‘Parks and Recreation’ Recap: Bowling for Votes

Parks and RecreationS4E13: I realize more and more every week just how phenomenal a character Leslie Knope has become. Her original manifestation as a sort of watered down Michael Scott was quickly realized to be misplaced, especially given Amy Poehler’s insuperable skill for being likable. Thankfully, from the Leslie Knope of Season 1 of Parks and Recreation, we have earned this: an intelligent, caring, charismatic woman who can never forgive herself for not being perfect. And although I do feel as if this week’s “Bowling for Votes” has a somewhat misguided ending, it is a pretty magnificent depiction of the beautiful tragedy that exists within Leslie.

“Some things are very helpful. Other things are not so helpful. All of them are making me feel a lot of feelings about myself.” – Leslie

A small collection of Pawneeans are polled after being shown a video of Leslie speaking publicly. Some respond positively, most think she seems well-informed, and one guy doesn’t feel like she’s the kind of person he can “go bowling with.” This is a sentiment that is discussed a lot in the world of political campaigns. Intelligent candidates can come across as elitist and not relatable. And although Leslie is quite certain that she is indeed the smarter of the two candidates running for city council, and definitely the most well-prepared, she cannot help but shake the notion that this man, Derrick—this solitary member of the community—does not like her. To her, that is unacceptable.

In the spirit of his “toughen up” lesson from last week, Ben tries to get Leslie to stop obsessing over this one man, and to focus on winning over the community as a whole. But Leslie isn’t too big on not obsessing over things. It is entirely against her nature to let something go. So, Leslie, insisting that she is, in fact, a terrific bowler (just ask Ron) organizes an event at the Pawnee bowling alley for the public to come meet and learn about her over a few frames, some beers and wings…all of which are things that Derrick are quite partial to, as Leslie’s extensive psycho-research has informed her.

So, when Derrick invariably shows up at the event, Leslie spends the entire night warming up to him, cunningly pleasing him with free food and beer, all in the hopes of winning his vote—and really, more so, just his approval. All of this is to the chagrin of the more levelheaded Ben, who insists that Leslie mingle and infuse herself throughout the community. Ben’s role is a funny one in this episode. On the one hand, he is the person who instructs Leslie at the beginning of the show that people often vote with their gut, not their minds. However, his stance in Leslie’s behavior is entirely pragmatic. He wants Leslie to ignore her feelings and do what is logically best for her campaign. But Leslie, being filled even more densely with heart than she is with brains, persists in the challenge of winning over Derrick. Crass, boring, sexist Derrick.

But everyone has a tipping point. Leslie does—when a fed up Derrick eventually calls Leslie a bitch, she lets go of her insecurity and realizes that he is just a jerk whose approval she doesn’t need. And Ben does—when a fed up Derrick eventually calls Leslie a bitch, Ben goes red and punches him in the face (I’d like to point out as I did last week just how much violence this otherwise sweet and good-natured campaign team seems to be prone to. Somehow, they even make violence sweet and good-natured). Anyway, some legal matters follow. Derrick presses charges and Leslie is forced to make a public apology. Ben, back to his old sensibilities, insists she fire him as part of her team. Leslie, back to hers, will do nothing of the sort (and affirms that what he did was “awesome.” She even kisses him immediately after in a way that would seem cheesy if these two weren’t the biggest dorks in the world).

“When I eat, it is the food that is scared.” – Ron

Leslie’s public statement does not go as planned—she realizes while onstage that she does not feel remorse for her team’s actions. She doesn’t need the approval of Derrick, because she is beginning to understand that she needs to value herself as much as she does other people—because she is, despite what that jerk says, good enough.

And surprisingly, people respond. Another focus group appreciates Leslie’s candor and her strength based on watching a video of this speech. The first real positive turn for Leslie’s campaign. My only qualm with this conclusion is that is sort of comes as a result of something Ben does, rather than something Leslie does. Her reaction is what wins them over, but as we have seen Leslie grow as an island in many ways, I’d like to see her flourish as one, too. Ben is a terrific character and a great abettor for Leslie’s self-worth, but I want to see her be the reason for her success, not him.

“As a private citizen, I am free to support whomever I choose. And I choose to support Team Knope. ‘Cause they’re the best! Everybody’s the best!”

While the bowling event is underway, Jerry takes charge of a fundraising session at April’s and Andy’s house. Also in attendance: Donna and Chris. April is none too happy to be spending her time helping someone/with Jerry/making an effort of any kind/with Jerry/surrounded by happiness, so she makes a vow to crush Chris’ spirit by raising more money for Leslie’s campaign—thus earning her the coveted two movie tickets that Jerry put up as a motivating prize. April, using some unprecedented people skills, does manage to raise a ton of money (as does Chris, of course), but it is not her victory that crushes Chris. Jerry’s daughter and Chris’ girlfriend Millicent stops by and breaks up with Chris unexpectedly, leaving him helplessly upset.

Now, if we weren’t made to feel a sense of distaste for the couple as of the Halloween episode wherein Chris made Jerry very uncomfortable in his courting of Millicent, this plot would work a little better. But ignoring former aversions to the Chrillicent coupling, the episode is a sweet one that shows another glimmer inside the slowly thawing April. She feels guilty for Chris’ misfortune, as if she somehow “magically” caused it. To atone for this, April gives Chris her prize movie tickets—plus a third which she purchased herself: an extension of an invitation for Chris to see a movie with her and Andy. Now, cynics (like April) could call this plotline a little sappy, and a little easy. But Aubrey Plaza really sells it, especially when we see her slowly filling with a silent guilt as Chris’ relationship terminates. Kudos to Plaza for a terrific comedic and dramatic performance this week—this is why she is one of my favorite performers in television today.

“Straight down the middle. No hook, no spin, no fuss. Anything more, and this becomes figure skating.” – Ron

Finally, a particularly silly and unimportant third story. But unlike the April-and-Andy-go-to-the-doctor story of last week, this one works tremendously. Perhaps it is simply the comic dynamic of Ron, Tom and Anne, each doing what he does best. Maybe it’s the physical comedy. Or the cursing. Whatever it is, it’s genius. Ron gets mad because Tom beats him at bowling even though Tom bowls like a toddler: two-handed, under his legs. Anne watches, and mocks the two of them. That’s it. That’s what we get. And it’s glorious. Thank you, Ron, Tom, and Anne, for making something so simple so magnificent.

What did you think of this week’s episode? What do you think of the growth we’re seeing in Leslie’s character? Is her increasing reliance on Ben strengthening or weakening the character? Let us know in the comments section, or on Twitter (@MichaelArbeiter).