‘Parks and Recreation’ recap: Season 6, Episode 1: ‘London’

Ron Swanson is as unimpressed with London's postcards as he is with London itself. Credit: Tim Whitby/NBC
Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is as unimpressed with London’s postcards as he is with London itself.
Credit: Tim Whitby, NBC

Society demands we wed and procreate. The same goes with sitcoms. Should a show last long enough on the air, there’s little to do but marry everyone off and/or pelt them with children. “Parks and Recreation” started off as an “Office” clone, with an obliviously monstrous boss — relentlessly chipper civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) — making her staffers miserable. The show didn’t turn great until it realized Leslie was actually a wonderful person.

Ironically this made it all the more susceptible to the usual sitcom marriages and pregnancies. April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) wed long ago, though that got a pass because they’re the least sentimental characters on the show. But things took a more traditional route when Leslie and Ben (Adam Scott) tearfully tied the knot last season. On/off lovers Anne (Rashida Jones) and Chris (Rob Lowe) are back on, after they decided to add one more (almost assuredly beautiful) kid to this already crowded sitcom world. Alas, their spawn won’t haunt “Parks and Rec” for long. Jones and Lowe are reportedly high-tailing it this season, leaving their beloved characters floating about in sitcom oblivion.

As if to rectify this, Season Six opens right on a pregnancy AND a wedding. When last we left him, ultra-man’s man Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) was still dating Diane (Lucy Lawless). That Ron’s heart was won by Xena, Warrior Princess, was a great joke, and perhaps even better is what comes next. Diane announces she’s pregnant, and Ron — ever the unstuck-in-time gentleman — gets down on one knee, presenting a ring in (what else?) a hand-carved wooden box. Rather than draw it out over episodes — or even for a few minutes — the two take the elevator up to City Hall’s fourth floor, pester the cranky old woman who works there and make their union legal, all with Leslie barking and jumping behind them like a caffeinated child.

This is all before the opening credits, and in a Very Special hour-long episode, no less. As if to re-assert its status as a self-aware sitcom that still delivers the sitcom goods, this major double event is quickly forgotten, and the A Plot takes over. The rest finds the episode mocking/embracing another cliche of long-running sitcoms: “[Show] goes to [far-off location]!” Leslie learns she is to be given an international award, held in London.

More than fish-out-of-water antics (Ron comes along to grumble up a storm), this is a great opportunity to exploit Britain’s massive list of great comics. They don’t disappoint. Ben and Andy, looking for money for a new charity, run afoul of a happily bored and extremely moneyed Lord played by Peter Serafinowicz. Serafinowicz is one of England’s battiest, most absurd comic geniuses, as one half of the men responsible for the mind-meltingly brilliant fake educational show “Look Around You.” (He also voiced Darth Maul in “The Phantom Menace,” due to a husky voice that he uses for both real menace and joke-menace.) Andy has no money, but if he did — and was British — he would likely be Serafinowicz’s richie, who’s as distracted by floating paper bags, the way different countries pronounce “aluminum” and in love with R/C helicopters as Andy is.

When “Parks and Rec” began, it was a bit more savage in its portrayal of Middle America life. It’s calmed down considerably, becoming more of a soap opera — albeit a hilarious one — where we like every (again, hilarious) character and wish good things upon them. The show’s now six years old, and it will likely never regain the balance it had at its second-through-third season peak. But you can see it trying. Sunny Leslie is a pro at ignoring Pawnee’s less savory aspects, of which there are many. In this episode, she watches as a new initiative — “No Problem Too Small,” in which any community member with even the tiniest, most comically petty issue can complain to her about it, face-to-usually-shouting-face — leads to endless headaches. Moreover, there’s talk of recall. While in England, basking in the glow of adoration amongst her international brethren (including Heidi Klum), her acceptance speech turns bitter, with Leslie finally unloading on the town that never seems to appreciate her hard work and undying optimism.

This thread is somewhat resolved by episode’s end, in one of the heartwarming about-faces that have become de rigueur on the show. (Ron gets one, too, although his is debate-ably even lovelier.) But it would be nice if the season pursued the darker line, delving into Leslie’s disillusionment with a shinier job title, in a town that never seems to change, despite her hard, tireless, peppy work. It’s almost impossible not to like everyone on the show, but the same thing was true of “The Office,” which in its last seasons dragged its decreasing viewers through autopilot storylines, fueled only by a vague, largely nostalgic sense of the characters’ likability and the occasional left-field quotable. “Parks and Rec” is still one of the best things on TV, but it would be even better if it was once again the very best — especially now that Walter White et al. are about to close up shop.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • As reported months ago, Chris Pratt is now a svelte badass, having lost much weight and gained muscle to play ripped Peter Quill in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” How does the show explain away the dramatic physical transformation of its most slovenly character? He just quit beer. (“How much beer were you drinking?” replies a horrified Ben.)
  • Once the fate of “Parks and Rec” was in question. Now it’s a show that can shell out to send its cast abroad. Not only do five of its members do up London, but Ron gets to stay longer, heading up to Scotland to sip on some of its finest Scotch. (Brian Cox has called Lagavulin — which, unlike Ron’s favorite steakhouse, Mulligan’s, definitely exists — “the cognac of whiskeys.”)
  • More evidence that few shows know how to endlessly milk characters that should have worn out their welcome ages ago, we get to see another side of the Sapersteen siblings. Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) and Mona Lisa (Jenny Slate) have both tortured Aziz Ansari’s Tom long enough, and here their father (Henry Winkler!) has targeted Tom for destruction. Seems both kids, fearing disappointing their father, have blamed their untold flaws and screw-ups on Tom, to the point where dad has decided to eliminate this allegedly dangerous element in his kids’ lives. Both finally appear weak, but not weak enough to offer excuses like Jean-Ralphio’s, in reference to one particular chaotic mess-up: “I really didn’t care about what was happening.”

Obligatory quote round-up:
See if you can guess which of the following lines aren’t Ron Swanson:

  • “History began on July 4, 1776. Everything before that was a mistake.”
  • “My love for her trumps my hatred of Europe.”
  • “Hogwarts is fictional. Do you know that? It’s important to me that you know that.”
  • “Of course, this all could have been avoided if we’d followed my idea for a honeymoon: a steak dinner, a glass of Lagavulin whiskey, then vigorous love making for two hours, and we’re both asleep by 8:30.”
  • “When life gives you lemons, you sell some of your grandma’s jewelry and you go clubbing.”
  • “I need to calm down. Let’s walk past Colin Firth’s house again.” “Who IS that?”

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