If I have a problem with the “Leslie’s campaign” arc, beyond the simple fact that running a campaign for city council doesn’t offer a great deal of opportunities for sitcom storylines, it’s that everybody she’s had come up against her has been a little too easily terrible. Her main opponent is a corporate stooge with no brains in his head whatsoever, most of the people she has encountered on her voyage through Pawnee feel like archetypes from a particularly bland David Brooks op-ed piece, and now, her encounter with the “big media” results in her bumping up against the most comically evil reporter in quite some time. Buddy Wood, apparently a pretty big deal in Indiana, wants to interview Leslie for his program. His show has been a stroke of good luck for those who’ve appeared on it in the past, so Leslie and Ben are excited by the prospect of this. Turns out he’s got a mission to push a story about how Pawnee’s best days are behind it, but Leslie’s drunk, so she’s not at her full Pawnee-defending power.
“Lucky,” which was written by Nick Offerman, doesn’t really have storylines like it has vignettes. The opening and closing of the episode are predicated on the idea that “Fun Ben” has disappeared, and now he has to come back (which he does at the end). But Ben spends so much of the episode just sitting around and watching other people do stuff that this idea never really resonates, so when the whole thing ends and “Fun Ben” is back, it doesn’t feel like he had an arc, so much as he had other people talking about him a lot. This might have been all right, but every inch of the Leslie storyline was telegraphed—right down to that shot of the airport workers shaking their heads after the interview, so you just knew they would save her ass from Buddy.
As far as cardboard villains for Leslie to knock down go, Buddy’s actually okay. Sean Hayes makes a lot out of the way he asks questions, and that makes the character work. But he’s still a comically awful villain, who’s just there to get in the way of all that is good and wonderful about Leslie Knope. This is probably just a fundamental problem with this season’s story arc that’s never going to go away: To make much of the show’s satire work, the characters Leslie runs into have to be weird little one-note folks who keep harping on the same issues, but to make this storyline work, she has to face down some big obstacles and overcome them. The problem is that these two tones don’t really mix. It’s fine to have the folks who show up at Pawnee parks department meetings be crazy goofballs, and it’s fine to have a story where Leslie has to overcome overwhelming odds and polling against her to battle her way back to parity in an election. But when she’s beating on two-dimensional villains who seem too stupid or evil to live, that’s less satisfying.
I’m conflicted about this because I generally enjoy the show’s media satire quite a bit. Perd Hapley’s a lot of fun, and that season two episode that satirized cable news is one of my favorites the show’s ever done. And I don’t think the idea of Buddy—a fatuous blowhard who has a preferred story that he wants to stick to—is a bad one for a character. He’s just the latest cardboard cutout placed in the trail of the Knope 2012 campaign hot-tub limousine, and that makes him less satisfying as a result. There’s probably a way to use this guy—and Hayes’ funny portrayal of him—outside of the campaign storyline, but within it, he’s just another example of Leslie needing to do something to further her campaign, some two-dimensional antagonist getting in her way, then Leslie and her team defeating said antagonist through her general plucky good nature.
This is a larger problem with season four in general: By trying to do longer story arcs, the show has gotten a touch repetitive. Understand when I say this that this is still one of the four or five best shows on television, so it’s not like this has driven me away from the series. But I realized in last week’s generally excellent episode—with very fun turns from Kathryn Hahn and Carl Reiner, no less—that a political campaign must be just an awful thing to write sitcom stories for. There’s just not a lot of material here to vary up storylines, so we’ve ended up with a lot of the same basic beats playing out over and over, which makes the whole thing seem longer than it’s really been. The Harvest Festival story arc worked because it was short and because every episode involved in it did something different. The campaign has had some really strong episodes mixed in there, but it’s also had a lot of weird missteps.
The reason this hasn’t dragged down the show more than it probably would have other shows—remember, this is the major story arc of the season—is because the characters and world of the show are so thoroughly realized. Like I said earlier, tonight’s episode is mostly full of vignettes about the people who aren’t Leslie, but I didn’t mind seeing, say Donna’s extreme fascination with Jerry’s working habits (and even if you know he was going to fuck it up, it was still funny to see his cheerfulness when he realized he got to do it all over again). That vignette, in fact, had a lot of truth about the ways that campaign work turns into people doing dull, repetitive tasks and having conversations over them. It felt about as true to campaign life as anything the show has done.
And for a story arc that’s largely paid off, we can turn to Andy’s foray into college. I’ve always been a big Andy Dwyer fan, but his puppy dog enthusiasm has gained new facets when thrust into an academic setting. I’ve seen people grousing about this storyline like I was just complaining about the campaign storyline, but I think we’ve learned enough new stuff about Andy to make it worth the trip. Plus, there’s nothing that doesn’t work about Ron Swanson ordering three Porterhouse steaks and sweeping Andy’s professor off her feet, then coming cheerfully into work in red. There’s some of the show’s repetitiveness playing out here, too—I don’t know that we needed another story about how Chris is overcoming his sadness—but man, when Ron and the professor scamper off together, it’s a joyful moment.
If nothing else, this show continues to work because the writers and cast put so much thought into every little moment of the show that when the big stuff doesn’t quite work, the small stuff is still completely satisfying. Years from now, when I’m looking back on this season, I might remember that the campaign wasn’t as successful a story arc as it might have been, but that won’t negate my memories of, say, Amy Poehler playing drunk or Ron in red or Hayes’ weird phrasings. One of the messages of Parks has always been that you sometimes find good stuff in unexpected places, and this is a season that’s seemingly set out to prove that maxim.
- Steve is out stalking a Yeti, that he might win glory for the family Heisler. He’ll be back when the show returns.
- Okay, I still think the idea that Ann and Tom make any sense as a couple is ridiculous, but I kind of love how the show is using them to fuck around with ideas of will-they/won’t-they relationships in general. Here’s a couple that doesn’t really want to get together that the audience doesn’t really want to get together, but something keeps inexorably drawing them together. That sounds a lot like some couples I know in real life, and I’m warming up to the idea just a bit. I don’t want to see the two get married or anything, but as a weird story arc, it’s kind of working for me.
- Pawnee’s airport really does look awful. But Buddy couldn’t drive there? Indiana’s not that big of a state. (I know. I shouldn’t care.)
- I really like Aubrey Plaza’s performance this season. I mean, I always have, but I like that we’re, more and more, seeing how April’s lack of caring is a front. Much of that is the writers, but even more of it is Plaza, who’s being trusted to get across just how much she cares about these people through eye rolls. It’s working.
- This is one of those things that always gets said when people review episodes like this, but Amy Poehler playing drunk, particularly when she's just a little indignant, is fantastic.
- Andy’s oral exam was great. I liked how he concluded his more freewheeling answer with “Just one man’s opinion.”
- We'll see y'all again on April 19, when the show will run straight through to the end.