Leslie Knope hits rock bottom on the latest episode of "Parks and Recreation." Credit: NBC
Less than a month ago, “Parks and Recreation” was whimsically pulled from the NBC lineup and given a brief hiatus for reasons that can only be positive and encourage optimism in its viewers. If that weren’t enough, it was also put it in an awkward position. Because the episodes that would have run through October were now running in November, that means we get the requisite Halloween episode — because Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) would never let a dress-up holiday go unexploited — over two weeks after the official day has passed. Whoops!
But there’s something else strange afoot: Because NBC was nice enough to jam two episodes into its big comeback night, we get two separate episodes that involve people putting on costumes. In the first episode of the evening, “Filibuster,” Leslie throws a birthday party for her beloved Ben (Adam Scott). This being Leslie, it has a theme: It’s an early ‘90s rollerskating party. That means Tom (Aziz Ansari) goes as Kris Kross (too soon?), the not-yet-departed Ann (Rashida Jones) goes as Blossom, Ben rocks a Toad the Wet Sprocket shirt (this was very funny) and April (Aubrey Plaza) willfully misinterprets it as the 1690s and dresses like a pilgrim. (Note: In the early 1990s, Rob Lowe was attempting a comeback by appearing in the “Wayne’s World” movie and the miniseries “The Stand.” Here, he just wears a baggy T-shirt and a chain.)
As in the night’s second episode, the fun is interrupted by (at least potentially) cataclysmic news: Evil councilman/blow-dried hair enthusiast Jamm (Jon Glaser), who’s been instrumental in the Recall Knope campaign eating up this season’s attention, has sneaked in a vote on whether to boot our plucky hero while she’s gliding around with wheels on her feet. This prompts Leslie to crash the session, with rollerskates, and whip out the big set piece from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (and from Ted Cruz’s career thus far): an old fashioned time-wasting filibuster.
This is a great idea, and it would be even better if it had more time to exploit it. While it might sound fun at first, filibustering with rollerskates proves cumbersome, while she soon breaks two out of the three strikes by sitting down and taking oratory suggestions from Ben. The episode still has to tend to the B plots, namely Tom trying to romance his latest out-of-his-league love interest (a bound-for-Rwanda doctor played by Tatiana Maslany), and rugged outdoorsman Ron finds himself tragically terrible at video game deer hunting. (This makes sense. Guitar gods have complained about being incompetent at rock band games, unable to play the licks and solos they themselves created because pressing buttons is not remotely how one plays guitar.)
The other big news is the return of Andy (Chris Pratt). Pratt is off starring in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the next comic book extravaganza you’ll be forced to care about soon. (Actually, it’s being helmed by James Gunn, whose “Super” is a memorably and impressively unpleasant anti-comic book movie, where the “hero,” played by Rainn Wilson, is a psychotic nutcase who hits minor offenders in the head with a wrench.) Andy is “in London,” and his presence is bittersweet: His absence is reminiscent of the early days in the show, when he was only supposed to be a minor character and disappeared for stretches before being promoted to full-time. And his arrival brings out real (albeit suppressed) emotions from Plaza’s April.
This recapper has talked about how great it would be if the show actually went a bit darker. And so it did, sort of. The night’s other episode, “Recall Vote,” put a sudden and violent end to the arc about whether Leslie would be recalled. And she was.
The only thing that could kill Leslie would be losing her prized political power, which she’s worked her whole life to obtain, and which she saw threatened by forces her bright-cheeked optimism could never have foreseen: the cartoonish heartlessness of Councilman Jamm and the even more cartoonish pettiness of the Pawnee townsfolk.
With the news, she collapses, and right in time for the haunted house she’s been busying herself with erecting. (A haunted house is a good way to get around just having another Halloween party while still getting characters to dress up.) Leslie — adopting extensions and an orange dress — sits in the scariest room: a nondescript (and dimly lit) office, where she holds court, telling kids the hard truths about the disappointments and abject failures and heartbreaks that await them as they get older. (This recapper has often made the case that monsters and ghouls and Freddy Krueger-type killers aren’t scary, but things like aging and being bad at life are. So we applaud this decision from more than just a comedic standpoint.)
It also means that Leslie gets to do one of the things that is unfailingly funny and which the show only and wisely uses sporadically: She gets drunk. This doesn’t lead to the glories of season three’s “The Fight,” in which everyone gets wasted on Tom’s new drink, Snake Juice. But it does prompt her and an equally tanked Ben to try and get tattoos — at a pawn shop.
In the “meanwhile” category, Tom is about to lose his beloved Rent-a-Swag store to the more moneyed competition across the street. Upon hearing that a local trend guru (and failed Los Angelino) Annabelle Porter — a pretty good parody of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP — has glommed onto Ron Swanson’s handmade chairs and wants to get Chinese sweatshops to make them en masse, Tom tries to worm his way into her favor.
Once again, Ron is forced to interact with a hippie-dippie type whose values run counter to his. The writers always make this funny (on how Annabelle would like to use his chairs, as opposed to mere sitting in them: “I could use it as a focal point in my yoga tent”), but this gimmick is running thin. And it’s not as winning as pairing him, as it did only two episodes ago, with Sam Elliott, who starts off as an older Ron only to reveal he’s a vegan Cat Stevens lyric-reciter.
In its sixth season, “Parks and Recreation” isn’t as fresh as it once was, and it continues to rehash some of its better jokes/episode hooks to lesser effect. But it’s still sharp and still quotable. Best of all, it has some genuine pickles to deal with. Leslie bounces back in time to give a respectable recall speech, but how will she cope when, in 30 days, she’s actually out of office? Throw in Ann and Chris (Rob Lowe) leaving, and there’s going to be some dark times a-comin’. And how more actually depressed (as opposed to just casually miserable) will April get with Andy still in London/making comic book movies? This could potentially turn into a game-changing season — if it ever lets itself do that.
Requisite quotables: - Andy: “If this were really the 1690s, we’d all be mummies.” Ann: “What do you think mummies are?” - Ben on Leslie: “Once she starts talking about birthday cake, she’s basically useless until she eats birthday cake.” - April to Andy, who’s feeling insecure with new responsibilities: “I’m going to tell you a secret about everyone else’s job: No one knows what they’re doing.” Too true. - Leslie trying to distract herself with more than Halloween-related activities: “Plus it’s Kevin Pollak’s birthday!” (This is true: He was born on Oct. 30, 1957.) - Annabelle’s trend spotting: “Mozambique cashmere is the new cast-iron stove.” - Host to Annabelle: “I love your hair.” Annabelle:” Thanks! It’s organic and unattainable!” - Pawn shop guy’s advice before he starts tattooing: “Take a scoop out of the pill bucket.” (This exists.)