I haven’t written about Parks and Recreation once this season. Various personal commitments typically keep me to two reviews on Thursday night/Friday morning, I’d frankly just prefer to discuss the likes of Community and The Vampire Diaries at those times. However, although I have enjoyed much of Parks and Rec’s fourth season, I’ve also been somewhat disappointed it at the same time. Many of the characters have been a bit broader than they were in previous seasons and a few stories were handled in ways that I didn’t quite like (most notably Tom’s Entertainment 720 arc and Leslie and Ben’s relationship). Somewhat serendipitously, tonight’s episode, “Smallest Park,” happened to be the first episode I could write about and an episode that rectified many of the issues I’ve had with the series this fall.
The broadening of characters isn’t that big of a deal, it’s something that happens in most comedies as they age. It’s hard not to continue to make Andy overly dim or take the likes of Tom and Chris to wilder, louder places. It’s a natural action when trying to top what came before. The same thing happened to The Office in its fourth season and the series continued on a solid path in that season and into the next. As long as those characters continue to have solid, more grounded moments like many of them did this week, I don’t really have a problem with that moving forward. I do think the series is having trouble finding exactly what to do with Chris, but this episode was a great example of how he works best at this point: As a supporting character in a second or third story. His cartoonish enthusiasm works best in short bursts, so why not just keep it there? Solid marks on that front.
Though less so than Chris, Andy and Ron are also always going to be characters that the writers have to wrestle with and pull back from the edge of unreality when necessary. Oddly, the best way to do that with both characters is put the two of them together in a story, which “Smallest Park” did quite masterfully. Ron’s genuine affection for every character is visible, but his willingness to let people actually see those feelings for Andy makes their father-son-like relationship one of the series’ strongest.
I pretty much knew from the moment the college course visit subplot started that it would end with Ron paying for Andy to take a few classes, but that knowledge didn’t make the individual sequences with the two of them and April in Guitar for Beginners, Introduction to Lasers and Introduction to Women’s Studies any less enjoyable. Andy’s reaction to the laser course was almost topped by Ron’s hilarious reaction to the Women’s Studies professor. The best part about Andy is that even when the writers take him too broad, especially daft places, his heart is still in the right place. That keeps him from ever being too annoying; he’s just too damn lovable and charming to get that upset with for even a second.
But where I think “Smallest Park” succeeds the most is the way that it handles the season’s most challenging stories thus far: Leslie and Ben romance and Tom’s career. I’d like to start with the latter first if only because I don’t want to start the gushing for the former too quickly. If you’ll go back to the end of season three with me for a moment, I just want to note that I thought having Tom chase his dreams with Entertainment 720 was a really fine idea. Not only did it presumably more Jean-Ralphio into my life, but it also served as a legitimately big moment for Tom’s character development. For three seasons, he worked his ass off to become Pawnee’s own entrepreneurial maven and he more or less failed every time. Seeing him take one final big risk made a lot of sense to me.
Early this season, though, it sometimes felt like the writers weren’t entirely sure how to tell that story about Tom, especially while trying to keep him part of the rest of the characters’ world. They’ve similarly struggled to keep Ann relevant (again, these are minor struggles, but I think the word is still applicable) and once Tom moved away from the Parks and Recreation office, he felt like some episodes had to shoe-horn him back in. And even when they did so, there wasn’t much to tell other than “Well, that failed,” so the series just kept hounding that point over and over in multiple episodes. Many of those scenes were funny, but they also started to grate and worst of all, made Tom look way less intelligent than I think he actually is. He’s certainly a dreamer, but he’s also not ignorant. In a few episodes earlier this season, that wasn’t the case.
Luckily though, the character and the series has moved past those failures and brought Tom back into the fold and used those failures to reflect Tom’s current circumstances. I liked his prideful resistance to returning to the office last week and I particularly enjoyed the story in this episode with he and Jerry trying to come up with a new font for the department’s logo. Even though E720 bombed, Tom still feels like he’s a bit too big and talented for his job – basically back where he was before he left – and I think the episode did a nice job of exploring how he funneled some of his creative energy into something that actually benefited the department. I really hope that the rest of the season allows Tom to realize that he can still use his creative skills and powers inside the constricting boundaries of the parks department.
Finally, Leslie and Ben. Fair-warning: I adore Leslie and Ben, as individual characters and as a couple. Though the series might have rushed their coupling just a bit last season, they were still charming as heck and I was very disappointed when they had to break up because of a faulty, but believable enough reason. However, it did seem like the series separated the two of them for way too long in the aftermath of their break-up. I understand that there are a number of reasons that explain why they didn’t interact with one another – Leslie’s busy campaign schedule, the desire to avoid too much melodramatic tension between them – but it still felt like the writers swept the issue under the rug a bit too quickly and avoided it for a bit too long.
Thus, the last few episodes have been wonderful for my admitted shipper heart. Last week brought the big blow-out that the two of them needed to have and then “Smallest Park” addressed their leftover issues with more openness and honesty. Leslie the Steamroller is sometimes overbearing, but I loved how the episode allowed Leslie to acknowledge her biggest personality fault and make some effort to fix it, at least enough so that she could apologize to Ben and bring him back into her life. Leslie is a wonderful character and she’s particularly complex and admirable when recognizing that her best qualities (enthusiasm, drive) can sometime be her worst. And the conversation between the two of them at the new, aforementioned smallest park? Pitch-perfect. Leslie was honest and open and Ben’s rapid response to her loving pitch is just one of those great moments that NBC can use to market the series to random Office fans who don’t watch.
I’m not sure how Parks and Recreation rectifies Leslie and Ben’s rekindled relationship with the former’s ongoing political goals. Nevertheless, I’m much more excited to watch the two of them try to deal with it together instead of simply avoiding the challenges and problems that comes with being a couple, secret or not. It’s not that this season of Parks and Recreation had been bad or even mediocre to this point, but “Smallest Park” feels like a great pivot point for an even better second half of the season.