The biggest question last week’s pivotal episode of Parks and Rec left us with was, “What will happen to Ben after resigning?” Last night’s installment, “Citizen Knope,” tackled the issue head-on but didn’t leave us with much of an answer as to where Ben’s future lies by the episode’s end. I’d say it’s pretty much a given that Ben becomes involved in Leslie’s City Council campaign, either as her money man or her campaign manager. I was expecting the episode to address Leslie and Ben’s futures in the wake of the political scandal, but I wasn’t expecting an episode full of so many surprises, including a couple of familiar faces popping up. We got appearances from Ben Schwartz as Jean-Ralphio, perhaps the most beloved recurring character on Parks*, and Jason Mantzoukas returning as douchey cologne mogul Dennis Feinstein. “Citizen Knope” wrapped these hilarious Simpsons-esque bit characters, some big plot movements, and the kind of sentiment that few other sitcoms can replicate into one tight Christmas package.
(*Sorry, Perd Hapley fans!)
We picked up following Leslie and Ben’s big trials from last week, with the two of them struggling with what to do in the wake of her suspension and his resignation. Ben opts to find a new job as quickly as possible, while Leslie tries to get as close to doing her job as possible without actually returning to work. She ends up trying to create bureaucratic change as a citizen by forming the political action committee Parks Committee of Pawnee (PCP). Ben finds the prospect of doing in-house accounting for an accounting firm dreary, while the idea of working for the Machiavellian Dennis Feinstein is too frightening. By the end of the episode, with some guidance from Jean-Ralphio (and by proxy, from Jean-Ralphio’s Brazilian waxer), he unexpectedly chooses to take some time off to explore his options.
Leslie’s future is looking murky, too, at the start of the episode, with her advisers dropping her because her poll numbers took a major dive in the wake of the scandal. I say good riddance to these two, as the adviser characters have been around since last season but have been pretty bland the whole time, even though they’ve mainly been playing straight man to Leslie and haven’t had a lot of opportunities to score laughs. Leslie’s campaign looks doomed until she returns to the Parks office to find that Ron Swanson has assembled everyone on staff to pitch in to help Leslie win her campaign, in return for the years of generosity she’s shown them. Ron, April, Andy, Tom, Ann, Donna, and not Jerry are going to be a much more lively and exciting campaign team for Leslie than those two characters whose names I never learned.
One of the things Parks is best at is continuing to flesh out its world of supporting characters and continuing to bring back old favorites. Jason Mantzoukas’s Dennis Feinstein officially became a recurring character with his second appearance last night. The always-funny Jean-Ralphio also appeared in a couple of scenes that didn’t disappoint. Maybe it’s because his appearances are usually spaced out so much (due to actor Ben Schwartz’s busy schedule) that it’s always such a fun and exciting surprise to see Jean-Ralphio leap into frame, in this case, scaring the shit out of Ben by coming out of nowhere and jumping on his back. We also got a visit from a lesser-known character, Barney the mind-numbingly dull accountant (played by John Balma), who appeared in two season two episodes, “Leslie’s House” and “Telethon.” Barney is in fine form during Ben’s interview with him, offering up exactly what an accountant for an accounting firm would look like.
I referred to these bit characters as Simpsons-esque earlier, and I can’t think of a comedy - TV or film - that’s more like a live-action Simpsons than Parks. Springfield’s odd town history and its existence as a microcosm of American society are a clear influence on the town of Pawnee, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Both shows deftly blend humor and pathos, with a cast of broad characters whose often-cartoonish antics are balanced by emotional depth that makes them feel like real, three-dimensional people. It’s rare that a comedy can have something as broad as a character forcing himself to throw up spraypainted M&M’s he ate by mistake in the same episode that ends with such a heartfelt and emotional Christmas speech, but Parks and Rec has been striking this balance perfectly for years now, in a way that glory era Simpsons did every week.
“Citizen Knope” offers up a better idea of what the entire arc for Parks and Rec’s fourth season will be, with the mention of the City Council campaign being scheduled for May. We knew the campaign would be the show’s focus for most of the season, but the Parks writers are often unpredictable (think Andy and April’s out-of-nowhere wedding), and they introduced a big plotline in Season Three, the Harvest Festival, that looked like it would be a season-long arc, only to burn it off in seven episodes. Leslie’s campaign holds a lot more gravity than the Harvest Festival did, and it’s fitting that they’re letting it play out over the course of an entire season. I look forward to returning to recap the second half of the Parks and Rec’s fourth season next month when Leslie Knope’s campaign kicks it into high gear.
The staff’s roles in Leslie’s campaign:
Bradford Evans can sit through any episode of The Office (US or UK) or any Christopher Guest movie without feeling the slightest bit awkward or embarrassed but had his hands over his eyes during that scene when the accountant asked Ben to repeat his awful calculator joke. Thank God they cut away before he had to make that awful pun to a stranger!