January 27th, 2011
“That was Leslie Knope.”
I don’t want to suck the fun out of what was the most particularly hysterical episode of those I’ve seen from Parks and Recreation’s third season, but there is a structural logic to “Flu Season” which wasn’t immediately clear on first or second viewing. When I watched the episode initially, it was a comic tour de force for both Amy Poehler and Rob Lowe, and some strong pairings (April/Ann, Andy/Ron) which tested out some dynamics which the show has not really dealt with in the past. Watching it earlier today, however, I realized that the episode is just really well organized from top to bottom, focusing around a central question from a wide variety of angles.
What happens, precisely, when we get sick? “Flu Season” not only mines the comic depths of flu-ridden characters struggling to control their mental and bodily functions, but it also uses illnesses to draw characters closer together, to further integrate both Ben and Chris into the realities of Pawnee and the Parks department in particular, and just to make us laugh for twenty minutes. It looks at how people respond to illness both in terms of broad comic efforts of isolating the infected party and in terms of basic sympathy, the latter growing into a mutual respect which continues to serve the show and its characters extremely well.
In two episodes now, Ann Perkins’ status as a straightwoman has been tested. Both here and in the premiere, she was given what were ostensibly straightwoman roles – here as Nurse to April, there as pawn in Leslie’s game – which put her on the edge of falling into comedy. Last week it was the brief impression of Chris, but here the edge was closer. In Chris’ presence, Ann loses her sense of normalcy: he intimidates her, and her attempts at landing various jokes in an effort to flirt with him (or, heck, even converse with him) are wonderfully charming. The show has really dialed into ways to allow Ann to have some sense of agency even while eventually reverting back to the role of straightwoman. Her feud with April, for example, is all about her struggle to retain her balance perspective: the straightwoman is meant to tolerate, not to hate, and so her gradual anger (and the talking heads with show her starting to break down) shows the limits of that characterization. Ann is capable of an explosion of frustration when outside of her official duties as a nurse, and even April gains respect for Ann when she sees how she responds in that situation. Faced with an aggressive threat to her character in the form of a vengeful, spiteful April, who spent the entire episode being a pretty terrible person, Ann stood up for herself in a way which suggests a dynamic character not always present in the second season (and one which Rashida Jones can absolutely pull off).
It isn’t quite the Flu, but April’s nuisance was nonetheless an external stimulus designed to challenge Ann’s character. For those who actually got the flu, the question is much the same: how do people like Chris, Leslie and April respond to becoming sick? The three characters are chosen because they are all terrible patients: Chris’s intense positivity is threatened only by his body’s inability to protect itself from disease, Leslie is so determined to give her speech that she wants to be there even when she thinks her jeans are a scarf, and April’s sarcastic streak just does not mix well with bed rest and boredom. And yet, their illnesses have a distinct effect on their relationships with those around them. Chris’ illness makes him less intimidating to Ann, rendering him a more recognizable human figure; Leslie gets to prove her mettle (if, also, her ability to slip into delusion) to Ben and prove that she’s truly one of a kind; and April and Andy move one step closer to a reunion thanks to the way the latter rushes to her side (and kisses her gross forehead).
There are some incredibly funny scenes within these storylines. Just about everything involving Leslie is Amy Poehler at her finest, Rob Lowe’s delivery of “Stop Pooping” – and every other line – cracks me up every time, and that final moment with April and Andy has both his reaction to her forehead and a general goofiness that I think nicely pairs with the romantic consequences. These storylines create definite meaning: Ben and Chris’ attachment to Pawnee partially stems from the way in which they see our characters handle this situation, and this is definitely a key moment in April and Andy’s debriefing of last season’s events. However, the funny never felt as though it needed to stop in order for these moments to happen, with even Ben and Leslie’s charming breakfast moment discussing the results of the event has the great runner about the soup and Leslie’s waffle-eating technique. Again, like last week, the show doesn’t need to stop being funny to start laying the groundwork for the season ahead.
At the same time, though, look at the storylines that the episode manages around the edge. Ron, dealing with the absence of April thanks to the flu, bonds with Andy and allows for some discussion of systems of government, meat delivery systems, and the value of intelligent football drafting. Tom, seen by Ben as a bit of a slacker, uses his schmoozing in order to land a key business for the Harvest Festival, further allowing Ben to understand and connect with our characters. These developments may not be part of an ongoing storyline, but they add further dynamics to an already incredibly effective cast: Ron and Andy have shared screentime before (including an incredibly memorable shoeshine), but never in this sort of father/son fashion, while Ben and Tom will be sharing more screentime in the future which builds nicely on these smaller moments. The episode found time to pack some of that in, and is that much more effective because of it.
The ending, admittedly, runs the risk of seeming too driven by romantic connections. Not just for April and Andy, which is obvious, but for Chris and Ben: their reasons for asking for the extension seem mostly driven by an actual romantic pairing and a presumed romantic pairing (if Ben’s awkwardness around Leslie is evidence of such a thing). I think the show has often run the risk of being essentialized in that way, and that moment felt like one of those times. Mind you, I think the episodes after this one comfortably move away from that, better understanding Ben’s role in the Harvest Festival, but the subtext there was not lost, and I think remains very active even through six half hours.
Overall, though, just a tremendous outing: I think I might prefer episodes which offer more of a glimpse into life in Pawnee, as they better reflect the series as a whole, but “Flu Season” is such a fun combination of character dynamics and broad comedy that it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable episodes in the series’ run.
- Combined with Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, this is two people grilling bacon in their offices – we need one more for a trend!
- I refuse to believe that a place named Spawnee would exist, but I chuckled.
- Presuming that waffles cost $5, and Leslie spent over a thousand dollars, that means that Leslie ate a lot of waffles. This has been a mathematical observation from a liberal arts major.
- I sadly don’t have time to go through and list numerous amazing quotes from this episode, as I would be here all night and day, but suffice to say it was a memorable one.