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Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Checking In with Parks and Recreation Halfway Through Season 5

Consistently one of the funniest shows on TV (based on a scientific method averaging laughs per minute over well-placed callbacks per episode), Parks and Recreation has already hit some significant milestones halfway through its fifth – and, hopefully, not last – season. As Leslie adapts to life outside the Parks and Rec office, Ron pulls free from the Tammys, and Ben, Tom, April, and Andy all start getting serious about their own five-year plans, things are evolving across the board. And while all the big life events lead to occasional emotional moments, they’ve been perfectly balanced by the absurd things we’re learning about Pawnee – and the strength of the writing staff and cast.

Parks continues to escape the Office traps of repetitive storylines and forgettable subplots, partly because big challenges are so central to each character’s continued evolution. So when this season started out with Ben (Adam Scott) and Leslie (Amy Poehler) long-distance dating, we knew it would all work out somehow. It seemed inevitable, after the exuberant City Council win that capped off last season, that Leslie’s sky-high aspirations were due for a reality check. And following his expert management of her campaign, it’s only natural that Ben’s rollercoaster career was about to hit another peak. The first few episodes showed an increasingly meek Leslie almost drowning in shady City Hall politics while Ben fended off job offers, and the portrayal of everyone’s favorite public servant in such a downward spiral was almost uncomfortable to watch. But by episode four – “Sex Education,” in which Leslie defies conservative critics while teaching proper condom use to senior citizens – everything was almost back to normal. By episode five, “Halloween Surprise,” it was even better. Which leads us to the season’s three biggest developments:

Engagement! Ok yes, let’s talk about it. At the start of the season, Ben had so many prospects in front of him, his future seemed limitless. But while the Ben Wyatt of season three – a man determined to escape his unfortunate reputation – probably wouldn’t turn down a respectable job offer, the Ben Wyatt of 2012 – a man who’s getting verrry comfortable with his own nerdiness – has other priorities to consider. It doesn’t take him long to realize what he wants more than anything else is Leslie, which leads to this Halloween-y proposal:

Leslie’s starting to play dirty. Last season, Leslie got the job she wanted. This season, she’s learning it’s not exactly what she thought. As she fights first for a soda tax to combat obesity, then for a bill to extend public pool hours, she endures a series of hilarious but horrible humiliations that force her to make some bold moves, like bribery (agreeing to get Invisaligns in exchange for dentist-slash-Councilman Jamm’s vote) and literal dirty work (inviting the town’s dogs to shit on his lawn unless he helps build a new park).

Ron is having some Very Real Emotions. In the premiere, “Ms. Knope Goes to Washington,” Ron (Nick Offerman) is barely coping with the office’s loss of Leslie, if only because he has no idea how to organize social events or interact with people in general. But in episode three, “How A Bill Becomes A Law,” when Ron hits a breaking point and takes to the streets to deal with citizen complaints, everything changes. Diane (Lucy Lawless), a single mom with two daughters and a serious no-bullshit attitude, is the first person – other than Leslie – who’s been able to bring out Ron’s softer side, and she’s the only one he’s willingly introduced to his alter ego, sensuous musician Duke Silver. In half a season, we’ve seen more Ron Swanson firsts than we have the whole series, from his full-on princess makeover to him turning down Tammy 2’s heretofore irresistible advances.

Leslie, Ben, and Ron aren’t the only ones going through some major changes. Back at the office, Andy (Chris Pratt) is considering becoming a policeman but settling for a temporary security guard position as he tests out the responsibility. April (Aubrey Plaza), back from terrorizing underlings in DC, is starting to discover that her attitude is actually a professional asset; episode seven, “Leslie vs. April,” finds her facing off against her mentor as she tries to apply her skills.  And while Tom (Aziz Ansari) has another get-rich-quick scheme brewing, this one actually seems legit (“Rent-A-Swag: You Rent It, You Wear It, You Clean It, You Return It, I Get Rich" is definitely a catchy motto).

While most of the focus remains on Ms. Knope’s political pursuits, Parks excels at giving equal weight to every character’s crises. Four years ago, this tactic helped endear viewers to a cast many were seeing for the first time, aside from SNL veteran Poehler and Office alum Rashida Jones. But since then – thanks to Ansari’s skyrocketing stand up career, Plaza and Pratt’s Hollywood roles, and the addition of Party Down star Scott and 80s heartthrob Rob Lowe – the Parks cast has evolved into one of the strongest comedy ensembles on TV. The same can be said of the team behind the scenes. While the writing staff shifted a little this year – losing Chelsea Peretti, gaining Joe Mande and Megan Amram –returning all-stars like Aisha Muharrar, Norm Hiscock, and Dan Goor continue to work their magic under writers-turned-producers Alan Yang and Harris “Humblebrag” Wittels.

And so, among the season’s other highlights:

Jerry makes friends! The mid-season finale, “Ron and Diane,” revolves around the titular character’s trip to a woodworking awards show, and the rest of the office’s desperate attempt to get into a party thrown by… Jerry? Yes, everything’s possible, even Jerry becoming kind of cool. Nevermind the fact that everyone was planning on celebrating the annual Jerry Dinner – both at Jerry’s expense and without him – before they learned about his exclusive party and gorgeous wife (Christie Brinkley!)

Councilman Jamm is the worst / best. Jon Glaser’s multi-episode spot as Leslie’s rival, a sleazy official who can only be described as “dastardly,” has been perfect so far. From his personal catchphrase – “You got Jamm-ed!” – to his obsession with Leslie’s private bathroom, he’s a natural fit both among the cast and within the weird world of Pawnee.

Pawnee, WTF. Speaking of which, seriously, what is up with this place? Episode eight, “Pawnee Commons,” sheds some light on the town’s culture and history, and pretty much all of it is weird. From the NPR station that airs shows like “Thought for Your Thoughts” and “Jazz + Jazz = Jazz” to Eagleton’s relentless wrath (is the “Good Luck With That” town line sign necessary?), it’s no wonder citizens tend to be a little insane.

Everyone loves Morris! New writer / Twitter pro Joe Mande’s cameo as Twitter-obsessed Pawneean Morris in “Halloween Surprise” was, of course, a huge hit on Twitter. More Morris, please!

With another 13 episodes to go, there’s still a lot to look forward to this season. We can’t wait to see what other weird ways Leslie’s leadership is challenged (and, of course, defended), and the prospect of more romantic Ron moments is almost too much for our hearts to handle (imagine all the creative ways bacon might come into play)! Chris’s highly foreshadowed meltdown has been a long time coming, and this might just be the season he finally breaks (despite Dr. Richard Nygard’s best efforts). But we’re especially looking forward to more amazing guest stars, like Jenny Slate as Jean-Ralphio’s twin sister, Mona Lisa, and Jason Schwartzman as Daniel Lerpiss, owner of the Pawnee Videodrome. Continuing with the season’s political cameos (Barbara Boxer! Joe Biden!), Newt Gingrich will also be making an appearance. Until then, let’s re-live this magic moment a few hundred times:

  • BonzoGal

    "I'm sorry, this is a table for Gingrich, not Gergich."

    • Evan Roche

      Wait – that episode just aired. How did you know that line 5 hours ago?

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisXMorgan Chris Morgan

    It should be noted that your scientific method would basically just reward shows for not having well-placed callbacks, and a show with zero of said callbacks would break the formula. It's almost as if though it was just a casually tossed off joke to open up an article.

  • http://twitter.com/LanceBravestar1 Lance Bravestar

    Man, Jenny Slate looks EXACTLY like a female Ben Schwartz.