PARKS & RECREATION: 'The Bubble'/'Li'l Sebastian'
Befitting a series that has maintained such a ridiculously high standard all season, the two episodes of Parks & Rec's third season ended the year on a high, despite my continuing to struggle with the Leslie/Ben relationship at the heart of both of them.
Luckily, these are such strongly written, vibrant characters that one such misstep doesn't have a major impact on how much enjoyment can be had from watching from them interact. Even if I can't get invested in them as a couple, Leslie and Ben are so clearly defined as people and hold such important positions in the comic makeup of the cast that the fact they're together - albeit not-so-secretly - just creates another permutation for the writers to play around with. The precise details of why don't matter any more than they do for why Tom and Andy ended up taking an assignment on the wonderfully deranged fourth floor ("Tell Mort I said 'your move'"): it's just an excuse to pair the two up and see what happens, even if in this case the excuse doesn't feel like a great one. Thankfully, the results are as strong as ever.
To be honest, I not even entirely sure why I'm so resistant to Ben and Leslie becoming a couple. They're similar in a lot of ways: both officious, loyal, passionate about their work and exceptionally gifted at it. On a lesser programme, I don't think it would bother me at all. In fact, it would probably seem a natural fit. The only reason I can come up with it doesn't work so well for me here is because there doesn't seem to be much warmth between the two in the same way there is between Leslie and her other friends. She's had some wonderful heart-to-hears with Ron and Ann throughout the season, yet nothing between her and Ben.
Whilst you don't need that level of intimacy to be attracted to someone at first, the relationship feels lesser for the fact that it seems based on something only the two characters can feel. When Leslie revealed her birthday present to Ron earlier in the season, for example, the audience were able to feel the depth of their friendship. When Leslie thinks Ben has a 'cute mouth', that's something only she can feel and describe to us. As the friendships between the other characters have grown with us as a part of them, the Leslie and Ben relationship feels one step removed. We're not as emotionally connected to their pairing as they are, which feels out of place on a show whose success is strongly built on the audience being able to get a strong sense of why these seemingly disparate characters work so well together. If the friendships between the other characters don't make so much logical sense (Ron the libertarian being best friends with Leslie the pro-government superwoman, for example) but do feel completely right, Ben and Leslie make logical sense but haven't created that same emotional depth yet.
What seems stranger is that the writers seem to know this and used it to their advantage for a cliffhanger which fell back on the ambiguity between Leslie's dedication to Ben and her work. I've been slowly catching up on the first two seasons and if the Leslie of those days had been offered the position she was offered last night but been required to come clean about something which might have compromised her suitability, I think she would have done it without hesitation. She's lightened up a lot since then, which is one of the reasons why this season has (in my opinion) been by far the strongest compared to what I've seen of the previous two, and the fact she hides her relationship with Ben from the people offering to make her a mayoral candidate becomes suspenseful because we can't be certain anymore whether she'll make the old Leslie decision of fulfilling her answer by breaking up with him (as infatuated as she seems, Leslie's love for her work has always come first) or the new Leslie decision to keep going, but try and hide it for as long as possible - which even new Leslie must surely realise won't be for long, given how hilariously unsuccessful their efforts were at the Li'l Sebastian memorial.
When taken strictly as a catalyst for creating havoc, the relationship works a lot better. The arrival of Leslie's mother on the scene in the first of last night's two episodes, 'The Bubble', came a bit out of nowhere (and ended in much the same way) but utilised Ben's nerves under pressure and Leslie's obsessive micro-managing of bad situations to great effect. That the worst of Ben's first meeting with Mrs. Knope was only passed onto us through his recounting of events to Leslie ("At one point, for no reason, I just took off my shoes and... held them") makes it funnier because the details are left to be filled in by the audience's imaginations, where they will always be several magnitudes worse than what could have been shown on-screen. That Leslie then prepared Ben so perfectly for his next meeting that he ended up with his girlfriend's mother rubbing her hand along his knee, all taking place in the background as Leslie told us how she thought it was her finest hour, escalated the situation brilliantly. The storyline's ending was as abrupt as its initiation, but it was worth it for moments like those.
On a similar note, having the two fail so completely in their efforts to hide their relationship from their co-workers in 'Li'l Sebastian' produced wonderfully mad results, with Leslie improvising by the skin of her teeth to keep the memorial concert for Pawnee's favourite li'l horse from failing after she'd allowed a worker to go home in exchange for his silence at what he'd seen of her and Ben's secret kiss. It was a neat build-up to the cliffhanger that she'd risk endangering her work through her relationship, though at the end show a more traditional Leslie-like determination to get everything back on track, leading to the tension during the meeting in her office with the mayoral recruitment team.
She also made the fatal mistake of underestimating The Mighty Ron Swanson, who has not only known her long enough to instantly detect when she's hiding something, but also had Ben accidentally send him a recording of his and Leslie's strange phone role-play ("Please tell me you hung up before Ruth Bader Ginsburg"). Ron was on wonderful form throughout both episodes, with his use of Chris' swivel chair to avoid answering a poor woman's question producing what was for me the biggest laugh-out-loud moment of the season. His tearing up at the demise of Li'l Sebastian (only the second time he'd cried, the first being when he was hit by a schoolbus as a child) gave the usually dry-as-a-rock Nick Offerman the chance to heighten his performance, making it all the funnier through contrast to how Ron usually behaves.
His disappointment at not being able to lay the wreath at the memorial ("If there's one thing you should know about me, it's that I prefer laying wreaths to lighting torches") because of Leslie's continuing attempts to conceal her romance with Ben both reminded us and her of the stakes of what she was doing, potentially sacrificing both the work and friendships she had spent so long building up, and brought on the sight gag of Ron having his eyebrows and moustache partially incinerated by a torch that Jerry had filled with lighter fluid instead of propane. Ron's cliffhanger, the appearance of his unseen first wife Tammy One, a woman terrifying enough to scare away even Tammy Two (his second wife), should make for a great start to next season.
The other characters' storylines were less important, but as reliable as ever for reminding us of what we'll be missing over the coming months. Tom and Andy's relocation upstairs was a gem for how far the writers took the idea of an asylum-like fourth floor filled with people even more insane than those downstairs (including an old woman brilliantly named 'Ethel Beavers') and playing off Tom's increasing terror with Andy's delight at getting his own office and dumb amusement at everything that was happening. He and April will be sorely missed, both as a completely adorable couple and as comic dynamite, summed up perfectly by Andy's second proposal to her - this time to become his manager after she ruthlessly flogs his band's CDs for an exorbitant price. His rendition of '5000 Candles In The Wind' for the Li'l Sebastian memorial, as inspired by April, was a wonderful moment with an appropriate big finale feel, plus a pretty good song I thought. Meanwhile, Donna's struggle to get to grips with the space-age keyboard Chris had given her was only really good for one line, but it was a scorcher. Tom and Jean-Ralphio's hammy tribute to Li'l Sebastian was a pitch-perfect parody of such overwrought montages. It's going to be a long summer until we see these characters again, but these two episodes were as terrific a send-off for an amazing season as could have been hoped for.
BEST MOMENT: Ron swivels in his chair to avoid a question, going 'round and 'round and 'round...
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