Okay, everyone: Count back from 1,000 by sevens and think of warm brownies, because there’s a lot of change to absorb here. In fact, the second-to-last episode of Parks and Recreation’s second season feels more like a season premiere, which, thanks to Amy Poehler’s pregnancy accelerating the show’s production schedule, it sorta is. And any hope that these final episodes were going to give Paul Schneider some sort of dignified send-off is all but dashed — all he gets here is a quick scene with Ann doing the pleading, please-tell-me-one-more-time-why-this-didn’t-work-so-maybe-I-can fix-it routine, not that we know anything about that. For all the speculation as to how Mark would be written off, it now seems entirely plausible that the show won’t even bother — he’ll just cease to be, maybe occasionally glimpsed in the corridors of City Hall like the other, presumably less funny, employees of Pawnee’s municipal government.
Oh, and speaking of: About half those people are about to get shit-canned. The big development heralding the arrival of the two new cast members, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, is that Pawnee is facing a budget crisis — pour a little out for Law & Order, but NBC is still powered by plots ripped from the headlines. Lowe and Scott are, respectively, a good cop/bad cop team of auditors, although it becomes clear quickly that neither is as good, or as bad, as he seems at first blush.
It’s not really fair to judge a new character’s worth to a cast’s chemistry off a few introductory scenes. But we’re being paid to deconstruct a sitcom episode here, so let’s judge away. First impressions: Lowe’s Chris Treager is funny, but sorta one-note. Fortunately, that one note is Lowe’s rugged and undeniable handsomeness, so we’ll swallow that like a fist-size vitamin. Much more promising and nuanced is Scott’s Ben “Benji” Wyatt, former 18-year-old wunderkind mayor of Partridge, Minnesota, turned working stiff, trying to recoup his dignity. Doomed to spend the rest of his days living up to — and living down — a long-past moment of glory that went bad fast, he has a lot in common with Henry Pollard on Party Down, as portrayed by Adam Scott. Just sub in “Whoomp! There it is!” for “Are we having fun yet?” And while previous romantic pairings with Leslie have seemed slightly off-kilter, Ben really is her match — the stick-in-the-mud who really loves civil service maybe a little too much and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty during his uphill climb. Maybe it’s the 10:30 a.m. beer talking, but Leslie sees a kindred spirit in her de facto nemesis. All due respect to the mighty Will Arnett and Justin Theroux, but there’s already more to work with here than a creepy MRI tech or a globetrotting lawyer.
You can’t go wrong with an episode that finds the entire cast getting hammered, as they do at the Snakehole for April’s 21st birthday/old-enough-for-Andy-to-consider-dating-her party. Ann gets drunk and flirty; April gets jealous of Ann; Andy gets jealous of Jean-Ralphio. “That Ralph Macchio guy’s a total douche,” he says, evoking the new auditor guy’s Outsiders castmate.
What else was great? Ann mentioning the ostensibly doomed park — you know, the park? Lot 48? The subplot that was gonna drive the entire series and is the only reason Ann’s character exists? Nothing? “November.” Tom’s own master plan failing miserably, then, maybe, working out after all. Richardson from Deadwood looking for a marriage license. And, finally and most gloriously, Ron’s face every time budget cuts, and then government shutdown, were mentioned — joy isn’t even the word. Even Andy’s foot massages didn’t conjure this degree of unbridled ecstasy. If only tea-baggers were this cuddly in real life.
Todd VanDerWerff at AV Club thinks the show is now on par with Arrested Development (intriguing, but not co-signing just yet).
Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix thinks Parks is as much romantic comedy as workplace comedy.