In the gross majority of TV shows and movies, if you live in a small town, you’re either simple or you’re trapped. Reason No. 4,352 why Parks and Recreation is special: In Pawnee, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
Leslie Knope, who is assuredly not simple, can barely imagine traveling somewhere else, much less living somewhere else. Ron Swanson is so against the notion of change that he looks precisely the way he did when he first visited Charlie Mulligan’s steakhouse in the state’s capital. Newcomer Ben Wyatt likes the town just fine, but is so used to moving he doesn’t bother making connections or setting down roots or venturing outside of his motel other than for work. April Ludgate was tempted by a job with Chris at the statehouse in Indianapolis, but that was more a ploy of emotional manipulation than ambition. And Andy Dwyer was happier living at the bottom of a giant ditch than any of us will ever be indoors.
But Tom Haverford, he’s the one wearing the ascot as a tie who doesn’t seem to belong — or doesn’t want to seem like he belongs — in a town like Pawnee. He’s the one who doesn’t really have anything keeping him there. His family’s from South Carolina; his green-card marriage is kaput; he cares a lot about recreation and not so much about parks; and he longs for a glamorous, mysterious, velvet-rope club culture described in treatises such as Maxim’s “Top 100 Ways to Trick Someone Into Sex.” If you could bottle Tom’s dreams, they’d smell a lot like Tommy Fresh.
Tom is hosting a party at the Snakehole celebrating local perfume magnate Dennis Feinstein’s new scent, Allergic for Men, and sees this as his big chance to show Feinstein his own concoction. Leslie asks Tom to bring Ben, just so he can do something better than watch Hope Floats in the lobby of the motel. April wants to go, but Andy is quickly realizing that having a girlfriend requires money he doesn’t have, and he doesn’t want to repeat his freeloading role from his previous relationship. Freeloading can be fun, however, if you make a game of it, which is exactly what the new couple does. They have a contest to see who can wangle the most free swag at the party, starting with bathroom mints and ending with impersonating bar staff and the owner’s daughter Janet Snakehole to amass beer and cash. And lest anyone think there was a sinister side to this playfulness, the game ends with them stuffing their ill-gotten earnings into the bar’s tip jar and you hugging your television.
Tom’s interaction with Dennis Feinstein doesn’t turn out as nicely. Apparently Allergic smells like “Chinese food spilled in a birdcage.” Ben of all people consoles Tom, even if he doesn’t disagree with the assessment.
Meanwhile, Ron and Leslie are driving to Indianapolis to accept a commendation. Leslie is predictably excited, while Ron can only think about Charlie Mulligan’s steakhouse and has little patience for Indiana’s second-biggest rocking chair or a two-hour sojourn to Dame Gervin’s Misshapen Celebrity Castle, or, especially, Leslie’s planned pit stop at Chris’s house to see if he’s cheating on Ann, as Ann suspects. A ladies’ razor and pink shower cap in the bathtub don’t look promising, and Leslie calls Ann with the news. Tragically, Charlie Mulligan’s has been closed down by the health department, which does nothing to soften Ron’s opinions about government or the universe in general. Chris offers to fire up the grill back at his place, and Ann busts in and confronts him about his infidelity. One problem, though: He actually broke up with her a week ago, but as she’d never been dumped before and he’s the nicest human ever to walk the earth, she didn’t even realize it. And none of this is as disturbing or humiliating as the revelation that Chris has been grilling Ron a Portobello mushroom — it’s healthier! A disgruntled Ron tries to get a steak at a local diner and is left with no recourse but to order all the bacon and eggs they have. All of them.
Leslie drives Ann back to Pawnee, leaving Ron to accept the commendation himself. Which seems unlikely at first given her evangelical political fervor, until you remember that the show has always been at its best and most surprising when characters’ relationships to one another supersede their sitcom-tailored personalities. (See also: lone-wolf Ron coming to Leslie and Tom’s rescue numerous times.) Ben, the hired gun who’s been the outsider to this point, is genuinely moved when Donna knows what kind of beer he likes. While it’s not clear what will keep Rob Lowe in the cast now that he’s broken up with Ann and won’t have reason to be in Pawnee, Adam Scott’s path for sticking around is more evident. For all his crippling social anxiety dating back to his freakish and presumably solitary adolescence, Ben wants to belong to something, and pretty much earns his gang colors once he douses Dennis Feinstein’s car in putrid Tommy Fresh. “Indianapolis” may not ever wind up in a time capsule alongside “Ron and Tammy Part 2” or, well, “Time Capsule,” but this episode proves to be as emblematic of the show’s soft, gooey heart as any the series has done.