In the Season 5 finale of Parks and Recreation, appropriately titled "Are You Better Off?," we find Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) on the first anniversary of her election to the Pawnee City Council. For her unofficial victory lap, she has gathered the town together to ask that titular question — do they believe they are better off now than they were when the year, and Leslie's reign, began?
As is the way of these public forums, Leslie quickly loses control of the crowd. Contrary to her well-laid plan, the meeting devolves as each person Leslie confronted (except, mysteriously, Councilman Jamm) in the past year raises concerns against her. Remember when Leslie banned gigundous soft drinks in restaurants? Well, the head of the Pawnee Restaurant Association is out for blood. We also meet a rotund gentleman who resents that a Paunch Burger wasn't built on the vacant lot and crazy Marcia and Marshall Langman of abstinence only sex education have returned. It seems the only people willing to speak in favor of Leslie are Pawnee Video Dome owner Dennis Lerpiss (Jason Schwartzman) and porn star Brandi Maxxx, who want to thank the councilwoman because, as Brandi says, "If it weren't for Leslie Knope, there would be far, far less pornography in this town." And maybe that's not such a good thing.
While it was nice to see some familiar faces return, the airing of past grievances and the flashback footage that accompanied them seemed lazy. Is this a clip show or a season finale? Instead of looking ahead to Leslie's and Pawnee's — and, inherently, the show's — future, it seems we are getting bogged down with the past. You're better than this, Parks and Rec. Or at least you were.
Leslie's conflict comes to a head at the annual Founders' Week Parade. Chris "Nipple King" Traeger (Rob Lowe) warns Leslie of an unflattering float seconds too late, causing Leslie to come face to face — or face to inflatable knee cap, really — with a larger than life, finger-waving, glowering Leslie Knope. "Leslie Knope Says No to Fun," the banner reads, and no amount of huffing, puffing, yelling, or irate gesticulating from Leslie can convince the town otherwise.
Then, Icky Mean Restaurant Lady (who doesn't deserve to be named… also, I forgot her name) drops her bomb. She has started the Committee to Recall Leslie Knope and she won't sleep until she sees Leslie kicked off the city council.
At first, Leslie is heartbroken. She has failed her people and ruined their lives, she thinks. She may have lowered the obesity rate by an amount equal to 800 pregnant manatees but the people hate her for it. Luckily, Leslie married the best pep talker of all time. Ben (Adam Scott) asks Leslie to look deep within herself and answer the question, does she think Pawnee is better off?
She does. Of course she does! Because Mary Poppins ain't got nothing on Leslie Knope — Leslie Knope is actually perfect in every way. Leslie throws a press conference for herself and tells the Committee to Recall Leslie Knope to bring it on, step up, and stomp the yard, honey (which is also a dance movie, starring Jessica Alba). If the Aesop's Fablesy sheen Parks and Rec has developed in recent seasons has taught us anything, it's that Leslie (the good guy) is going to be just fine.
The other characters' storylines are linked together as Andy (Chris Pratt), who has resurrected FBI Agent Burt Macklin for one final case, tracks down the owner of a mysterious positive pregnancy test he found in Ron's (Nick Offerman) cabin. It must be one of the five ladies present at the Parks Dept. retreat, he deduces. Which means either Ann (Rashida Jones), Leslie, April (Aubrey Plaza), Donna (Retta), or Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate) is expecting.
Burt/Andy begins to narrow the ladies down. After a few red herrings and much good news — Ann and Chris are happily fornicating, April got into veterinary school (!!!) — Andy has ruled out all the women present at Ron's cabin. So then, who is pregnant?
Tom, meanwhile, is faced with a difficult decision: an anonymous client (who may or may not be Jay-Z but is definitely not Diddy) has offered to buy Rent-A-Swag. Tom ultimately declines the buyout in favor of building up his business, which is obviously successful. In a twist, Tom's benefactor becomes his adversary when his lawyer announces that his client will just build a competitor, called Tommy's Closet, across the street from Rent-A-Swag. Tom best get ready to bring his A-game.
The final moments of the episode are the most jaw-dropping. The pregnancy test belongs to, you guessed it, Ron's girlfriend Diane (Lucy Lawless). Or, at least, so we are lead to believe. As Andy is expressing his frustration with his failed investigation to Ron, Dianne walks into Ron's office and says she needs to talk to him in private. We are treated to a shot of Ron's paling face as the meaning of Diane's words set in. Is Ron, a loner who despises change, ready to become a family man?
This raises the question, will every central plotline next season have to do with babies? Ron: baby. Ann and Chris: trying to have a baby. Leslie and Ben: have talked about starting a family (which means having a baby). Going on record now as saying that's too many babies.
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Our favorite shows feel perfect for their respective networks: The nude-friendly Game of Thrones is a tried-and-true HBO series, the tortoise-slow Mad Men fits AMC’s intelligent and patient viewers, and The Big Bang Theory never met a laugh track CBS didn’t like. But what if those series appeared on different networks? How would the show change? We’re exploring just that in our Network Swap series. Next up: What if Parks and Recreation aired on CNN?
Series: Parks and Recreation
TV Rating: TV-14 for the addressing of issues like government corruption and horse funerals, and for a highly inappropriate glorification of candy and waffles.
Logline: “Together, we can build a better Pawnee.”
Setting: Pawnee’s local television studio (providing Joan Callamezzo does not find out).
Demographic: The citizens of Pawnee, Indiana. And not even all of them — mostly just Mel, Lawrence, and Marcia Langman.
Pilot Plot: On the first episode of the series, Councilwoman Leslie Knope launches an in-depth investigation of the Pawnee-based Sweetums Candy Corporation’s excessive pollution, and the resultant effects on the city’s parks. She debates the issue at hand with costar Ron Swanson (who takes a staunch “anti-everything” position on the matter); field reporter Andrew M. Dwyer goes undercover as a Sweetums employee to get to the bottom of the issue, but gets sidetracked by a conveyer belt of candy bars. Special guest appearance by Jean-Ralphio Saperstein… despite countless attempts to have him removed from the studio.
Cast: Councilwoman Leslie B. Knope, Advocate for the Downfall of Government Ron Swanson, Swag Analyst Tom Haverford, “Numbers Man” Benjamin Wyatt
Breakout Star: Field Reporter/Undercover Investigator/House Bandleader Andrew M. Dwyer
Soundbite: “Counterpoint: No.” – Ron Swanson
Reason People Watch: To find out the latest, most pressing news… exclusively involving public parks in a midsize Indiana suburb.
What the Critics Say: “This is a show that you can watch on television.” – Perd Hapley
Emmy Odds: The awards always favor rival program, Eagleton Today.
Spin-Off Possibilities: Chris Traeger "MD" — Chris Traeger’s Sanjay Gupta-inspied health-oriented news series about the medical dangers of red meat, a sedentary lifestyle, and not smiling ALL THE TIME; April Ludgate 32° — the latest international news stories delivered, analyzed, and critiqued harshly for being stupid and uninteresting by Pawnee Community College graduate April R. Ludgate.
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After a hiatus that has felt much longer than it actually was, Parks and Recreation is finally back on television, gearing up to close out its fourth, and arguably shakiest, season. That's not to say this season has not been without its high points: The battle of the Tammys, the Pawnee apocalypse, Ron’s secret love for riddles, and the greatest piece of advice ever dispensed "Treat yoself!" But along with these Parks triumphs, there have been some questionable choices. Has Leslie’s campaign story really been handled with the strength it deserves? Are some of the characters becoming exaggerated versions of themselves? And — most controversial and shudder-inducing of all — are Tom and Ann really a couple now?
With only a few episodes left in the season, there is a handful of story lines Parks needs to begin working toward wrapping up. Here are what we’d consider some choices that could satisfy devoted fans, disappointed critics, and even Marsha Langman.
The Issue: One of the qualms some Parks lovers have had with season 4 is the way the show has delivered the story of Leslie Knope’s campaign for public office. It almost seems like many of this season's episodes fit a sort of fill-in-the blank regime, with the team breaking off into various groups of two to four to take on some mundane campaign task that turns into "Only in Pawnee!" wackiness. Once in a while, this formula can be considered a winner. But week after week, it becomes monotonous, unimaginative, and detrimental to the sincerity of the story line and the growth of the characters.
How to Fix It: What the show needs to do is handle each faction of the campaign with a little more gravity. Maybe spreading a particular issue over more than one episode would be a good idea. Something to break up the routine — this is the most important and most standout story line to happen on the show yet. It needs to feel that way.
The Character Problem
The Issue: At their strongest, the members of Pawnee’s Parks Department are tremendous characters, a rare combination of both off-the-wall hilarious and legitimately relatable and empathetic. Recent months have shown a few fan favorites — most notably, Andy and Tom — to be kicked up a notch in terms of their lovable quirks. When it comes to characters like these, less is more. Andy is funnier when he’s not so stupid you’d question how he’s survived to the age of 30. Seasons 2 and 3 made him out to be childish, naïve and uninformed, but generally capable, whereas season 4 has shown him to struggle with the English language. Subtlety goes a long way.
Tom is another, possibly more excruciating example. In the earlier days of Parks, Tom Haverford was the kind of guy you felt like you knew. Callous, lazy, vain, self-interested, and invested in some very specific and questionable tastes and ambitions. But he always balanced this with a sanity that played well against Leslie’s amped up idealism. Now, Tom is a walking cologne ad. Every line out of his mouth is another small parody of Entourage culture. Instead of distancing Tom from these childish antics as the man and the character grow, the show seems to be more succinctly immersing him in them.
How to Fix It: The solution to this problem is simple. Bring the characters back down to Earth. Imbue them with more humanity and more sincerity. Make Andy the voice of reason once in a while (as he has been in past seasons, lest you forget). Make Tom the compass of morality or sanity (again, as he has been). These characters deserve more than just a place delivering punchlines.
Tom and Ann’s Relationship
The Issue: Nobody wants them together. Nobody. Seriously, go on an Internet-wide excavation, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single “I think they work!” But just to play devil’s advocate here, there is some good that can come from this kind of storyline. Tom has always fancied himself ladies’ man with sky-high professional aspirations, but the audience knows him better than he knows himself. Tom is a soft-hearted good guy at the core who just wants to be loved. And a legitimate healthy relationship might be able to ground Tom once and for all, getting him off the track of his would be playboy lifestyle.
On the other end of the spectrum, this relationship actually seems detrimental to Ann’s character. Since the beginning of the series, Ann has been shown to immerse herself completely in her relationships, losing herself in the process. She let Andy drag her down. She let Chris take her over. After losing Chris, she threw herself completely into a promiscuous lifestyle, unable to accept herself without a man to define her. But Ann is worth more than this— as Leslie will tell you, readily and quite eloquently. ("Oh, Ann, you beautiful tropical fish.") What the show needs to do is keep Ann single, and give her something to love about herself, not somebody to love in place of herself.
How to Fix It: Break 'em up! Reunite Tom with Lucy (remember her brief comeback earlier this season?), and send Ann off to find herself. Win-win.
That said, some characters have made significant, needed changes over the course of season 4. April is growing up, and it's happening very organically at that. She is gradually revealing that she does care about people, and that she is more and more willing to show that. When the show left off, April was considering taking on more responsibility at the Parks department. Whether or not she should stay in-house is a big question, but as long as fans see her starting to make something of herself, and actually trying, it's a victory for her character.
Chris is another example of something season 4 has done right. Whether you loved Chris' upbeat attitude, or hated him for the selfishness he always seemed to exude, it's hard to say that his season 4 change-up has been quite interesting. Chris does need to get out of his depression one of these days, but hopefully he'll wind up more grounded and serious than his previous flighty, head-in-the-clouds self. But what might be able to get him there?
And then there's Ron. Lovable, mustachioed, wood-working, government-hating, wise old Ron. He's doing just fine. Never change.
Catch Parks and Rec tonight at 9:30 PM ET/PT, in its first new episode to round out the rest of the season. What else do you hope to see before the big finale? Be sure to check back in tomorrow for a full recap.
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