While Ben Wyatt’s typical role on Parks And Recreation is as the sardonic voice of sanity, there’s a whole lot of craziness lurking just underneath that sensible, nerdy exterior. Twenty years later, there’s still nothing that flusters Ben quite like his spectacular failure as the teenaged mayor of Partridge, Minnesota, where he was the mastermind of the phenomenally ill-conceived Ice Town winter sports complex. And yet, even though this is the crucial event in Ben’s past, it’s a story thread that the show has only used sparingly. Ben invoked his youthful, if misjudged idealism when trying to forge a bond with a skeptical Leslie back when he was still a hardass state auditor, Pawnee’s reaction to Ice Town drove Ben’s story in “Media Blitz,” and his unresolved issues with the Ice Town debacle helped convince him that he was the curse in “Harvest Festival.” Now, after two seasons of leaving Ice Town in the background, “Partridge” provides Ben with a much-needed opportunity to confront his past and get some closure, as he heads home to receive the key to the city that he so utterly failed. Except it turns out that this is a Leslie story, not a Ben story.
Admittedly, Ben exits the story for the most Ben Wyatt of reasons, as his pre-ceremony stress leaves him with a nasty case of kidney stones. Adam Scott is never funnier than when Ben is freaking out, and it’s clear a total breakdown is coming when Ben starts spluttering about how sweaty he is and how he needs to go to the bathroom again. Scott is brilliant at stringing together words that constantly seem on the verge of being coherent sentences, but then miss the mark entirely. Ben is one of the smartest, most openly intellectual characters on the show, which makes it all the more hilarious when he openly wonders whether it’s possible for him to be pregnant, then decides that he’s definitely giving birth to twins.
Once he’s taken to the hospital, however, flustered Ben is replaced with loopy Ben, as a heavy dose of morphine turns him into a nonsense-spouting, all-loving wreck. It still provides Adam Scott with plenty of opportunities for comedy, but it effectively removes the “real” Ben from most of the episode, leaving Leslie to face the Partridge horde in his place. At first, I thought this might be building towards an inversion of Leslie and Ben’s story way back in “The Flu,” in which Leslie rallied through her own delirium, silenced the doubters, and won Ben’s eternal respect. In J.K. Simmons’ Mayor Stice and the townspeople of Partridge, Ben would have faced an even more hostile crowd than the flu-stricken Leslie did, but he’s arguably in no worse shape than she was in that episode. But that’s not what happens, as Mayor Stice unveils an Ice Clown banner and presents a watery key to the city, which humiliates Leslie and Ben by proxy—not to mention Ben’s sister Stephanie, who is so mortified that she essentially runs out the episode. Ben manages a few moments of lucidity in between painkiller doses, but it’s Leslie who decides to confront Mayor Stice in his office and demand some respect for her husband.
On some level, I can understand why “Partridge” makes the narrative decision to shift the focus to Leslie and let her drive the story; this is her show, after all, not Ben’s, so it’s only natural to make her the main character of her particular plotline. But this specific story really should belong to Ben, and there doesn’t seem much point in telling it if it’s not fundamentally about him. Even Leslie’s own stake in this story never becomes all that clear; when she initially explains why she and Ben have traveled to Partridge, she’s fairly certain that Ben’s big return will end in disaster, which doesn’t even allow her the standard character arc of shattered idealism for the rest of the episode. Leslie cares passionately about hometowns and history, and while that’s in evidence on the margins—like when she offhandedly notes that Ben is the only mayor in Partridge history not to receive the key to the city, as she has clearly researched every detail of Partridge’s past—she doesn’t seem to have much connection to the story beyond her love for Ben. And while that’s an entirely legitimate motivation for Leslie, it doesn’t help the episode’s rather abstract conflict. Ben’s closing speech, in which he explains that he has chosen Pawnee over Partridge and so his hometown’s opinion of him no longer matters, hints at what the episode’s themes should have been, and the park ranger yelling at him for throwing the key into the lake is a nice capper for the episode. But Ben only ever confronts Mayor Stice and the rest of Partridge when he’s drugged out of his mind, so that moment of insight doesn’t really line up with what’s on display in the rest of the episode.
Meanwhile, Ron has to confront his own past mistakes, albeit of the much more recent variety, when Jon Glaser’s Councilman Jamm sues him for punching him in the face at Leslie and Ben’s wedding. Again, Ron is only a relatively minor character in what is ostensibly his story, although that’s not as much of a problem here. There are occasions when Parks And Recreation calls Ron out on his bullshit, and his uncompromising devotion to telling the truth (and punching Jamm in the face) is certainly an instance where the show could question his virtues. Instead the episode considers April and Tom’s loyalty to their boss, even when there’s virtually nothing that all three could agree upon, except maybe Jerry’s general terribleness. Tom and April lie on Ron’s behalf not only because they want to protect a man who is equal parts friend, role model, and father figure, but also because they both just downright don’t like telling the truth, “just like Mark Z. in The Social N.”
Ron comes across as fundamentally sympathetic in “Partridge” because, even though he believes the government shouldn’t exist, he still accepts whatever the court decides and believes in facing his legal responsibilities. Ron may be an ornery bastard, but he doesn’t take the easy way out. April and Tom somehow manage to take both the hard and the easy route when they present Jamm with a copy of his affidavit, annotated with all his documented lies, and then still have Tom fake an injury in order to get the councilman to drop the case. The resolution to this plot is perhaps a little too easy, but Jamm remains such an oily, over-the-top villain that it’s hard to get too worked up over this. He doesn’t offer much to Parks And Recreation on a dramatic level—especially not after Leslie so utterly defeated him in “Emergency Response”—but he still provides Jon Glaser a chance to say comically awful things on network television, and for the regular cast to respond to his cartoonish villainy.
While I’ve given “Partridge” a hard time for its narrative problems, the episode still just about works based on the strength of its jokes. That’s not surprising, because Parks And Recreation is an efficient enough machine at this point in its run that it can wring laughs even out of lackluster premises, especially when it uses conceits like the deposition that gives multiple characters an opportunity to riff. I might not like how the morphine-addled Ben fits into the episode’s story, but I also laughed really hard when he woozily mused that he never gave Miles Davis the correct amount of shrift. The show can do much better than this, but this is an instance where a bunch of good jokes can more or less compensate for a misfiring story.
- The episode’s sweetest moment actually comes at the end of Chris and Ann’s subplot, as Chris makes his own, disarmingly straightforward compatibility test after the two fail everything else. This plotline was more of a running gag than a full-fledged story, but I do like how Rob Lowe’s and Rashida Jones’ performances complement one other, as their vastly different energies provide a nicely humorous contrast.
- Annabeth Gish doesn’t get all that much to do as Ben’s sister Stephanie, but she is involved in my favorite Partridge-related moment, when Leslie quizzes her about all of Ben’s high school girlfriends and asks her to estimate which base he reached with all of them. It’s remarkable Ben’s two lunatic parents have produced two mostly normal children; perhaps Ben’s still unseen brother is a total basket case.
- Jamm is represented by the law firm of Gately, Wayne, Kittenplan, and Troetsch, because of course he is.
- Ron believes skim milk is just water that’s lying about being milk. He also isn’t sure how much money he has, but he does know how many pounds of money he has, which is just as fantastic as April, Andy, and Tom say it is.
- Donna is absolutely right—a child with Chris’ hair and her everything else would be unstoppable. Also, Donna may be my favorite character at this point. Retta has just been killing it this season.
- Thanks for letting me sub in for Steve; he should be back next week!