“Parks and Recreation” Review: “Pawnee Commons”

When all is said and done, “Parks and Recreation” is going to make my year-end Top 10 list, and make it comfortably on there. When it’s on, it’s on like little else on TV, and Leslie Knope voting for herself in the season four finale was not only one of the best TV moments of 2012, it was one of the best TV moments I’ve ever seen. Period. Full stop. So that made “Pawnee Commons” the most problematic episode of an already slightly problematic season.

To be fair, ending the split between time spent in Pawnee and Washington D.C. solved a lot of the season’s lingering issues. Like Entertainment 720, it’s a move that made sense on paper but fared poorly in execution. Had the two storylines converged in ways envisioned by the writers of “Glee” before the start of that fourth season, maybe it would have worked. Had time there forced Ben and April to explore either a new friendship or new facets to themselves, it might have worked. Instead, it seemed like a series of pointless excursions in which both characters regressed without their romantic partners. Once the two returned, it felt like the shoe regained its footing with Ben and Leslie’s engagement. All felt right.

parks-and-recreation-season-5-episode-8-pawnee-commons-4.jpgBut in the last two weeks, Leslie herself has seemed off, regressing herself towards the eccentricities of season one. For a show that values the power of change for its characters, Leslie felt as if she were moving backwards, not forwards. To be fair, she tends to go nutty a lot, in order to sell the comedy of a certain scenario. But when those eccentricities surround her work ethic and love of Pawnee, it’s fine. When she either steamrolls over those she loves or betrays irrational fear/ignorance towards things she loathes, it’s downright ugly.

The town of Eagleton has been revisited several times over the course of the show, and it seems that “Cheers”-loving showrunner Mike Schur likens that town to Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern, the nemesis of the place where everybody knew your name. “Cheers” trotted out Gary and his denizens periodically throughout the show’s run, and the rivalry between the two bars always brought out the worst in both sides. But it’s one thing to bring out the worst in Cliff Clavin. It’s another to bring it out in Leslie Knope, particularly a week after she tried to systemically stomp on the budding aspirational spirits of April Ludgate.

Contrasting Leslie’s storyline with the B- and C-stories tonight only heightens the discrepancy between the way “Parks” treated Leslie and those she’s inspired to actually change since the start of the series. While the Entertainment 720 storyline didn’t work comedically or dramatically, it nevertheless formed the bedrock for Tom’s “Rent A Swag” business. Tom doesn’t get the help to fix up a shabby storefront from the rest of the Parks Department without Leslie fostering a familial attitude amongst them. Couple that with Andy and April retiring the “Bert Macklin” character in favor of a more realistic (but potentially more rewarding) role as a security officer, and you see many characters tonight making decisions that would be unfathomable five years ago. Sure, Tommy still needs his swagger to ultimately kickstart his new business. And Andy/April won’t suddenly start investing in retirement accounts. But they’ve managed to incorporate new facets without completely losing themselves in the process.

I don’t think Leslie’s a lost cause by any stretch, but “Parks” has a problem it’s not quite sure how to solve at this point. By giving Leslie every possible metric of success (city councilship, a fiancée, and close friends in a town she loves), they don’t seem to know how best to move her forward anymore. Sure, she dreams of becoming President, but I’m not sure the show views that as a realistic goal for Leslie. I understand that even someone with as much going for her as Leslie would have an irrational blind spot for Eagleton. It makes total sense, and having her being suddenly OK with her former nemesis would be equally out of character. But to have her so vicious, so quickly, and for such a long period made her look bad, Ben look bad, and all the growth she’s made as a character look less important. And if she regresses, so do would those around her.

Now, having that type of regression intentionally built in isn’t a bad idea. “The Corruption Of Leslie Knope” sounds like a horribly pretentious way to frame this fifth season, but the seeds were there heading into this season for that. (She’s on City Council, not as much time for her old colleagues and friends, she makes compromises to get things done, everyone drifts for a while…so on and so forth.) It’s not the way the show went, but the Leslie on display tonight fits into that model. Instead, the Leslie tonight seemed outrageous because the show needed her to be so. Gary’s Olde Town Tavern swooped in and Olde Time Leslie emerged to battle them. The fact that the tavern seems to be under new management (or at least has new denizens) seems hopeful in the long run. While Eagleton need not ever change, Leslie Knope has to in order for the show to continue its overall strong run. We’ve seen enough of that change that I’m not worried about “Parks” getting her back on track. But it’s been too long since we’ve seen the Leslie that’s inspired not only the citizens of Pawnee, but also fans of the show.