'Parks And Recreation' Shows The Beating Heart Of Its Great Love Story
The wedding of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) was one of Parks and Recreation's greatest moments. So was the wedding of April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt). But Tuesday night, Parks spent the second half of its hourlong double episode on its greatest love story: the friendship of Leslie and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman).
To recap: This final season has involved a time jump, such that it takes place in 2017. We learned at the start of the season premiere that there had been a falling out between Leslie, the good-government liberal, and Ron, the skeptical-of-government libertarian, that had broken their unlikely but profound bond and made them enemies. It involved something they kept referring to as "Morningstar," and happened sometime after they stopped being colleagues at the Pawnee Department Of Parks and Recreation and Leslie went to work for the National Park Service while Ron went off to start his own business, the Very Good Building Co. This season, Ron and Leslie found themselves facing off over land she wanted for a park and he wanted for the new headquarters of Gryzzl (a tech company that we learned last night has a Vice President of Cool New Shizz), but they had turned on each other long before that.
In last night's episode, "Leslie and Ron," their friends got tired of seeing them at war with each other and locked them in their old office, vowing to leave them there overnight to force them to work things out. And they did, which came as a relief, since seeing them fight was really stressing me out, you guys.
The origin story of Parks is now familiar: It was originally rumored to be a spinoff of The Office, it had a central boss who was weird enough that it originally seemed to actually be a local-government version of The Office, but it gradually grew into one of the most emotionally rich shows on TV — not only in broadcast or in comedy or in broadcast comedy, but overall. One of (many) things that separates it from The Office, though, is the underlying fact that working in a midsize paper company really was, in and of itself, a job in which it was hard to find real meaning, which is part of why the relationships were so important. But Parks has a point of view about working in government, and that point of view is unapologetically that it is possible for people in government to do things that are meaningful — hard, but possible.
There's a scene in a very early episode in which city planner Mark Brendanawicz — who later left the show — explains with some misery that his latest accomplishment is getting a speed bump lowered 2 inches. Leslie, as always, had the bright side covered: "You fixed a problem," she says. "That's what we're supposed to do."
But beyond its theory of government, the show has always had a more fundamental optimism that, particularly on the night of the State of the Union, seemed more subversive than ever: It has been committed from the start to the idea that people with very different politics can love each other, and that humanity is a kind of universal solvent that doesn't undo disagreements but can clean off enough other stuff for surprising connections to happen. It isn't optimistic about everything — Leslie had to ship a couple of male penguins out of town to quiet the uproar after she inadvertently married them to each other a few seasons back. Leslie has lost a lot. She lost the seat on the City Council that it had been her pinnacle as a human to win, and she has remained in administrative and not elective office ever since. The Pawnee government is full of problems (and weirdos).
The beating heart of the show, though, is this hard-won (and beautifully acted and written) friendship that has not placed Ron and Leslie in full agreement, but eventually made them allies as far as they agree and respectful opponents when they don't. Leslie has learned to respect Ron's brand of happiness instead of bulldozing him for what she perceives to be his own good — she didn't try, for example, to force a surprise party on his birthday, but arranged for him to spend the evening blissfully alone, as he actually wanted.
In the end, a little bulldozing did have to be employed. When Ron wouldn't talk and Leslie was ready, she employed an escalating series of discomforts to force his hand. He withstood a fan blowing on his ear, being covered in Post-its and having water dripped on his mustache, but when Leslie blasted "We Didn't Start the Fire" and made up her own lyrics ("Freddy Krueger bought some pants/Oprah has a turtle farm/Peter Piper pee pee poopy/Daddy ate a squirrel") he broke. (Poor Billy Joel.) So they talked.
This is not the obvious kind of "love conquers all," but it is a love story nonetheless — earnest and unpredictable and built on the same series of advances and retreats as any love story in fiction. And it was a story with higher emotional stakes than the great majority of romances that television and film will ever come up with, to be honest. Rather than futz around with the ridiculous question of whether men and women can be friends (spoiler alert: yes), Parks has devoted itself to the specifics of this relationship, these people, this office and this town, and the fact that they matter to each other.
It was still very, very funny — Leslie's coercion tactics, those alt lyrics, Ron detonating what he believed to be a real land mine in order to break out of the office, only to discover that it was ... not a land mine. There's no trade-off between writing with feelings and writing with goofs except when writers choose to make one, and this particular episode was a welcome return to the Parks world as it should be: Ron and Leslie loving each other with all the platonic purity of purpose that Peter Piper could ever ask for.
Note: Thursday morning on WNYC at about 11:40 a.m., I'll be talking to The Brian Lehrer Show about this episode and the other one that aired last night, "William Henry Harrison."
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