Parks and Rec Recap: “Camping”

Last night’s episode of Parks and Recreation picks up with the aftermath of the Harvest Festival, with Leslie being publicly recognized for her highly-successful event by City Manager Paul Iaresco. Iaresco has a heart attack during the ceremony, pawing at Leslie’s breasts as he collapses in pain. Going into this episode, like Leslie, I was wondering what the rest of the season could hold for the Parks staff. I assumed this opening scene was a clever way of spelling out Leslie’s political future while she’s wondering about it herself, with the rest of the season revolving around her running for the vacated City Manager position. By the end of the episode, I was much more satisfied with the actual direction the rest of Parks’s season seems to be going, and it’s a testament to this show’s writing that I never feel confident predicting what’s going to happen next.

Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger rising to the occasion to fill in for Iaresco as City Manager was a nice surprise, and it should continue to provide us with funny moments throughout the rest of the season. I love Lowe’s character and the idea of him as an authority figure is promising. I was expecting Chris’s return to Pawnee to be awkward and unnatural, but this is a very believable career move for him and a wonderful place for him to occupy in the Parks universe, as well. As for Adam Scott’s character Ben, I was guessing he would have taken a city job to plant himself in Pawnee by now, but maybe his looming relationship with Leslie will be his reason for staying.

The writers have been quietly building up to this Ben-Leslie romance for several episodes now, and I was waiting for it to happen while they were watching that beautiful sunset together (which was hilariously caused by “gorgeous pollution from the Sweetums factory”). I rather like the way the writers are handling their relationship, as it’s more realistic and less blatant than most will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension on TV. This wasn’t an episode about Ben and Leslie, it was about Leslie’s relationship with herself as she showed a rare flirtation with underconfidence and contemplation. I’m sure the writers will have a perfect and unexpected way of bringing these two characters together later in the season. As their budding romance has been downplayed the past several episodes and not been the driving force behind any major plotlines, it doesn’t feel dragged out and full of frustrating tension like Ross and Rachel or Jim and Pam did years ago.

I’m always amazed by how many memorable moments Parks and Recreation seems to find for each of its characters in 22 minutes. Everyone shines on their own in this episode, and there were some funny group scenes, as well. The scene in which the staff goes around the horn with their ideas to follow up the Harvest Festival was especially strong. Any time you bring these characters together for a little roundtable (my favorite is them showing off their paintings in the episode “The Camel”), it always works. Everyone’s suggestions were absurd and amusing, with Ron wanting to return the proceeds of the festival to the citizens, Donna proposing a luxury dog park, and Tom advocating the multi-million dollar construction of a coliseum to host big-name rap acts.

This was the staff’s first foray into the wilderness since last season’s “Hunting Trip,” and this episode lived up to the hype of that spectacular installment, allowing us to once again see how the characters behave out of their element. Tom Haverford was in fine form, showing off his Thunderdome tent filled with merchandise from the SkyMall catalog (and DJ Roomba!). Tom’s fascination with spending the camping trip watching mediocre television was always good for a laugh, as was his coyote panic (“If that was a coyote, someone needs to pick me up right now.”) Andy had some superb scenes too, being forced to drink most of the champagne he was saving for he and April while he was lost in the woods. Chris Pratt is a natural with physical comedy, and he gets the opportunity to show this off once again, as he stumbles through the forest trying to find April. I’m a sucker for him berating his least-liked shoeshine customer Kyle too, so watching Andy laugh hysterically while Kyle details his recent identity theft was much to my liking.

With “Camping,” Parks and Rec embarks on the second half of its already-outstanding third season. There are only eight episodes left, but considering how much great comedy and character work the show packs into each show, eight should be enough to satiate fans until the show returns in the fall. With Chris Traeger settling into his position as Pawnee’s City Manager and Ben and Leslie’s relationship on the horizon, there’s a lot of potential for top-notch comedy on the way from one of television’s best series.

Bradford Evans is one of three or four writers living in Los Angeles.

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