Hour-long episodes of traditionally half-hour sitcoms can be a dicey proposition — as later seasons of The Office proved, it’s easy for even a beloved ensemble comedy to wear out its welcome. Gimmick episodes that find a sitcom transplanted to international shores are similarly sketchy; too often, mere sightseeing is allowed to substitute for narrative, with the sight of our wacky favorites cavorting on foreign soil expected to carry the comic load. Last night’s sixth season premiere of Parks and Recreation is the show’s first double-length episode, and much of the action is in London, a city previously visited by the likes of Friends and Family Ties. But “London,” penned by co-creator Michael Schur and directed by Dean Holland (who helmed five previous episodes), seldom steps wrong.
The cold open quickie wedding of Ron Swanson and Diane gets the episode off to a rousing start, as the pair decides to wed within moments of Diane’s pregnancy disclosure, and they head up to the fourth floor to do just that. Leslie’s not so sure about their decision, dubbing it “A waking nightmare… of happiness!” But she supplies the episode’s single funniest visual, literally bouncing up and down during the ceremony (“She said yes!”), the diminutive Amy Poehler perfectly framed between Nick Offerman and Lucy Lawless’s very tall shoulders.
Here’s what’s great about Parks and Rec: a typical sitcom would’ve ended the episode — or maybe the season — with that wedding, and indeed, this show treated the nuptials of Leslie and Ben with that kind of long-lead care. But their writers are presumably aware of the danger of wedding fatigue, and luckily Ron Swanson is exactly the kind of character for whom this lickety-split affair makes sense.
There’s little doubt, in fact, that Offerman is the episode’s MVP. His London sightseeing is uproarious, from the montage of him taking pictures and shaking his head cynically to his jeering of British attractions (“Look. A clock. We don’t have that in America.” “You call that a tower? Try the Sears Tower at night.”) to his demand to a vendor, when offering up American currency: “Accept it!” His park bench scene with Leslie, instructing her to “be the grown up,” is both warm and funny (Leslie: “But it’s so haaaard, Gawd”), and his final images couldn’t be more perfect: walking across the rolling hills, sitting on the cliffs, reading his poem, and weeping.
If there’s a complaint to be registered about “London,” it’s that it’s a little too busy with subplots; I know they had an hour to fill, but if Leslie’s award and recall are the A-plot, I counted a B (Chris and Ann disclosing the pregnancy), a C (Tom discovering Dr. Saperstein is his nemesis), a D (Chris and Ben’s playdate with “the Lord Fancyface guy”), and an E (Ron’s European adventure). Not all are equal; were it not for that great scene of Jerry freaking/grossing Ann and Chris out, theirs would be a total dud, and for some reason, the writing of Dr. Saperstein doesn’t quite allow Henry Winkler to deliver on the promise of his appearance.
But this is nitpicking. Season 6 is off to a promising start, even if it means we’re going to have less Chris Pratt up front due to his Guardians of the Galaxy commitment (his new movie-star physique, unconvincingly explained away by a no-beer diet, his three months in London just long enough to go shoot that movie) and no Ann and Chris down the line (as previously announced). The show’s ensemble is a delicately constructed organism, and I think we’re all a little worried about upsetting it. But if “London” is any indication, Parks and Rec is gonna be just fine.