“Parks and Recreation” won’t be celebrating its 100th episode till after January, but it’s still incredible that some characters have yet to spent time together. In “Fluoride,” the first of two episodes NBC crammed into Thursday night before it goes on its winter/holiday break, April (Aubrey Plaza) and Donna (Retta) finally get some bonding time, after realizing that — whoops! — they’ve somehow never done that and they don’t know eachother very well. Or at least they don’t know eachother well enough to tell which dog best captures their essence.
Let’s explain that: One of the B-plots in “Fluoride” finds April, Donna, Jerry/Garry/Larry (Jim O’Heir) and Eagleton transplant “Crazy” Craig (Bill Eichner) killing time at the office, sifting through a pile of dog photos, seeing which dog resembles which cast member. Tom and Andy get ones; Ron, who is more a cat person, does not. But when April thinks she’s found one that best suits Donna — dolled up and fashionable — Donna gets offended. April realizes she has no idea who Donna is.
And so, perhaps, do we. Donna has always been a peripheral character, and like the best peripheral characters — like Jerry/Garry/Larry, for instance, with Creed from “The Office” being the best example — she’s an open book, meaning the writers can add any character trait, no matter how nutty or insane. Okay, that’s not entirely true: Donna’s too classy to get any trait that’s too out-there, but “Fluoride” still pummels her with some strange tics. Her favorite movies: “Natural Born Killers,” “The Remains of the Day” and “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” — a nice against-the-grain choice, if one that posits that a Kiss song will unite the planet. Her favorite book: “Downton Abbey,” she insists.
Also spending some rare quality time are Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and Chris Praeger (Rob Lowe). They haven’t spent much time together outside of the Season 3 classic “Soulmates,” where they have a competition over who can make the tastier burger. (Chris’ immaculately conceived turkey burger with aioli sauce and other accoutrements winds up handily defeated by Ron’s simple bun and meat procured from his local Food ‘n Stuff.) Here, both are expecting children — because this is the sixth season of a long-running show, and everyone is procreating — and Chris tries to steal wisdom from Ron, or at least misinterpret everything he says as a metaphor.
The A-plot, of course, belongs to Leslie (Amy Poehler), and it finds her once again dealing with failure. As of last week, she was recalled, and she has less than a month as a city councilperson. Traditionally, the pickle she has to deal with in “Fluoride” would cause her to go flustered, but would be solved by episode’s end. Here, evil fellow councilperson/funny hair aficionado Jamm (Jon Glaser) wants to nix the idea of putting fluoride in the town’s drinking water, being that he’s a dentist and doesn’t want his clients getting healthier teeth. So he starts spreading fearmongering nonsense, knowing that Leslie’s cold rationalism is less attractive to the Pawnee populace.
But Leslie has nothing to lose, and she suddenly realizes it. Giving up scruples, she decides to fight fire with fire. She teams up with Tom (Aziz Ansari), who himself has lost his own dream job: manning a rental clothes store, which he signed over last week to a competitor. They spin fluoride into something more attractive than it is. When Jamm counters by getting local corporate devil Sweetums to instead lace the water with untold amounts of sugar, they have to step up their game once again, even if that means Leslie just talking smack about the company to the press. This is her idea of being a loose cannon, but Leslie — whether it’s because she’s just Leslie or because the writers couldn’t think of anything too insane for her to do — uses her newfound freedom with relative sobriety.
Of course, Leslie is about to lose something else: her bestie Ann (Rashida Jones). Ann is absent from this episode, but her imminent departure crops up later in the night’s second episode, “The Cones of Dunshire” (whose meaning will be explained forthwith). Leslie reminds everyone that she’s still in deep denial, and in any case is filling her time with busy-ness. That’s one reason she winds up having to suddenly get on the good side of her arch-nemesis Jamm.
Jamm has been popping up a lot lately, and since he shows no sign of leaving for good, it’s time for the writers to round out his character. Here, we learn that he has an Asian fetish, a wife who left him and, when prompted, prefers to do the Olivia Newton-John part when doing “Summer Nights” over karaoke. He also openly admires Lex Luthor (“He’s rich”), and suddenly starts calling Leslie “Superman,” to her abject horror. Jamm has been torturing Leslie since he first popped up on the show, but the writers show his lonely side without destroying the mystery or the essence that is Jamm. It’s something the show does well, and it wouldn’t be surprising — as two of its key players vacate and another, Andy (Chris Pratt), is off being buff in superhero movies — if he wound up as a regular sideline player. (Although at this point he basically is.)
As for Ron, he’s once again tortured by those who are utterly unlike him: the trendy, the fashionable and the young/hip. He wants to sell his remote cabin — or, rather, one of his four (or two) cabins — and this attracts the type of buyers who enrage him. That includes a pair apparently airlifted from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who April — once again glomming herself onto her true ideal mate, Ron — tries to lure into a sale by name-dropping Dave Eggers, Neko Case and the word “meta.” Ron, as usually, is great, and so is Offerman, but he’s been tortured enough with people that piss him off this season. He needs something else — say, something more involving his family life and forthcoming child that will test his manly/libertarian ideals.
The show is repeating itself, which it probably can’t help, and of which it’s obviously aware. Ben, who was fired from Sweetums in “Fluoride,” spends the beginning of “The Cones of Dunshire” once again unemployed. The last time this happened, he tried his hand at stop motion animation, with anticlimactic results. Here, he designs a game, and comes up with [drum roll] “The Cones of Dunshire,” a vaguely “Settlers of Catan”-style contraption, only with more rules, more cones and more sailor’s caps. But he’s already back to work after the cold open, returning to the accountant firm he briefly worked at two seasons ago. This place stocks real nerds, and to them the comparatively handsome and swaggering Ben is like a rock star. And Ben, let’s not forget, is a real nerd, and delights at celebratory lunches of calzones, not pizzas.
Here is where recappers are supposed to lament how the show is in a rut and all that. But thing is, even as it’s rehashing old jokes and premises, “Parks and Rec” is still sharp and loopy. And it sometimes finds invention in repetition. The show has been on long enough that we know that when Ben is absurdly happy at his new job, he’ll be gone by episode’s end. Nothing truly great can last long here — unless it’s marriage — and even if it’s a show that has gotten same-y in its older age, it still thrives on discomfort and the unpredictability of mashing together characters who wouldn’t ordinarily get along.
Grades for both: B
Requisite quote round-up:
— Obviously the night’s winner is Ron’s “I hate metaphors. That’s why my favorite book is ‘Moby Dick.’ No frou frou symbolism — just a good, simple tale about a man who hates an animal.”
— Ben reminiscing about how Pawnee-ians are easily fearmongered: “Remember when no one would get flu shots because there was a rumor they turned you European?”
— Of course the dog picture thing gets a name, and that name is of course “Barks and Recreation”
— Ron on the crib he built himself: “It’s perfectly safe. I tested it by hitting it with my truck.” Cut to a mildly dinged-up truck.
— Leslie to Jamm: “You probably watch ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and root for the stool.” “I haven’t seen it. Not a big Morgan Freeman fan. I find his voice very grating.”