We’re all so wild about Parks and Recreation’s ensemble of characters and the weird little Springfield-ian world they’ve created there in Pawnee that it’s easy to undersell the show’s value as a quiet yet smart political satire. They’ve gone through waves of heavy engagement (most memorably in the fourth season, with Leslie’s city council run including echoes of the “birther” movement and Obama’s lousy bowling), but last night’s “Gin It Up” episode gave us the best political gags of the young season, with a wicked send-up of scandal-mongering and “special hearing” showboating. As Councilman Jamm promised, “This will be blown way out of proportion. You have my word on it!”
The episode’s primary plotline, in which Donna accidentally sends a personal Tweet (“See you tonight. Hope you like tongue baths, you big nasty fireman”) via the Parks Department’s Twitter account is rather obviously inspired by the social media shenanigans of Anthony Weiner Carlos Danger (and, in what has been a running theme this season, actress Retta’s own ubiquity on Twitter). But it’s really just a convenient excuse for recall-backer Jamm to make a scene. Of the “big nasty fireman” she’s tweeting at, Jamm rails, “Those men are heroes who deserve respect. 9/11!” His explicitly stated secondary purpose for the hearings investigating the affair (which Perd Hapley dubs Twitter Watergate, “until we can find a snappier name for it”) is “to turn this whole thing into a media circus.”; early on, he bleats the nonsensical analogy, “I don’t think I’m out of line when I say this scandal makes Benghazi look like Whitewater!” And when Leslie’s finally had enough of his attempts to score cheap political points, he fires back, “How dare you demean the value of the political points I’m scoring?”
But, of course, there’s more to that plot than just well timed shots at attention-whore politicians. The episode takes a turn to the poignant when ancient Miss Beavers (nice pull from deep off the bench, Parks) reads aloud some of Donna’s tweets—“page after page of personal attacks on Leslie Knope.” Here’s where we get onto tricky ground, nimbly navigated. Much has been written about how Parks is one of television’s cheeriest comedies, a show that genuinely likes all of its major characters, and one where they all like each other (and yet it’s funny and not dull—a bit of a miracle, if you stop to think about it).
But that’s not the show Parks started out as, back when it was emerging from the shadow of The Office and positioning Leslie as more of a female Michael Scott than the unique comic creation she would gradually evolve into. Yet even after that metamorphosis, we must remember that Leslie’s friendships and work relationships are high maintenance ones; the show frequently chuckles at the way she goes overboard, but it’s actually easy to imagine her grinding on the nerves of her friends and colleagues, and that Donna might just head to Twitter to blow off some steam. After Leslie’s heart-to-heart with Chris (“Do you think I’m annoying?” “I think a lot of things. I like thinking. And racquetball!”) and a careful parsing of the differences between the hashtags #BitchBoss and #BossBitch, the temporary rift in Leslie and Donna’s relationship is repaired with comic savvy and a welcome bit of heart.
This week’s B-plot finds Ben talking Ron into adapting his one-sentence will, written at age eight (“all of my belongings shall transfer to the man or animal who has killed me”) into family planning for his wife and children. But it’s a plot of convenience; at this point, the character of Ron Swanson is so firmly established and so rich with comic possibilities that you can just point him in any direction and let him go. And so we get such golden Swanson-isms as “Literally everything is a weapon, son”; “The three most useless jobs in the world are, in order, lawyer, congressman, and doctor”; “I’m not telling you how much money I have, where it’s hidden, or which precious medals or gemstones it’s taken the form of”; “I will leave my children $50 a piece for the cab home from a funeral and a steak dinner, end of discussion”; and, best of all, Ron telling his “first joke ever. Don’t care for it.”
With two plots as rich as these in motion, Tom’s flirtation with “Nadia Whatever-her-last-name is” was bound to suffer, merely in terms of limited screen time—even though it does include more fun swipes at the generally poor health of the Pawnee population (“Do you know you have more cases of the West Nile virus than the actual Western Nile?”) and Aubrey Plaza’s gleeful response to Tom’s out-of-left-field English accent: “So you’ve gone insane, that’s fun!”
And speaking of limited screen time—bummer, no Ann Perkins in this episode. But I guess that’s something we’re going to have to start getting used to.