Friday, 21 September 2012

Television - Parks & Recreation 'Ms Knope Goes To Washington' review

I'm not going to pretend I was particularly keen on the last season of Parks & Recreation. Leslie's bid for local government office ended up producing a large number of repetitive storylines and too often required the great Ms Knope to act drastically out of character in aid of some unusually laboured gags.
Fortunately, 'Ms Knope Goes To Washington' is a wonderful return to form and hopefully a sign of things to come for a series I seriously considered no longer covering. (Actually, it still depends on what my schedule looks like when the fall season really begins, but I'll certainly be reviewing Parks for a little while longer). Leslie was back to her old self, passionate and endlessly adorable, and the Parks department was busy with its own affairs again - well, a barbeque - rather than an auxiliary wing of a political campaign.
Though Parks often revolves around the personality of Pawnee, it was wonderful to move beyond city limits and have Leslie visit Washington DC, where you can smell bills being passed into governance and buildings have a tendency to look like body parts. Leslie's adoration of all things government-related was heightened for comic effect, but represented the best side of her: the woman who adores what she does, and the idea of people coming together to make a difference. Where last season she might have acted out in jealousy at the sight of Ben mingling with a bevy of beautiful, tall women, aka the amalgamated 'Hot Rebecca', here she trusts him enough to let him get on with his work, despite her frustration and anguish over her struggles to bring local issues to national attention. The city Leslie imagined as the bureaucratic heartland of her country, where every politician of every level could convene to get their issues organised and handled by the national government machine, instead saw the little people reduced to several enormous piles of folders waiting to be glanced at by an absent, faceless middle-man.

Leslie's naivety might have been overplayed for someone who has presumably followed the machinations of government her entire life, but was understandable considering her optimistic, generous nature. She's used to following a delusion, like sincerely believing that Pawnee is the greatest small town in America despite everyone else seeing it as a dump inhabited by lunatics with some very odd traditions. That she would have a similarly rose-tinted view of the political system made sense, as she is guided by the principle that everyone in power should be working to improve the lives and environment of those under their jurisdiction. Having Leslie be the shortest woman at Ben's cocktail party was an obvious but neat visual metaphor for how small her local concerns are made to feel in comparison to the snazzy, perfectly groomed cogs of the big city machine. It took Andy, that most Pawnee-esque of people, to remind her that she's the one actually helping people at ground-level, a human figure to whom they can express their hopes and concerns, rather than the automatons in Washington.

Andy's delight at visiting the city was, of course, one of the episode's most potent sources of comedy. Whether searching for clues in chewing gum (which is not much stupider than what actually happens in National Treasure movies), making the natural assumption that the Washington Monument represented a giant phallus - I'm sure a feminist like Amy Poehler would be able to read something into that - or making out with April on the floor of a museum and later become the greatest tour guide in history (who knew the Oval office was named after a popcorn entrepreneur?), he picked up where he left off last year as half of the show's MVP couple. April, sadly, didn't get much to do, but her husband picked up the slack.

Back in Pawnee, Ron effin' Swanson was in charge of organising the Parks department annual picnic, formerly the Leslie Knope Employment Enjoyment Summerslam Grill Jam Fun-splosion, which could not possibly be as much fun to attend as it is to say. Although it did sound like a metric ton of fun. Anyway, Ron is typically unimpressed by the prospect of local theatre and vegetables, so decides to turn the event into the manliest barbeque ever, where guests get to meet their meat - a pig named Tom - and endure several hours of food preparation. Even by Ron's standards, he seemed a touch too content to ride roughshod over the interests of his colleagues, even if he did believe he was ultimately acting in their best interests. Even taking into account his in-built horror at any food which doesn't require gutting, his selfishness felt like a minor blip on an episode which set this most endearing of casts back on form.
Luckily, Chris' talk at the end helped Ron see the error of his ways, and the Parks staff were in turn seduced by the smell of poor Tom's seared ribs. In Parks, no-one reaches the end without some small victory, and it was gratifying to have it come through the mutual respect between Ron and Chris which steadily grew over the previous year. Ron's intransigence also allowed a number of comic gems during the barbeque itself, like Tom's despair at sharing his name with a pig and Donna's increasingly delighted reaction, or Chris pitching raisins direct to camera as 'nature's candy' with Rob Lowe's gleaming smile at full beam. Breaking up Anne and Tom also comes as a relief, since their courtship was more a result of the writing staff seeming to run out of ideas for the pair of them rather than any shared chemistry or compatibility. Their subplot about them pretending to be together seemed an amusing acknowledgment of such complaints and produced some of the best material from the pair to date, even if the bar was set low.
'Ms Knope Goes To Washington' also featured some of the series' trademark affection for wordplay, including Donna's pronunciation of 'myriad', Andy's endearingly botched use of 'amalgalm' and, once again, the Leslie Knope Employment Enjoyment Summerslam Grill Jam Fun-splosion, and the optimism and can-do attitude which occasionally went missing last season. In a time when politicians seem less trustworthy than ever (John McCain's cameo was very funny, though, and nice to see this most unashamedly liberal programme be so welcoming a figure of contrasting political views). we need the Leslie Knope who is willing to clean up entire rivers on her own when Washington won't do it for her, all the while chomping down waffles sundaes and fixating on her boyfriend's bottom. Parks is a sweet series, extolling the virtues of a system which often seems anything but. That's Knope we can believe in.


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