“Campaign Shake-Up” is a nice mix of classic Parks & Recreation familiarity and 30 Rock flights of fancy. We’re told near the beginning of the episode that all Pawneeans drink from water fountains by putting their entire mouth over the top of the nozzle, and it makes total sense without the need for a qualifier. Perd Hapley (excuse me, Perdric L. Hapley) scores the majority of the killer lines like, “Now, it’s time for our next segment…which is a commercial,” and it’s not out of place to give the guy some serious screen time. And on a bigger scale, “Shake-Up” doesn’t feel the need to follow the rules of other season four Parks & Rec episodes, putting Leslie Knope learning moments into unexpectedly anxiety-ridden scenarios.
On tonight’s episode, we get the anxiety, but no catharsis. Bobby Newport is still winning the polls, but he’s coasting by on his Newport name alone; Leslie is steadily gaining on him, and, it should be noted, swiftly beating Brandi Maxxxx and Manrico Della Rossa. And Bobby is responding by gallivanting around to exotic European locales with flighty women. The Newport family has sunk too much money into this town to lose it all, so they figure they might as well sink a bunch more, to the tune of $250,000. Jennifer Barkley, played by the always-game-for-anything Kathryn Hahn, is a ballbuster who follows the money to wherever it leads, and is willing to do whatever it takes to win simply because it’s her job. Plus she’s great at it: She ate egg salad with Colin Powell, which is about as good as it gets. Leslie, meanwhile, is the kind of person who has a life passion, then figures out a way to make that her job. She and Jennifer are polar (or should I say Poehler hahahahahahaha please don’t laugh at that) opposites in that respect; there is literally nothing genuine about Jennifer, and there is literally nothing not genuine about Leslie.
And then there’s Perd—sweet, naïve Perd. See, Leslie has a great plan for the seniors of Pawnee, and is en route to receiving the blessing of Ned Jones, their de facto leader (played by the glorious Carl Reiner). Jennifer uses her wily, waffle-purchasing ways to learn Leslie’s plan—which involves building ramps in every building—then proposes a counter solution that’s just good enough to beat Leslie but not at all practical: lifts, not ramps. Then, when Leslie confronts Jennifer about this, Jennifer lays out what she imagines Leslie’s plan to be, and she gets it totally right. The two appear on Perd’s show to duke it out—Jennifer thinking she’s one step ahead of Leslie, and Leslie trying so very hard to stick to her guns. But no matter what she says, even inventive attacks of Bobby’s character, Jennifer has a retort even if it’s a lie. And poor Perd isn’t one to be asking any follow-up questions.
It’s amazing how much Leslie cares about this town, given how little the rest of its residents seem to care about it. They’re fickle, completely unsure of what it is they want until someone smarter tells them what they want. After all, they put their entire mouth over drinking fountains. Ultimately, one of the fascinating things about Parks & Rec is simply that Leslie has yet to quit. I mean quit everything. She’s truly one of the strongest people on television right now if she can overlook so much apathy and still want to make a difference.
After all, she’s had plenty of experience dealing with Ron over the years. In “Campaign Shake-Up,” Ron is faced with the opposite of a Sophie’s Choice: Chris demands that Ron either accomplish some big initiative or find a replacement for Leslie during her part-time leave (and potentially her victory). Ron must either actually get something done at work or bring in some newbie who will make people actually get something done at work. He’s spent so much of his career ensuring nothing gets done, and now’s the time to throw that all away. He’s distraught; his “Nooooooo” should give that away.
For this, he turns to Ann, the person who is competent enough to get a job done, but also not so charismatic or motivating that the department is in any danger of a major shake-up. The project? Get Pawneeans to stop putting their entire mouth over the drinking fountain spigot when they drink. The team gathers to brainstorm ideas, with Andy as their test subject—a true Pawneean if ever there was one, who will always take the shortest and easiest path to success. Jerry tries to put a little cage over the water fountain, and Andy simply moves it to drink. April starts a waterfight, and Andy decides this is way more fun than any more experimentation, so he straps a bunch of balloons to his chest and kamikazes Chris. (Meanwhile, Tom cowers in the corner: “Everything I’m wearing is suede!”)
Where Leslie’s storyline ends with a bunch of uncertainty—Jennifer has the campaign backed into a corner, and the episode literally ends without resolution—Ron’s plight takes an unexpected turn into closure when he learns April, not Ann, was responsible for fixing the water fountain situation. See, April might pretend she doesn’t give a crap, a residual of Ron’s teaching, but she’s actually a sponge for information. Plus, isn’t she, like, supposed to be 22 at this point? She’s kind of a savant for government stuff. If Leslie knew that, it would make April sick and Leslie prouder than she’s ever been—even after a Joe Biden sex dream.
It makes me hopeful for the series that episodes can write their own formula for success. “Campaign Shake-Up” ties some loose ends and leaves others looser than when they began. It’s compelling the entire way through and finds a way to feature the town’s supporting players almost as much, if not more, than its stars. Carl Reiner and Kathryn Hahn are treated with the same reverence, which is a good thing in a world where the comedy comes from the hilariously mismatched odds, and nobody can afford to be more important than anyone else. Sometimes, it’s Leslie versus the entire town, and sometimes, she’s leading them all in a war chant. The show can flip on a dime, and both sides of that coin fit.
- That poll from the beginning, by the way, was sponsored by Sweetums.
- Carl Reiner had some amazing lines apropos of nothing: "His middle third… He's a young, flat man."
- Also a nice running gag: Leslie making fun of Ben off-handedly. "You're my sexy elf king."
- Ron: "Are you still here?"