Today’s a good day to be a Parks and Recreation fan. NBC, as of about two hours ago, has officially ordered a fifth full season of everyone’s favorite small town, miniature horse-loving, city council campaignin’ half hour comedy (despite a handful of vicious rumors to the contrary). On top of that, we’ve just ended season four with what’s easily the best episode of Parks & Rec in recent memory. Plus there’s my triumphant return to the blogosphere. Also good.
It’s a pretty great feeling.
One of the biggest things that separates Parks & Rec from its sitcom competition is that it’s never been afraid of actively changing itself, whether through a specific story arc (like giving Leslie a huge victory at the Harvest Festival), or through simple character progression over a long stretch of time (like Andy’s transition from Ann’s boyfriend to April’s husband). But in the past, the vast majority of these changes have all been small ones. Most of the story arcs we’ve seen on this show only last a handful of episodes, and outside of Andy no character’s really made any huge, life-altering decisions that affect the show in any way.
Which brings us to season four. This season, we’ve seenshowrunner Mike Schur, Amy Poehler and everyone else push themselves towards bigger stories, more complex character changes, and just more of everything in general. And like any show trying to push past its boundaries, it’s been a little inconsistent and occasionally drawn on humor that’s a little too broad (see: Jennifer Barkley slumping over her desk when Ben wants a recount) or storylines that never really clicked, like the Tom/Ann relationship.
And so the biggest (and only) issue I had with “Win, Lose, or Draw” is that we only have a half an hour to give some kind of season-ending capper to nearly every storyline in the season. This leaves the first half or so of the episode feeling somewhat like an early-season episode of Game of Thrones, where we jump around between Chris coming out his depression, Jerry forgetting to vote, April deleting the entirety of the Parks Dept servers, Ron deciding whether or not to take his new job, Tom’s vision of his reconciliation with Ann, Ben deciding whether or not to take the new D.C. job, and (last but not least) the results of the election.
It’s a lot to deal with. And it’s not that any of these particular stories aren’t well-handled, or that they’re not wrapped up well (hint: they all are), but it’s just a little jarring to keep flying back and forth between so many different stories with so little screen time for each one.
Thankfully, when all these elements finally come together in the last half of the episode, “Win, Lose, or Draw” becomes the best piece of television to come out of Pawnee, IN in a long time.
A lot of this greatness comes from the show putting its priorities in the right order- once the story reaches its closing stretches, the jokes are put almost entirely on hold for three absolutely outstanding scenes that give Amy Poehler the chance to really show off her dramatic acting abilities. First she gives Ben the Washington Monument pin in an incredibly sweet counterpart to the ending of the season premiere (giving the whole season a nice little feeling of symmetry). Then we get what’s probably the best moment in the entire episode, when Ann tells Leslie there’s still a twenty-one vote difference… but this time, she won. Check out Amy Poehler’s eyes in the close-up right after that moment. For someone who’s spent the majority of their career in sketch comedy, Poehler’s got some serious acting chops, and the way she plays that moment is one of the best television moments I’ve seen in a long time.
But the episode doesn’t drop the pace at all from here, jumping to the most “awwww”-inducing moment of the night: the reveal that Ben never even wrote a concession speech. The Ben/Leslie relationship has long been the gooey emotional center of Parks & Rec (while also feeling quite a bit more stable and natural than most TV couples do), and at this point, moments like this just solidify how great these two are for each other. Plus, all the talk of writing several different speeches is a fun little callback to how two endings were actually filmed for the finale: one where Leslie wins, and one where she doesn’t.
Of course, her victory speech is pretty terrific too, but at this point it’s fairly obvious that Leslie’s a dynamite public speaker. I think the debate episode from two weeks ago is overwhelming proof of that.
And, this being a comedy show and all, we have to get back to the funny at some point, so we get a goofy little post-credits tag full of fast and furious jokes and some setup for the now officially confirmed fifth season. I have two things I’d like to say here: one, Tom and Ann’s relationship seems much more appealing if it’s actively being set up as a horrible drunken mistake. If we’re going to keep traveling down this road, I’d like the show to look on their relationship with as much disdain as I do.
And two, Andy potentially joining the police academy next season is a stroke of genius. I’ve never been the hugest fan of Andy (at least, compared to other characters on the show), but this storyline is so well-suited to his character that it instantly jumped to the top of the “Things I’m Most Excited About for Next Season” list in my brain. I’d like to think that’s a good sign. Plus, the rigors of police training seem like the perfect place for Chris Pratt to show off his finely-tuned physical comedy sensibilities.
We’ll be seeing some other new settings next season besides the police academy- Ben will be in DC and Leslie will be splitting her time between the City Council and the Parks Dept. I’m excited to see the whole new cast of characters that’ll be filling in these new places, but I’m also looking forward to seeing how Schur and everyone else will be managing the show’s time in all of these new places, especially with our protagonist now in two completely different settings. Mike Schur’s stated in an interview with Alan Sepinwall that he’s not 100% sure how the show’s going to split its time between the Parks Dept and City Council, and I’m totally ok with that. At this point, I don’t really have any reservations about Parks & Rec trying new things.
And that should just about do it for “Win, Lose, or Draw.” Episodes like this remind me why I love Parks & Rec so much (and to an extent, why I love TV in general)- everyone involved in this show was able to cram a single half hour with elements that were both personally touching and laugh-out-loud funny (I didn’t really go into the jokes in too much detail, but here’s a few of my favorites: female candidates being thrown in jail in case of a tie, Ann’s ambiguous ethnic blend, Bobby Newport’s reaction to a boom mic and Ron still getting his milk delivered by horse). And the episode itself feels like a victory with or without Leslie’s city council win- after a season that’s been a little more hit-and-miss, we end with one of the best episodes in Parks & Rec history.
Sounds like a win in my book.