Parks and Rec says goodbye to two beloved characters, and Community tries to move on from last week’s loss in this week’s abbreviated installment.
PARKS AND RECREATION: “Ann and Chris”
There is such a thing as journalistic integrity, and I have it, as a journalist with integrity.
For six seasons now, Leslie and her “powerful musk ox”/”vibrantly-colored starfish”/”beautiful stack of waffles” Ann Perkins have modeled one of the richest female friendships on television. They’ve brought out the best in each other, even when they’ve fought, and it’s only the anxiety of losing her best friend that has turned Leslie into the raging steamroller she’s been for the last few episodes. But with plans firmly set in motion for Ann and Chris Traeger to decamp to Indianapolis, there’s nothing left for Leslie to do than throw her the best going-away party of all time. (Which, being Leslie, is like fifty parties in one.) Ann has frequently been stuck as the “sane” one in a department of weirdos, and while Rashida Jones has been fantastic, it was clear the show was rapidly running out of things for her to do. In many ways, Ben now fills a lot of the same roles in Leslie’s life, and often an Ann subplot felt like an unnecessary distraction since she was never written to be as broadly funny as everyone else (with last week being a notable exception). As she and Ben reflect, they both found soul mates in gender-swapped versions of their best friends — with Chris the only person in Pawnee to match Leslie in intensity and optimism — but Ben is a more interesting character than Ann by virtue of being a enormous, insecure nerd.
So it was sad, but appropriate, to see Jones and Rob Lowe leave Parks last night. Chris’s relentless positivity (and impeccable line delivery) will be dearly missed, but producer Mike Schur and his writing team have done such a marvelous job over the years laying the emotional stakes for the series that this latest transition felt entirely natural and earned, and even gives Parks a chance to re-focus and settle on a theme for the back half of this season and the next — which is likely to be its last, though we’ve been saying that for years now. It also felt right to come full circle with Leslie and Ann’s friendship, which initially formed way back in the pilot with the push to turn the abandoned lot next to Ann’s house into a park. An incredible amount (especially for a network sitcom) has changed since then: Ann has broken off relationships with Andy, Tom, and Chris (once); Leslie has gotten married, run for office, and been recalled; the entire stable of Parks employees have grown and matured in various ways, no one less than April; but there’s still no park. They never even broke ground on one.
Part of that is because of the re-tooling the show went through after its short first season, when it became more character-driven (though it later found room for longer narratives like the Harvest Festival and Leslie’s election), and they just never put the machinations in place for Leslie to finish that first job. But whatever the reason, letting one of Leslie and Ann’s final moments together be breaking ground alone on the lot, after jumping through hoop after hoop with different residents (including Kathryn Pinewood, Pete Distillo, and — naturally — Perd Hapley, in a plot that treads similar thematic ground to this week’s Community) just to get permission to be there, was a sweetly understated move for this sweetly understated show. Just as sweet were all the goodbyes Ann and Chris received throughout the episode: Tom ceremoniously deleting Ann’s number from his phone; April mumbling that she loves her; Ron’s gruffly heartfelt “I enjoyed parts of our time together.” Chris, who hasn’t been a part of the fabric of the series for quite as long, was happy just receiving a bag of crap from the other guys, because with Chris it’s literally the thought that counts. But Ben, somewhat shamed by all the awesome gifts Chris himself hands out (when he’s not dancing to “One Headlight,” that is), eventually comes through when he has Ron build a gorgeous memory box engraved with all of their initials. (Don’t put your tears in it, though. It’ll warp the wood.)
Not that the episode was all tears; while not as wall-to-wall funny as usual (again, appropriate under the circumstances), it still found room for all sorts of delightful strangeness. Picture the gloomy Orin inside an Easter Bunny costume, energetically waving. Or anything Perd says, ever. Or Donna grabbing Chris’s butt. Or Tom’s “I thought Snake Juice was banned by the FDA!” Or April shouting “Get off me, wench!” after being caught hugging Ann. Not to mention the appearance of The Wire alum Chris Bauer as Harold from Public Works, whose Leslie-proof barricade sets off the horse-trading that eventually gets the friends inside the lot. There was a lot to pack in, but these two characters got the send-off they deserved, and it’s the strength and warmth in the writing and the performances that makes it feel so effortless, and — as Leslie tries to convince herself — “totally normal.” The show even itself broke from its “mock-doc” aesthetic to give us that final crane shot, pulling away from the road (and the Pawneeans that remain) to reveal the town’s skyline. Like last year’s “Leslie and Ben,” it’s a model for Parks to follow when it reaches the end of its story, whenever that will be. I’ll probably cry through the whole thing.
COMMUNITY: “Analysis of Cork-based Networking”
What kind of labyrinth have you created? Certainly not the magical kind with puppets and macho rock stars!
Since Community already had its emotional Donald Glover exit last week, this was as close to a “Normal” episode as the show gets. No high-concept homages, just the wacky hijinks at a community college. And the series could probably use the breather; as the study group-turned-“Committee to Better Greendale” now includes as many teachers as students (with Chang and Duncan joining the table this week, and man is it great to have John Oliver as a regular!), the focus has turned from inside the classroom to the politics and petty bureaucracy behind the curtain. Annie has a binder full of things to be improved, and sets her sights on two for the group to tackle this week: planning the school dance, and getting a new bulletin board hung in the cafeteria. However, the latter task proves to be more challenging, as she and Hickey run up against The Powers That Be, who would be happy to give her what she wants if she can do something for them.
It’s also an excuse for a parade of guest stars, led by Nathan Fillion (as the head of the custodial staff — definitely not to be confused with the janitorial staff), Paget Brewster (who would un-block the internet firewall for the custodians if she could have a closer parking space), and Robert Patrick (who would be happy to loosen parking restrictions if he had control over what goes on the bulletin boards), who lead Annie deeper and deeper into the “labyrinth” with no end in sight. Even the Dean — who, like everyone else, “hates to be that guy” — wants a little something, but it’s the last straw for Hickey, who rats out Annie for what she’s been up to. It’s a strong episode for Alison Brie (see: her guttural “EEEEEVERYTHING!!!” to Brewster), and provides some more backstory for Hickey’s beleaguered ex-cop, but it feels a little over-stuffed. None of the guest stars are on screen for more than a minute, and Fillion (who’s total nerd-bait for this show’s audience) feels particularly wasted. It’s similar to what the show did with Ben Folds a few weeks ago: I kept waiting for him to return and be important to the story, but he never did.
Fortunately, the B-story was a (literal) scream, as Jeff, Duncan, Chang, and Shirley set about prepping the school dance. Chang, who is best in small doses, is deployed excellently here, as he wins the battle to set it to the theme “Bear Down on Midterms” just through sheer repetition. (No, simply saying “Bear Down for Midterms” again does not make it actually make sense.) And sure enough, once the decorations are up, it looks as harmless and stupid as every other school dance — until Neil admonishes them for going the bear route so soon after a fatal attack at a child’s birthday party (Chang: “Oh, yeah…that’s where I got it from”) , and the horrified team quickly ad-libs “Bear Down” into “Fat Dog for Midterms,” a nonsensical phrase that nevertheless catches on as these things only do a Greendale. It’s only Garrett’s accidental reveal of the dance’s original decor (“IT’S A BEAR DANCE!!!”, he screams — Garrett screaming will never not be funny) that inevitably derails the evening.
Completing the “standard” trifurcated sitcom structure in place this week, Abed — instead of hopelessly moping about in Troy’s absence, something I was legitimately worried he’d do — is actually more sociable than ever. Well, “sociable” by Abed standards, hitting it off with a deaf girl (Katie LeClerc) while in a self-imposed cone of silence. Granted, it’s not the first time this has happened (Britta, appropriately meta: “Are you going to have another weird burst of compatibility with a girl we’ll never see again?”), but he throws himself into this one even learning sign language awfully fast (once he moves past “sandals”). He’s trying to avoid Britta, who is determined to ruin his enjoyment of the HBO series Bloodlines of Conquest (you know, the one about dragons and swordplay and court intrigue… no, the other one) by reading ahead in the novels and spoiling him at every turn. (Not sure how plausible that is, because if it’s anything like Game of Thrones the books are like a thousand pages.) But she gets the best of him when she pays LeClerc’s character to ruin the ending via sign language; Abed is genuinely hurt — his first attempt at real social interaction on his own terms, and Britta Britta’s it — but his night is redeemed when he reconnects with Rachel the coat check girl (Brie Larson!), who, even with how he left things, is eager to go get dinner with him. Her turn in “Herstory of Dance” was one of the few redeeming aspects of Season 4, and despite her blossoming movie career I desperately hope Community finds a way to keep Larson around. Abed really needs her. But the show, as fresh and exciting as it’s ever been, is doing just fine.