The problem with TV recaps — the ONLY problem with TV recaps — is that one gets too involved in the episode-to-episode burn that one can miss the bigger picture. Last week found this recapper grumbling about how “Parks and Recreation”’s sixth season lacked the verve and pep of its Golden Age. And here it goes and gives us an episode that’s close enough to same.
Turns out the concept of merging podunk Pawnee with wealthy but overly spendthrifty neighboring town Eagleton was a terrific way to mine some comedy…well, silver, maybe not gold. With Leslie (Amy Poehler) named “merger czar,” this episode came up with a solid episode hook: The union of the towns meant that each member of the Pawnee parks department would get their own equivalent from the town over.
But the real genius of this concept was that they didn’t give them their exact equivalents. This isn’t the “bizarro world” cast of “Parks and Rec” a la the episode of “Seinfeld” where Elaine finds herself hobnobbing with similar-but-slightly-different versions of Jerry, George and Kramer. Each character gets someone who’s not their equal but a weirdly inspired match.
And so unfailingly cool, underworking Donna (Retta) got an easily stressed overworker, albeit one who also hates the same character on “Scandal.” Tom (Aziz Ansari) locked horns with a guy who points out that most places of employment have turned his duties over to a computer. April (Aubrey Plaza) found herself stuck with a woman named Tynnyfer, who speaks in Valley Girlese and smacks of a reality TV zombie. Rather than fight, April adapts, taking on her vernacular and endless ability to be jaw-dropped shocked, out of what appears to be a probably toxic mix of hatred and adulation. (“She’s the worst person I’ve ever met. I want to travel the world with her,” she deadpans in the only line in the episode she actually deadpans.)
Ron (Nick Offerman) gets Ron, who’s played by Sam Elliott. This is brilliant. Even more brilliant is that, after a taciturn meet-cute between the two — with Offerman going head-to-head with the man’s-manniest man still going in our metrosexual modern world — Other Ron reveals a horrific secret: He’s really a hippie — a pacificst, environmentalist “fregan vegan” who believes in communal living, meditating, uncaged chickens and quoting Cat Stevens and the Smiths. Once Other Ron’s real side comes out, few have seethed the way Real Ron seethes.
The entire episode has the fleetness and inspiration of classic “Parks and Rec,” even the manner with which it tends to more serious matters: As began at the tail end of last week’s episode, Ann (Rashida Jones) and Chris (Rob Lowe) are leaving. (As are Jones and Lowe, for that matter.) They want to get out of tiny Pawnee, where the local salad has gummy worms and gumballs in it, and maybe hit relatively Parisian Michigan.
Leslie does not take this well, even when Ann strategically dangles waffles in front of her face. She goes nuts, demanding her friends sign loyalty contracts, and as ever has to be talked down by the coldly libertarian yet warm and wise Ron.
That Leslie and Ann’s inevitable make-up pow-wow is only set-up, but not delivered significantly, is a good sign: This is an episode that, unlike many recently, finds a way to mask actual sentiment and emotion in decent, inspired jokes. This is what the “Parks and Rec” of old did, before it chilled out, became an institution and succumbed to the old “marry ‘em off and impregnate ‘em” cliche of veteran comedy shows. It’s not clear how much meat is left on the Pawnee-Eagleton merger. Maybe not much. But based on the episodes thus far, this is looking like a sprightly season — although we’ll miss Ann and, moreso, Jones, whose slight twist on the straight man among a cast of eccentrics and grotesques is subtly integral to the show’s appeal. Speaking of eccentrics, where was Andy?
- A sign of the changing alpha male: Sam Elliott has a voice of pure tobacco, while Nick Offerman sounds like he’s never smoked for more than five years in his life. The relatively dulcet tones of Offerman’s voice stand in contrast to Elliott, even though Elliott is far more thin — rail-thin, in fact. Has the man with the badassest mustache perhaps really actually turned hippie?
- Speaking of Ron, it’s consistently amazing how “Parks and Rec”’s two most reliably hilarious characters — Ron and April — are essentially one-, maybe two-note. And yet they never get old, even when they repeat certain general gags. Ron’s been impressed with others before, but his subplot still seemed fresh. Likewise, April has spent previous episodes acting like other types of people. But Plaza really sold this one, in part because Plaza’s an even better performer when she’s pretending to be enthused (but isn’t really).
- “But I said, ‘Put that bikini away, Pawnee needs me!'” —Jerry…sorry, Gary…sorry, Larry (Jim O’Heir), whose wife is by the way played by a still smokin’ Christie Brinkley
- “Hold on, it’s Xanax Time.” — Tynnyfer
- While most Eagletonians are symbols of health, Pawnee has attracted both “mega-diabetes” and “the only known appearance of Lou Gehrig’s Other Disease.”
- “You don’t know ‘Meat is Murder?’ It’s one of the best songs ever about industrialized beef consumption.” — what not to say to Ron Swanson