This time last year, Parks and Recreation was nowhere to be found on NBC’s fall schedule, banished to mid-season purgatory for a crime it did not commit. But now — with 30 Rock pushed until early next year to accommodate Tina Fey’s pregnancy; The Office entering its unsure post-Carell, Spader-centric future full-on; and Whitney being Whitney — the show, now the co-anchor of NBC’s Should Probably See TV comedy bloc alongside Community, finds itself in a wholly unfamiliar position: front-runner. If last week’s Emmy snubbing proved anything — although, really, the Emmys never prove anything — it’s that the show can ably fill that role while still feeling very much like an underdog, a beloved cult-classic curio that also just happens to have millions of viewers a week.
This is not to say that the season-four premiere showed any signs of added burden from its newfound eminent stature. The episode picks up right where the finale left off, with Leslie entertaining the offer to run for office that will necessitate breaking up with Ben and an eyebrow-less Ron fleeing from Tammy One with his emergency satchel, instructing Leslie to keep an eye on the ground chuck left in his desk. Tom is back in the office dispensing copious Entertainment 720 merch, the most promising of which is either the Tom and Jean-Ralphio bikini top or the black-on-black debt-erasing magnetic business card, and he tries to hire Andy. (“I’m just now getting really good at shoe-shining, and I’m still pretty bad at it.”)
As network sitcoms go, Parks has a light touch, so when it attempts to navigate the more-depressing-than-fiction world that is actual American politics, as a show about civil servants inevitably must, it does so with relative subtlety. Of course, there’s no subtle way to handle Anthony Weiner, so none is attempted; after Sarah Lawrence alum Joe in sanitation e-mails all the women in City Hall a photo of his perhaps mumps-affected junk, all the male government employees send Ann pictures of their testicles — really, the ears of the genital system — for her diagnosis, or, if she chooses, enjoyment.
After Leslie’s interview with Perd Hapley about the penis pictures going around, in which she slyly suggests, in the cadence of a joke, that this kind of lewd behavior would be remedied by having more powerful women in government, the ladies’ yacht club moves up the timetable for Leslie’s city council candidacy announcement from three months to Friday. This is a bit sooner than she would prefer, as it concerns ending the one relationship in years that’s made her happy, so she flees to Ron’s remote cabin, where they shoot fish, make emergency s’mores, and he reluctantly advises her to run for office. Also, Ron only has nine toes. (“I have the toes I have, let’s leave it at that.”) Nail-gun incident with his brother, years ago, long story, involved the prospect of paperwork.
Ben, of course, is a step ahead of Leslie. The gift he’d been waiting to give her isn’t pearl earrings or his grandmother’s broach, but a KNOPE 2012 campaign pin. He’s known all along (Leslie gives stump speeches in her sleep) and knows they have to break up. Somehow this all seems less dramatically plausible than Community’s wildest contrivance, but everyone’s super cute, so we’ll go with it. Ron returns to work rather than use all his accrued personal days, announces Leslie’s candidacy, and hires Andy to be her assistant. Tammy One arrives in the bloodhound-scented form of Patricia Clarkson — she is an IRS auditor with bad news, because of course she is. The Tammy One tease in the finale set the bar high, but she’s up to the task — who could Ron Swanson possibly fear or dread more?
And yet, for all the clever plot advancement and choice-as-ever lines, there’s really only one thing that we will all take away from this episode and it will haunt our dreams, and it’s this here below, and we bid you a good day.