Last week’s Parks and Rec was a transitional episode, welcoming us back with the introduction of the Harvest Festival story arc, a new phase in Andy and April’s relationship, and the full-on integration of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott into the cast. “The Flu,” the episode from yesterday night, is a trial run for this new era in the show, and it gives an idea of what we can expect from a typical season three episode. Some of the best moments in Parks involve an element of chaos throwing off the dynamic in the office. When the flu comes to Pawnee, it allows a lot of the cast to show off new dimensions to their characters, playing them in hilarious, anemic states.
This was a highly enjoyable episode and everyone in the cast got at least a few moments to shine. Leslie, April, and Chris, in particular, as the three flu-sufferers, used their physical ailments to take their characters to new places. Leslie stealing flu medicine from the others to get through her speech is a nice combination of the dedication and absurdity that make up her character, and having the action take place off-screen was a wise move by the writers that made it possible to downplay the mean-spiritedness of her actions. While Leslie, April, and Chris are all hit with the same virus, none of them are affected by it in the same way. April just uses her condition to provoke Ann, while Rob Lowe shows off the clear opposite side of the normally-superhuman Chris. Chris’s complete physical breakdown makes for some of the episode’s best moments, and it’s fun to watch Lowe play the character so far out of his element.
This week also saw some new cast pairings, which the show has always found strength in experimenting with. While some series begin with a clear idea of how each character interacts with one another before the roles are even cast, Parks and Rec gives the actors the opportunity to discover their chemistry onscreen. It’s an approach that doesn’t always guarantee results, but some of the show’s best moments have been born out of just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. For example, Andy and April’s relationship only came about because the writers needed something for them to do while everyone else was out of the office during the “Hunting Trip” episode, and the writers began to put them together more in future episodes. The Andy and April storyline became one of the many highlights of season two and has been one of the show’s B stories ever since. Developing such important elements onscreen is a risky move and it may be part of the reason Parks took several episodes to find its footing, but this methodology has also given the show a more natural feeling and led to some of its best moments.
With the addition of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe to the cast, we’ll be seeing this trial and error method applied to each of their scenes with various cast members in upcoming episodes. Here, we get to see the first extended interaction between Ben and Tom Haverford, with some funny moments being born out of their clashing ideologies. Although both characters are roughly the same age, they’re natural foils for each other with Ben’s tendency to keep his nose down and go by the book butts heads with Tom’s lazy but effective way of doing business by socializing. I look forward to seeing more of these two together in the future.
Another newer relationship explored was between April and Ann. Although these two have spent time together in the past, this was probably the most shared screen time they’ve, and both actresses ran with it. New shades of April emerged, as I think we’ve yet to see April care about anything as much as she cares about pushing Ann’s buttons this week. When she finally breaks Ann down, it’s a great moment for Rashida Jones, who also gets to exhibit a new side of Ann Perkins, delivering a rare moment of anger in a great little monologue that also allows her to sweetly stand up for Andy.
No discussion of the character partnerships in this episode would be complete without the mention of Ron and Andy’s bonding session. Although putting these two together is something they’ve done a little bit of in the past, I would love to see them return to this well as often as possible. Ron and Andy are two of my favorite characters in primetime TV right now, both such absurd specific personalities. It’s great to see them enjoying each other’s company, even though they come from totally different worlds. One of their previous storylines together, in which Andy gives Ron a shoeshine resulting in Ron emitting a strange moan, is one of the funniest, strangest moments of last year’s TV season.
Rob Lowe and Adam Scott have been a welcome addition to the cast, but the tag at the end of the episode felt a little forced. We know that since these two are now in the cast, they’ll be sticking around for a while, but it’s off-putting to see the characters so blatantly and transparently talk about request an extended stay in Pawnee. With Indiana going through a supposed budget crisis, it doesn’t make sense in the logic of the show for two state auditors to remain in one town where they aren’t really needed. I took it as something the writers felt they had to explain, almost like a tacit admission that there’s no plausible reason for Ben and Chris to stay in Pawnee. Perhaps no moment in the tag is more glaring than when the guys mention staying for “loose ends that need tying up.” It feels like they’re talking about the show entirely there. Although Ben and Chris have burgeoning relationships with Leslie and Ann, respectively, and have developed a love for the town, they seem to be sticking around for the sake of sitcom logic, rather than real life logic. This is a show that normally doesn’t have to resort to sitcom logic, and I would like a more substantive reason for their characters’ extended stay in Pawnee as the show goes on. If Parks and Rec is lucky enough to continue for future seasons (as it deserves to), it will become more difficult to explain the characters’ presence unless they get anchored down in permanent positions in Pawnee’s government or in long-term relationships with Leslie and Ann.
It’s funny how the Parks Department’s survival has developed into such a strong metaphor for that of the show, with both raising the stakes this year to stave off extinction. The “Go Big or Go Home” battle cry from last week applies to both Leslie’s harvest festival, as well as the show raising the stakes in the new post-Office timeslot by adding to known actors to the cast and gravitating toward more ambitious plotting. This past week, both the Parks Department and the show oddly reached their greatest successes yet, as Leslie found funding for the festival and the show received a whopping ratings increase. We can only hope to see the show and Leslie’s department continue to climb upward.
Bradford Evans is a writer living on the edge.