Parks and Recreation Recap: ‘Go Big or Go Home’

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The wait is over. After an eight-month hiatus, Parks and Recreation is finally back. I hadn’t been born yet when the original Star Wars trilogy was released, but now I feel I know what fans went through waiting 20 years for the prequels… except for that whole “being completely devastated by the end results” thing. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, Parks and Rec’s third season is, so far, every bit as good as its predecessor and an extremely satisfying continuation of the saga.

When we left off last May, a budget crisis threatened to shut down the parks department with Leslie scrambling to save what matters most to her. She received some much-needed support from Ron Swanson, who surprisingly and sweetly stepped up to the plate by giving her his place on the budget task force. Ron also began seeing Tom Haverford’s ex-wife Wendy, just as Tom was settling in nicely with his new girlfriend Lucy. Ann and Mark Brendanawicz broke up, causing Ann to panic and make a move on Andy, jeopardizing Andy’s budding romance with April.

Last night’s episode, “Go Big or Go Home,” splits the cast into two groups. In the A story, Leslie sends Ann out on a date with state auditor Chris Traeger to manipulate him into making her budgetary dreams come true. Here, we get to know Chris and fellow auditor Ben Wyatt a little better, and it’s a great showcase for all four actors involved. The B story, in which Tom, Ron, and Andy become involved in pee wee basketball, is mainly comic relief but it also continues Tom’s jealousy over Ron seeing his ex-wife. Instead of snapping, clueless ref Tom eggs Ron on until he throws a Bobby Knight-esque, chair-throwing tantrum. Aubrey Plaza’s April is absent for most of the episode, appearing towards the end to break Andy’s heart by rejecting his advances and introducing him to her new Venezuelan boyfriend Eduardo. After Leslie gives Andy the advice to “go big or go home” when it comes to April, it inspires her to begin planning a week-long harvest festival for the city.

This was, in many respects, a transitional episode for the show and one with a lot to accomplish. The show handled things beautifully, keeping the momentum going while introducing new story arcs, a revamped opening credits sequence, and a few changes to the central cast. On top of all this, Parks and Rec finds itself in a promising new timeslot, right after The Office. The Office is NBC’s highest-rated comedy and it shares a sensibility and creative DNA with Parks, so, it’s really a wonder the network waited two seasons to schedule the two shows back to back. Nonetheless, it’s imperative that Parks and Rec uses the opportunity to appeal to the widest possible audience, making a great impression on first-time viewers. That’s where the “Previously on Parks & Recreation” intro comes in, introducing newcomers to the plot and characters, while providing clips of some great moments from season two. This is a make-or-break season for the show, and the inclusion of this quick little segment was a smart move. While I found the voiceover to be a little straight-laced and bland, I thought the recap segment did an effective job of ushering in new viewers.

The biggest change in the series, though, is in the cast. In the final two episodes of season two, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott joined the ranks as auditors Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt, respectively; but last night’s episode saw Lowe and Scott cement their places in the show. The episode includes the two actors in the opening credits for the first time and allows them to delve a little deeper into their characters. They now feel like full-fledged members of the cast now and not just celebrity guest stars.

Lowe, in particular, is given some great moments, in which he sinks his teeth into the new role. A short speech he gives to Ann Perkins at the restaurant, in which he explains how a childhood blood disorder influenced his cheerful attitude towards life, is an episode highlight. It’s surprising, touching, and funny, all at once, and Lowe uses the moment to humanize and ground his character. In another actor’s hands, the character of Chris Traeger would come off as cartoonish, and understandably so, considering some of the silly things he’s been written to do or say. But Lowe adds a thick layer of humanity below the absurdity. Chris Traeger is Rob Lowe’s Jack Donaghy, a chance to reinvent himself as a comedic actor. Although he’s taken roles in comedies throughout his career, Lowe is given a more challenging character here and he pulls it off. Unlike his parts in Wayne’s World or The Invention of Lying, he’s not just playing a smarmy jerk; he’s playing someone with a heart.

But it’s not just Lowe that’s great here. This is a show where everyone stands out. Each member of the central cast could be the breakout character on a lesser show, which makes Parks so much fun to watch. The writers also deserve credit for this. Like ‘90s era Simpsons, the Parks cast is full of characters that seem wacky and over-the-top on the surface, but, deep down, are three-dimensional and well-rounded portraits of human beings. Each time I hear fans or TV critics panicking about who will replace Steve Carell on The Office next season, I can’t help but think how that show could be saved by the addition of a character half as strong as Ron Swanson or Tom Haverford.

This new season’s storyline feels like an apt metaphor for the show itself. With the Comcast merger bringing a potential regime change at NBC, this show isn’t guaranteed a fourth season pickup with ratings like what it’s had in the past. And being pushed back to midseason was an ominous sign from the network gods. With everything on the line, the creators are, like the title of the episode, going big or going home. They’ve added two stellar permanent cast members, are setting up a ton of great-looking story arcs, and pushing to make this their best season yet, saving themselves from cancellation. Much like Leslie’s Harvest Festival, the fate of the show depends on how well they can perform in their new post-Office timeslot. And if this episode is any indication, it’s not going to be tough to root for both the show and the Festival this season.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-This was the first episode without Paul Schneider as Mark Brendanawicz. Although he was never the most popular cast member, I thought Schneider was underrated and he will be missed. He played the straight man, an often-thankless role in comedy, and he did it well. My favorite Brendanawicz episode is “Sweetums” from season two, in which he gets stuck helping Tom Haverford move just because he has a truck. Fans of the character shouldn’t worry, though, because the creators have mentioned plans for his return in future episodes.

-You can check out Ron Swanson’s “Pyramid of Greatness” in all its detailed glory right here.

-I hope April’s new boyfriend Eduardo doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of her (now ex-) boyfriend Derek and Derek’s boyfriend Ben.

-The cast and crew have been all over the Internet the past couple weeks, giving interviews and posting videos to promote the show. If you haven’t already seen these three videos, they are more than worth your useless time: one, two, three.

Bradford Evans is a writer living on the edge.