While the events of last season’s finale, in which the good civil servants of Pawnee, Indiana, face a government shutdown, coincidentally mirrored the show’s surprise fall benching, “Go Big or Go Home” takes full advantage of the parallel, mining the uncertainty and paranoia for comic effect without laying the meta on too thick. When Leslie Knope barges in on Ron Swanson (chopping wood, obvs), and gushes, “We’re back,” you are meant to smile knowingly, maybe even clap a little if you’re so moved. And when Ron grumbles, “Bully,” in response, he may as well be speaking for whoever takes credit for Outsourced.
Before the opening credits begin, Leslie’s rounded up the troops from their interim jobs — Tom’s hitting on girls at Foot Locker, Donna’s a telemarketer for Pawnee’s premier rubber-nipple concern, Jerry’s painting landscapes — and it’s back to the task at hand: Do good work, even if your higher-ups show no confidence in you. The parks department is in “maintenance mode,” and the only approved program is a two-team basketball league. Coach Swanson adopts Bobby Knight’s red sweater and chair-throwing despot tactics for his squad — you’re gonna want to freeze-frame the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness to catch nuggets like, “Friends: One to three is sufficient” — while Coach Andy Dwyer, still in April’s doghouse, takes a decidedly less strident approach with his. Ron makes Tom referee the league’s first game, despite the fact that the latter knows nothing about basketball, presumably because he already has the shirt from his Foot Locker uniform. When Tom sees his ex-wife, Wendy, sidle up next to Ron, he proceeds to eject all of Ron’s players, giving Andy the win by forfeit, celebrated by a self-administered Gatorade bath.
Mark Brendaniwicz is not in any way referenced, even as Ann repeatedly rejects Chris’s spirited requests for a date. Leslie sees his interest as a chance to plead for the department’s budget and begs Ann to go out with him. (“Would you feel comfortable doing things a prostitute does? Minus the money?”) Ever the good soldier, despite the fact that she no longer has any particular connection to the parks department, Ann agrees, and all is going well; Chris reveals the not-funny reason for his indefatigable positivity is that he was diagnosed with a blood disorder at three weeks old. (Don’t both Chris and Ben’s conveniently poignant back stories feel a little hurried, or at least hurriedly revealed? Yes, they’re two new major characters being simultaneously added to a tight ensemble, but something about the tidy explanations offered for their dominant foibles feels … nervous. I’m gonna go ahead and blame the network execs who brought us the “Landry and Tyra hook up and then kill a guy” season-two Friday Night Lights plotline.) Ben and Leslie crash the date, which continues at the Bulge, and ends badly when Leslie admits to talking the reluctant Ann into going out with Chris. And with that, Chris has just had the first bad date of his life.
After Andy meets April’s new Venezuelan boyfriend Eduardo, he turns to Leslie for a pep talk: “When your back’s against the wall and the odds are stacked against you, you swing the hardest.” It’s probably not overreaching to say this is the mantra for the show itself right now. Leslie convinces her skeptical superiors to let her revive Pawnee’s Harvest Festival, and if this gambit fails, parks and recreation (read: Parks and Recreation) will be eliminated. The stakes for the season, and the series, are duly set: Go big or go home.