March 24th, 2011
Let’s get this out of the way, folks – this was an average episode of Parks and Recreation.
This does not mean it was terrible, nor does it mean it did not have its moments. And heck, I would even argue that it was purposefully average, allowing the in-story awkward post-Harvest Festival lull to be reflected by the episode itself in order to transition into the back end of the season.
I like parts of what that transition says, and I very much enjoyed parts of this episode, but I feel we need to be willing to say that this was below the standard that was set this season (even if that doesn’t mean that it was close to being anything beyond a slight disappointment).
One of the problems with an episode like “Camping” is that it needs to address a lot of behind-the-scenes details within the course of the episode. The show has to deal with Rob Lowe’s continued presence in the cast, and it also has to deal with the fact that a major arc just ended and the show is looking for another project.
On the second point, the show went about as meta as one would expect: Leslie and the Parks Department are forced to live up to the wild success of the Harvest Festival, much as the show is being forced to live up to the wild success (at least in the eyes of some critics) of the Harvest Festival arc. In an interview by Steve Heisler at The A.V. Club, Michael Schur talks about the notion of project-based storytelling and said the following:
As far as the Harvest Festival, that really came out of Amy getting pregnant, and us having to extend our season after having shot 22 episodes in season two. We kept rolling and shot the first six of season three. So we felt like we should come up with some kind of project that would give those episodes an arc, like a tree with branches. It really helped us organize our scattered brains.
It’s an interesting point, in that arcs like this are considered in terms of organization. I appreciated how Leslie was very much insistent on the entire department being on the camping trip, and how that desire sort of reflects her argument that the department (and the show) work best when they are united towards a common goal. However, at the same time, they were clearly not united: the storylines broke off into their own little zones once they arrived at the camp site, and I didn’t feel as though any of them really connected like they could have.
This is partly an issue of the absence of an arc, but it just felt like the show was coasting on pre-existing relationships without doing much to explore them. Tom and Ben’s friendship has been enjoyable throughout the season, really blossoming in “Indianapolis,” but I didn’t feel like this did more than offer a few nice jokes and the most welcome return of DJ Roomba. Similarly, the pairing of Ron and Jerry resulted in a couple of fun jokes/situations, but the sum result was a couple of fun jokes/situations in which to allow Ron Swanson to be Ron Swanson. Even April and Andy’s storyline felt like a return to zero scenario: April is rescued from boredom/annoyance by Andy’s bungling romantic gestures, a scenario that just takes the characters’ stock qualities and places them in this situation.
While some of the B/C stories in previous episodes this season have been similarly static, which is perfectly acceptable for a sitcom that has characters we enjoy spending time with, there’s been a certain trends towards meaning in these areas. For example, Ron’s time spent with Andy didn’t just play out what it would be like if Ron and Andy were friends; it also paid off in subsequent episodes as he helped Andy win back April. “Camping” just never felt like these stories were tapping into any similar sense of complexity, as if this is the first time the show has almost entirely rested on its laurels since early in the second season.
My enjoyment of the episode proves that that season-long period of character/story development has paid off, but we need to acknowledge that this is a different kind of episode. The circumstances of Chris’ return were perhaps most obvious in this respect, as there was no hiding the baldness of the scenario: of course the City Manager happens to have a serious heart attack that requires a temporary replacement, and of course Chris would be willing to take that job. My problem is that they never really showed us what Chris as City Manager might look like, or how that might challenge the character’s inability to be the “bad guy” in various situations. Instead, the character jumps right into a funny if a bit predictable interaction with Ann as she once again misreads the signs of where their relationship might be heading after his return.
I like Ann’s newfound awkwardness, as Rashida Jones is given the opportunity to explore another side of the character, but we need to stop seeing Chris as someone who other characters respond to. Rob Lowe is funny, and I think Chris can be an effective character, but I think they could have done more to indicate how that character might now be functioning in this world. It was all a bit too forced, and while I have some faith that they’ll effectively negotiate his role in future stories I do think that its absence here was a bit of a distraction.
This all probably sounds crotchety, but I think we need to be clear that “Camping” was coasting on previous goodwill as it positioned itself for future storylines. This doesn’t mean it did not coast effectively: I laughed, I chuckled, and I couldn’t help but smile. Instead of being particularly promising, the conclusion to the episode is reassuring: with a good night’s rest, Leslie Knope can come up with an endless stream of great ideas, and I have no real doubt that the show follows the same principle.
I just don’t want us to pretend they embraced that principle wholeheartedly in this average but effective half-hour.
- Some enjoyable Jerry material here: I think what worked was that Jerry’s annoying nature was on display without being entirely rejected. His sex talk made Ron awkward, but didn’t become a source of embarrassment, while his cat cuddling and enjoyment of the musical accompaniment at the bed and breakfast was just obnoxious without being turned into a public shaming. He was just a counterpoint/foil for other characters, and I thought it was well played on the whole.
- I’m curious to see if they run with some of the identity crisis that Ben should be feeling: although Leslie defended him, he really doesn’t have any reason to still be there, and I am intrigued to see what they try to do with this. I know some have suggested a run for Mayor might be in his future, but the interim period will need to find him a purpose/function beyond incredulously responding to Pawnee-related ridiculousness like the Sweetums pollution.
- I was out on Thursday evening, and when checking Twitter someone ruined the brief DJ Roomba cameo. That person is subsequently on notice.