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Parks And Recreation: “Donna And Joe”

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Damn, that episode had everything. If this season’s “Leslie And Ron” represented Parks And Recreation at its most poignantly emotional, then “Donna And Joe” is the show at its most exuberantly fun. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such unmitigated joy from an episode, but this is also one of the most finely balanced ensemble efforts the show has trotted out in its seven-year run. Parks And Recreation so often struggles to develop storylines that don’t revolve around Leslie, but she works perfectly as a fun tertiary presence, with Ben getting to be the unquestioned star for one magical half-hour. The context of Donna and Joe’s wedding allows everyone to step outside his or her normal role, and that’s never more striking than with Ron’s straightforward attempts to help Tom and Lucy through the romantic travails that he may or may not be responsible for. This is an episode that finds alternately funny and sweet material for every character—including Craig!—and pays off some fantastic long-running jokes with the appearances of Ginuwine and Donna’s dastardly brother LeVondrius. Throw in a return appearance by Kathryn Hahn as a somehow even more amped-up version of Jennifer Barkley and the addition of Rachel Dratch as the frazzled nanny Roz, and “Donna And Joe” isn’t just Parks And Recreation firing on all cylinders: This is the show strapping on a half-dozen extra cylinders, because why the hell not?


Maybe the most remarkable aspect of all this is that Donna gets to serve as the pivot point for the episode. While her role was expanded in the wake of Ann’s departure, Donna still doesn’t have the kind of emotional track record of the show’s other characters, and Keegan-Michael Key only had two appearances as Joe—and that’s counting his brief appearance last week—before tying the knot tonight. This episode can’t aspire to the kind of pathos that previous wedding episodes like “Leslie And Ben” or “Fancy Party” attained. Mostly, the episode doesn’t try, instead relying on bring to life the rich Meagle mythology Donna has shared with us over the past half-decade. No, more than shared: that Donna has embodied. Her passive-aggressive—or is it nicey-meanie?—relations, her divorced, ridiculous accomplished parents, her cousin who is Ginuwine all feel like perfect extensions not just of what Donna has told us but of Donna herself, and that’s never more true than with Questlove’s turn as LeVondrius. Andy’s breathless introduction sets just the right tone, reminding us that this isn’t merely some silly family squabble. This is drama, something to be enjoyed both by its performers and by its audience. Questlove and/or LeVondrius clearly have a blast showing up to destroy that microwave, Donna loves being on the receiving end, and April is so damn happy to facilitate it.

That honest, character-based joy is what adds that extra oomph to all the great jokes of “Donna And Joe.” Any show could get Ginuwine to put in a guest appearance and then comically mistreat him; sure, Parks And Recreation benefits from the fact that they set this joke up years ago, but the idea of a famous (or semi-famous, whatever) relation is always going to be good for laughs, with or without setup. What makes Ginuwine’s scenes so good are the larger context in which they exist. As Parks And Recreation has grown older, it’s struggled to extract the same kind of comic mileage from the simple interactions of characters that the audience knows so well, but the addition of someone like Ginuwine unlocks new humor in April yelling at unruly wedding guests, Andy earnestly comforting a weeping man, and Craig stealing the spotlight to do his own damn serenading of the newlyweds. And, because all these characters are so lived-in, the new addition automatically takes on more clearly defined dimensions than Ginuwine might on a more strictly joke-based sitcom. We see his emotional turmoil as he struggles to keep up with the other Meagles, his cocksure swagger as he walks toward the stage, and his immediate deflation as he realizes he’s not going to get to sing. These are all jokes on the margins of the episode, but Parks And Recreation is the rare show that can nail that kind of detail.

Meanwhile, it feels a little too appropriate that the star of Tom and Lucy’s big subplot is Ron Swanson. Scratch that: The star is emotionally available Ron Swanson, which is a legitimately awesome sight. Ron attributes his unusual willingness to meddle in the affairs of others to the particular emotional and architectural loveliness of weddings, but it’s fun to think that some of this is the result of what happened “Leslie And Ron.” Either way, the use of Ron works here for much the same reason as in that earlier episode. Yes, he remains an iconoclast, but he’s not a one-dimensional libertarian superhero. His unrelenting honesty has its virtues, as it’s what ultimately gets Tom to open up to Lucy about the depth of his feelings for her. But it’s also what causes and exacerbates the problem in the first place. What’s so refreshing about all this is that, even in a minor way, this is a Ron Swanson who wants things, whether it’s a discussion of Michigan limestone, those mini-hamburger things, or Tom and Lucy’s happiness. Still more remarkably, some of those things can be denied to Ron, which makes it all the more compelling when he wades back into his friends’ personal troubles without any prompting from Leslie, April, or any of his other usual surrogates for a conscience.

And, first among equals is Ben freaking Wyatt. I admit I wasn’t quite as bowled away by Ben’s big speech in “Gryzzlbox” as some of you were, but it’s far easier to see that monologue as the buildup for the kind of oratory he busts out here. His impromptu press conference is a lovely bit of writing and acting, as Ben keeps walking right up to the point in conversation where, in previous situations, he would get irretrievably flustered. It takes him a couple iterations of this to realize that he’s actually doing fine, that his confidence hasn’t yet cratered. That’s such a clever way of bringing out the smoothness that Ben has developed for himself over his time in Pawnee, and even his drunken toast to Donna and Joe counts as an example of this. On most shows, such a toast would end in abject disaster, and Ben definitely comes as close as one can get to that point, but everything he says remains just on the right side of sweet. Sure, everyone in the room knows he’s drunk, but he ends at just the right time that group shame never quite descends.


Looking ahead, I don’t know if Ben’s congressional campaign is going to be the show’s final big plot arc, but what a perfect one it would be. Yes, Leslie is the show’s star, but there aren’t really any stories left to tell with her as the focus. After all these years, she’s found the perfect job and the perfect family, and it’s hard to see how the show could really push her to a materially better place in just six episodes. But Leslie is at her best when she’s out there making other people’s lives better, and nobody is more deserving of one last big victory than Ben Wyatt. “Donna And Joe” does a great job of holding Leslie back just enough for Ben to shine—as she points out, he drunkenly outlines policy while she repeatedly dials 867-5309—but her presence elevates every interaction with Roz and with Jennifer Barkley. “Leslie And Ron” was perfect, quite possibly the best thing the show has ever done, but it was a one-off; there was no way that every subsequent episode could be like that. “Donna And Joe” is also an event episode, but the ways in which it uses its ensemble can absolutely be replicated across the next three weeks’ worth of episodes. If that happens, we’re in for a serious treat to wrap up Parks And Recreation.

Stray observations:

  • Donna’s gift to Garry Jerry Larry Terry Garry! is so damn sweet. I actually teared up a little when Donna acknowledged what she had done for her friend.
  • “All three of them just bumped into each other. And broke everything you own.” I kind of can’t believe we actually saw the triplets. And yes, that was more or less what I expected.
  • “Hi, I’m Typhoon.” “Typhoon, I am interested, but now is not the time.” If there were an eighth season, I would demand an episode called “Craig And Typhoon.” This show does so damn well with the two-name episodes!
  • For the record, I’m totally on Team Yes That Was Lena Horne In That Supermarket In 1970.
  • “No, I like him. Let the little man dance.” Seriously, this was just the most ridiculously sweet episode.

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