March 17th, 2011
Parks and Recreation is like Li’l Sebastian. For those who don’t know better, it’s just another Office-like NBC comedy, just as Li’l Sebastian appears to be just a pony. For those of us who have become devotees, however, Parks and Recreation is more than a pony – it is a mini horse, a mini horse which inspires the kind of overwhelming emotions which drive even characters like Ron Swanson and Joan Calamezzo to…well, to lose their shit.
After a few weeks off, Parks and Recreation is back with the conclusion of the Harvest Festival arc. This is actually the first episode that I’ve watched live, and thus the first episode that I’m reviewing without having watched numerous times. As a result, this review is less likely to run those the episode’s finest jokes, but I don’t think “Harvest Festival” depends on particularly strong one-liners. Instead, it relies on moments: moments like Joan losing control over herself at the presence of Li’l Sebastian, or moments like Tom and Ben rekindling their Star Wars battle as if they’ve been having it on a weekly basis since we last spent time in Pawnee.
It’s all remarkably consistent, and all predictably charming given the series’ strong third season. The production hiatus between “Indianapolis” and “Harvest Festival” did nothing to kill the show’s rhythm, once again proving itself one of the most delightful mini-horses on television.
Even if it just looks like a pony to most of America.
The entire sequence of Joan Calamezzo walking around the carnival grounds trying to find a scandal was really the show at its best. It’s a fine moment for Leslie, completely prepared for what Joan is looking for and being ready at every turn. There’s a nice undercurrent for Ben, given his past with Calamezzo and the media, and that wonderful failed handshake in the initial introduction. The bits of Pawnee-specific culture, what with Tilda Bird and Li’l Sebastian, are as always a beautiful portrait into this slightly ridiculous world. And then you have that conclusion, as they think they’ve beaten the curse just as Li’l Sebastian goes missing and Joan finds her spooky traffic-light supported story.
The speed at which the scenario evolves from a perfect festival to a quadruple lightning rod is part of what makes the show so compelling, but what makes it so perfect is that it never feels exaggerated. The world of Pawnee has been developed enough that we believe Perd Hapley and Joan Calamezzo would turn “Curse Watch” into a thing, and even if the CGI reenactment was a bit over the top it didn’t feel as though it was overplayed. The episode never becomes about their reaction, and instead follows how that reaction affects the various characters. For Leslie, it’s a sign of her shrewdness: she says the right things, makes the right deals, and even comes up with a great way to turn the curse into a public event in the same vein as the initial controversy. For Ben, meanwhile, it’s a more personal (rather than public) struggle with his political past, as he begins to feel that he’s the one at the center of the curse.
Their brief moment of connection once the dust settles (and before the dust is thrown in Ben’s face) is not about romance so much as teamwork – while the show has clearly laid the ground for a romantic element between them, their secret handshakes are a sign more of their teamwork on this particular project. Leslie is right that this is their project, not just hers, and that ownership is demonstrative of his desire to stick around (and thus the logic for Adam Scott remaining on the show after the festival is completed). It was a scene that was very clearly playing on our expectations, but it settled into a sweet space that fits the characters’ journey to this point in the season.
The same goes for the other characters. There is nothing new about Tom blaming Jerry for something, but I liked that this was unquestionably Tom’s fault (even if Jerry was perhaps responsible for trusting Tom with such a majestic creature); there is definitely nothing new about two characters fighting over a poor response to someone saying “I love you,” but “That’s why the sauce is so awesome” was just too charming for me to be annoyed. And Ron’s ability to entire dissect the situation picks up on some of the events in recent episodes, as his desire to remain entirely disconnected from everyone’s personal life is starting to erode as he displays an uncanny awareness of each character’s motivations. While so segregating the rest of the cast from the main storyline could be seen as potentially risky, bringing (most of) them together on the Ferris Wheel was a nice bit of convergence, and the quick bits of footage from the search through the corn maze was delightful.
For the most part, Parks is about the marriage of characters and details – there were plenty of tremendous lines here, and new insight into Pawnee’s terrifying past as it relates to Native Americans, but the festival was also very clearly positioned as the culmination of a season-long arc for these characters. And on that level, the Harvest Festival (and “Harvest Festival”) delivers in terms of feeling as though we have learned more about these people as the project has been completed. While functionally similar to the way the pit operated throughout the first season, the show is at a point now where these types of overarching plots never feel as though they are artificial: the festival exists because Leslie needed to prove herself, was made possible by a sense of collaboration between the Parks and Recreation employees, and was a success thanks to that collaboration being put into practice in a moment of potential collapse.
It’s a meaningful and comically rewarding event, precisely the kind of episode which can launch the show into the back end of its third season (and eventually into its fourth).
- As the last line made clear, Parks and Recreation has indeed been renewed for a fourth season – based on its returns following The Office, this seemed like a no-brainer, but it’s still very reassuring. I’m actually curious to see how it performs following the Carell-less Office – if it maintains the same ratings it has drawn this year and Office falls without Carell, its stock might actually increase. What a strange world we live in.
- Not much to say about the Donna and Ann subplot, except that I enjoy Donna and Ann as a combination, and noted that this was positioned as something of a relaunch given the amount of exposition offered by Ann when explaining the Chris situation.
- I wonder how much it cost the show to include the CGI rollercoaster in that final wide shot in order to maintain continuity with Tom’s description of the fat coaster back in “Media Blitz.”
- As with everyone on the internet, I would very much enjoy a “I met Li’l Sebastian at the Pawnee Harvest Festival” t-shirt. It’d be nice consolation for the fact that some people got to actually meet our nation’s newest hero. I’m submitting him for an honorary doctorate at UW immediately.
- And while I would normally say that Star Wars isn’t that nerdy, I’ve had a few instances with students where my Star Wars references just aren’t landing, so I’m guessing Tom’s contention will become more true with time.
- On the note of white people, Matchbox 20 and curses, I’d like to point everyone to the lyrics of “3AM.”