Saturday, February 23, 2013

Parks and Recreation forces sugar and Jamm down our throats, demands we like it

Season 5 Episode 14 - "Leslie and Ben"

If the show realizing it didn't need to write Leslie Knope as a female Michael Scott was the thing that salvaged Parks and Recreation in season 2 then propelled it to greatness in season 3, its writers falling completely, desperately, pathetically in love with her and making her into a flawless living saint is the thing that caused things to get a little stale in season 4 and now actively rotten throughout much of season 5. It's the difference between loving someone and building a shrine to them. One's nice. One's weird.

But it's done, and a show that was once about likable bureaucratic underdogs scraping by in life has somehow become the chronicle of Leslie Knope fighting evil and saving the goddamn world. And in that spirit, "Leslie and Ben" felt like the logical climax to a show that has completely bought into its own hype, which is no more apparent than in what this episode does with perpetually awful villain Councilman Jamm.

Now, Jamm ain't Parks' first antagonist. Leslie has tangled with the likes of Joan Callamezzo and Bobby Newport before, but the show always made it clear these people had lives and careers and goals that existed entirely separate from her and the Parks department. (In fact, with Kathryn Hahn's great season 4 antagonist Jennifer Barkley, Parks gave the impression she didn't think about Leslie much at all, which may have ultimately cost her the election.) Even perpetually nasty right-wing social advocate Marcia Langman was at least theoretically driven by her interpretation of Christian values.

But now we have Councilman Jamm, a character who exists entirely to try and thwart Leslie Knope's unfathomable, heaven-sent goodness. Trying to stop her every benevolent act and bring evil to Pawnee seems to be his only meaning, only goal, only purpose in life (and of course we know everything he supports is evil on account of it not matching the perfect Leslie's agenda). It feels like Parks and Rec has manifested a critic of itself and put him in Pawnee to be defeated every couple weeks, sorta like what M. Night Shyamalan did in Lady in the Water.

And never was this clearer than at Leslie and Ben's wedding when Jamm – who, by the way, entered the episode declaring through a megaphone that "PARKS ARE STUPID!" – ruined the wedding bellowing at Leslie that he would've gotten away with his evil plan to make lots of money if it weren't for her meddling, then literally started throwing stink bombs until Ron Swanson punched him out.

I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. Honestly, they took it this far – they really should have just taken the last couple steps and had Jamm actually shout "PARKS AND RECREATION SUCKS!", then had the wedding crowd burst into spontaneous applause upon Ron decking him. You're 90% of the way there, Parks, just take it home.

But it's fine: Evil is defeated, Leslie and Ben make it back to the Parks office and recite their very generically "TV emotional" vows to each other (set to a cheesy montage of black and white flashbacks of their relationship that had me cringing), and now they're married. I wasn't just blown away by Monica and Chandler's wedding in Friends season 7, but I definitely think it was a more accomplished episode of television than this.

What's weird is that this isn't the first surprise wedding Parks and Rec has done. In fact, the show's all-time best episode, season 3's brilliant "Andy and April's Fancy Party," was centered around more or less the same damn premise. But "Leslie and Ben" is very much the Spider-Man 3 to that episode's Spider-Man 2; not as funny, more cloying than sweet and smugly convinced of its own greatness where "Fancy Party" was warm and inviting. Mandatory and smelling of television where that episode felt surprising and vital.

It's worth capping this off by noting that the next episode, "Correspondents' Lunch," which immediately followed, got back to the business of being funny and actually did a pretty good job at it. But as NBC clearly regarded the wedding as the piece de resistance of Thursday evening, it's the one that goes under the microscope. Let's just hope Parks got the treacle out of its system and the show is more "Correspondents' Lunch" and less "Leslie and Ben" going forward.

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