the function the pit served back in the first season, so it’s not as if the show has suddenly become more complex or adventurous with its storytelling.
The difference, instead, is in the details. There’s a rhythm to the storyline which elevates every situation involved, picking up on some of the best aspects of previous episodes of the series. Ann and Leslie’s pre-date activities are very similar to what we saw in “Practice Date,” for example, but the difference this time around is that Rashida Jones gets to be considerably more funny. While her interactions with Leslie continue to position her as a straightwoman most of the time, her impression of Rob Lowe’s Chris was a legitimate comic beat, and there’s a certain scrappiness to Ann in the episode. Ann seems an active participant not just in the episode’s storyline but also in the episode’s humor, and it’s a welcome (if subtle) shift which goes towards the episode’s success.
The rest of the storyline’s strength is less surprising. Lowe continues an inspired performance as the overly positive, freakishly handsome Chris; Scott continues to find the sense of reserve and caution which define the character, and pairs it nicely with both Lowe’s enthusiasm and Leslie’s determined nature; Poehler is as good as she’s been throughout the series at getting to what makes Leslie tick, making her seem determined without making her also seem desperate. The storyline lands in a place that holds legitimate pathos (we don’t blame Chris for the tears), but it lands there only after some really effortlessly funny stuff. The moment where Leslie pops out of nowhere while on the phone with Ann is delightful, Ben’s pleasure in discovering Leslie’s fiendish plan entertains me to no end, and “Ice Town Costs Ice Clown his Town Crown” is a wonderful bit of wordplay. The show never stops being funny to start making meaning, a skill which has served it well since early in the second season.
The rest of “Go Big or Go Home” is similarly strong, but it demonstrates some smart limitations placed on the episode in the way it is structured. The Basketball storyline does not have any deeper meaning: it isn’t leading towards an ongoing storyline about the rivalry between these two teams, or establishing a new part of any character’s identity. Instead, it’s a storyline about what would happen if Ron Swanson and Andy Dwyer taught youth basketball teams, and if Tom Haverford was the referee. When it starts, that’s all it is: a funny situation that offers us the brilliant Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness (which now hangs on my office wall) and Andy’s breakdown of “fundamentals.”
And yet slowly it reveals that it is something more. When Wendy arrives, it becomes a situation in which Tom’s growing resentment over her relationship with Ron is allowed to play out in a tremendous abuse of his power as referee. When Andy’s team wins, he dedicates the victory to April (who he hadn’t mentioned since the early scene in which he leaves her the latest in a string of unanswered phone messages). The storyline is filled with delightful moments of comedy, like realizing that Tom is wearing his Lady Foot Locker uniform, but the way the game ends up positioning these characters and their goals for the seasons without having the storyline be about those goals.
In the case of Andy, this allows him to transition into the concentrated glimpse of how his relationship with April will be moving forward. It’s something the episode needs to do, in that they left the relationship on a cliffhanger and viewers will wonder where they intend to go with the storyline this season, but the episode doesn’t become consumed by it. It operates independent of Andy’s other storyline, and April isn’t among those employees who are there when the department first comes together. But that short burst of relationship drama becomes inspiration for Leslie going for broke, and sets the stage quite nicely for where Andy and April’s relationship will go in the future. That the episode manages this without allowing it to seem tangential, and without it seeming as though it dominated earlier storylines, shows the craft involved here.
I’ve seen the first six episodes of the season, and “Go Big or Go Home” wouldn’t have come to mind as my favorite after two viewings. Other episodes have higher highs, while others offer a more wide-ranging glimpse at life in Pawnee that speaks to broader themes the series is clearly interested in. However, rewatching it earlier today I realized that “Go Big or Go Home” is an inherently challenging episode which could have felt busy or, worse, forced – instead, it feels eventful, a triumphant return which managed to address audience questions without sacrificing the series’ sense of humor. That it succeeds is a testament to the series’ momentum coming out of its second season, which is natural (thanks to its unique production context, having been filmed directly after the S2 finale) but nonetheless exciting.
Even the third time around.
- Okay, so I had presumed that the overdramatic, overdetailed, overreductive “Previously On” montage was just for press, but by golly there it was. I understand why it’s there, in that there’s a lot of plot going on here, and I think it’s got some funny moments – however, in the end I think it risks defining the series simply based on its situations (including April/Andy) as opposed to its dynamics. I think the episode is strong enough to overcome that, but still a bit strange.
- I wonder if there was any effort to get the actor who played April’s Venezuelan paramour from “Sister City” back as her boyfriend – this guy’s fine, but the continuity might have been nice.
- I didn’t speak to the nature of Leslie’s sacrifice above, frankly because it felt so natural. I did love, though, the little look back to Ron – the fact that he’s on board is a really charming moment in an episode which is mostly devoid of Ron/Leslie moments.
- Continued abuse of Jerry in the hour – he probably didn’t deserve to have his painting or his coffee thrown away, but he deserved to be chided for his excitement over Maintenance Mode.