With “Second Chance,” Thursday night’s episode of “Parks and Recreation,” the show hits its 100th episode. It’s a big milestone, especially for a program that started off sketchy and, even at its creative peak (somewhere around the halfway point of its second season into its third), seemed to be on the brink of cancellation. Like most of the people of Pawnee, America has by and large been well-meaning but foolish, preferring questionable pleasures — the hapless Perd Hapley in Pawnee, terrible reality television in the real world — over an eccentric but lovable show like “Parks and Recreation.”
As it happened, the big 1-0-0 episode embodied what the show has, at this point, become: It’s not as sharp as it once was, but it’s funny, pleasant and features enough oddball one-liners to make one miss it if it were suddenly no more. Yes, even Ron Swanson’s (Nick Offerman) stubbornly libertarian man’s man aphorisms (“I believe that luck is a concept created by the weak to explain their failures”) remain, almost improbably, still deserving of chuckles.
And the show can still find ways to surprise you. The biggest news, apart from the episode benchmark — and that this episode finds Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) on her last day as a city councilperson, but more on that soon — is that Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) is back from his “London job” (i.e., making big budget comic book movies that required him to get buff). Andy, unable to shake off jet lag and a new time zone, spends the entire episode asleep or sleepwalking/sleep-peeing-into-a-trash-basket-he-mistakes-for-a-toilet. This is probably exactly what you’d expect of Andy, but it’s a sign of good writing that the writers know their character well enough to exploit a new conundrum that most people would get over with relative speed and efficiency. (Even when he is unusually, uncharacteristically lucid and sage, he follows it up by pointing out, “But I could be wrong, I haven’t pooped in three days.”)
As you may recall from the last episode — which aired TWO MONTHS AGO — Leslie was ousted from her dream job on trumped-up, ridiculous charges brought on by her corrupt colleagues. One of them happens to be immersed in his umpteenth sex scandal, a feat that he doesn’t, amusingly, try to hide. He owns it — and, of course, makes the requisite Anthony Weiner joke. Most comedies, when handling sex scandal-drenched pols, tend to play with their attempts to cover themselves up, as in this (NSFW) “Little Britain” series of sketches. That “Parks and Rec” goes the other way is a genuinely novel twist. And on top of that, it has fun with why we as a society continue to elect and re-elect horny politicians: When a journalist confesses that she think he’s hot, she follows that up by saying, “I just feel like I could fix him, you know?”
With this news bomb, Leslie thinks she’s hit on a new way to get her old job back: run against this fool in the next election. It’s a terrible idea, although not as bad/creative as the terrible ideas a slew of walk-ins give Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) as he tries to invest the money he acquired from his failed rent-a-swag business. This sequence is “Parks and Rec” at its best, firing off loopy bits — the best of which was a machine that counts words to no discernible purpose except to be a batty joke.
Luckily, Leslie gets talked out of it, though it requires the convincing powers of everyone plus a few walk-on guests. The best part of the episode is bringing back the great Kathryn Hahn, who once stole the show as Paul Rudd’s ruthless and pricey campaign manager. Hahn is one of the best character actors working — we kind of nerded out over her here, and she was lovely about it — and she comes in as a pitch hitter to talk some real sense into Leslie, convincing her to come up with an outside-the-box solution to her woes. This is real talk, but it also applies to the show. “Parks and Rec” needs a new, bold direction that’s not just cruising on the likability of its cast and the frequent invention of its writers. We’ve been saying this for awhile, and thinking it for even longer. But this episode makes us excited for the new, crazy directions the show could conceivably go in. Or maybe it will just continue being a nice character show, which is also fine.
— A big shout-out to Ben’s (Adam Scott) bizarre phone call to a singing telegram service to send someone to sing a minor key, sad song to Leslie on her last day on the job.