The third episode of “Parks and Recreation”’s sixth season is the first to air since the government shutdown. It probably won’t be the last. This should give the show some extra relevance. After all, its small town, Pawnee, operates as a microcosm of America’s diverse, dysfunctional political landscape with Republican, Democratic, far right, far left and Libertarian elements all operating — however improbably — in one tiny Midwestern town.
Tonight’s episode featured no accidental commentary on our current catastrophe. Instead, it intentionally addressed another. Once again, the rivalry’s back on between podunk Pawnee and snooty rich neighboring town Eagleton. As it turns out, though, things aren’t so hot with our heroes’ elitist arch-nemeses. Thoughtless spending has gone through the roof; the town’s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) equivalent — played by special guest star Kristen Bell — confesses the local government has bought HBO for every household. Ben (Adam Scott) even notices their currency appears to be in euros, while Chris discovers they have Michael Buble on retainer.
This is a novel twist on the long-running Pawnee-Eagleton smackdown, and one of the best at allowing the writers free range to come up with excellent oblivious richie jokes — and some great dumb redneck ones, too. At the end, it’s revealed Leslie has reluctantly — wearily, really — agreed to save Eagleton, via a socialist-style solution that merges the two towns. This is because Eagleton is, as it were, too big to fail. While Pawnee regular hotheads (including everyone’s no doubt favorite: the mustachioed angry guy) are firing off one-liners (“How come no one bailed me out when I was busted for arson?” “What’s next, merging a man with his dog?”), one well-dressed Eagleton resident blurts about his new neighbors, “They’re all a little — what’s the word? — has no money.”
There are two B-plots, one which should bounce off the A-plot nicely, but is really more of a nice distraction. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), ever the isolationist, decides to get off the grid completely -- with the help of the two most on-the-grid characters on the show: Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta). (The latter’s movements can be timed to the second by way of Twitter.) This means cutting up every piece of identification, including his parking lot entry card, and even demanding his apparently many pictures for winning eating contests at diners be taken down, even when Ron was already paranoid enough to only have them bill him as “Man.” But can Ron really be untraceable now that he has a wife (Xena — er, Lucy Lawless) and a baby en route?
This is funny, but classic “Parks and Rec” would have put Ron in the A-plot. Surely he wouldn’t have taken kindly to the rather out-there bailout that occurs, with Pawnee suddenly taking on Eagleton’s debt, even in the name of saving the state as a whole. Thing is, “Parks and Rec”’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in it when it comes to political satire anymore. It never was totally. It could be occasionally savage, but it was more like a sharp nudge with the elbow rather than an exacting cut to the carotid artery. Now it’s more like a gentle, barely felt ribbing. This is fine, but it’s easy to long for the days of the second season classic “Sister City,” when the show started coming into its own.
That said, these are three fun plots for a 21-minute episode, especially for a show in its dreaded sixth season. (Was “The Office” this sharp this far in? This is a serious question. We can’t remember.) Speaking of which, let’s quickly talk about the third plot, which had Ann driving April to the school the latter got into in a slightly far-off town. Ann wants to patronize a baby store there, since Pawnee has no non-disgusting/shady ones. (It’s called “Tots All, Folks!” — see? It’s still going strong!) Meanwhile, April still, apparently, has enough hatred for Ann to try and make her miserable, repeatedly pretending to others that she’s old and telling her she’s the worst person she’s ever met. (“And I’ve met Guy Fieri” — a joke that’s a touch too easy but gets the job done.) This isn’t much more than a reminder that April still hasn’t taken to Ann, and that Ann hasn’t given up on trying to reverse that. But it, like the rest of the episode, will do.
OK, just one: This was directed by Nicole Holofcener, who also has a strong career as a filmmaker of dramedies featuring neurotic women. Her latest, “Enough Said” — featuring one of James Gandolfini’s last performances, plus Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his girlfriend — is raking in the dollars, and she’s also made “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends With Money” and “Please Give.” She’s a TV vet, and maybe after another 50 episodes she’ll make a movie that actually looks competent, as opposed to being beautifully written and acted.
Requisite quotables, and let’s see if you can guess which is Ron’s, which is April’s and which is some somehow neither:
- “Who or what is ‘Penny Saver'?”
- On the contents of one character’s bag: “An early Sprite can, an old man’s finger nail in my pocket and a picture of Patrick Ewing on a roller coaster. I’m all set.”
- “Why is everyone else so bad at eating?”
- “This is Ann, my 65-year-old grandmother.”
- “I just stole your phone and texted every guy in there that your baby was theirs. It’s not such a big deal.”
- “I love you, but your solution to every problem is to live inside a mountain.”
- Reactions to seeing Ron’s cell phone: “It looks like the original phone from 'Wall Street.'” “Ew, it has buttons!”