Tuned In

Parks and Rec Watch: …And the Mini Horse You Rode In On

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Spoilers for last night’s Parks and Recreation coming up:

Ladies and gentlemen, the best Parks and Recreation episode of all time. So far.

In my overview piece on Parks and Recreation’s third season, I wrote about the irony, at a time of fights over budgets and public unions, of there being a sweet network comedy about well-intentioned bureaucrats trying to do something to benefit a town. That’s not so much a sign of a political agenda from Parks and Rec, though, as it is a demonstration that it, like a lot of good sitcoms, is about community: the idea that people need one another to accomplish their goals.

“Harvest Festival,” as much as any episode of the show ever, shows how its characters depend on their little community–not just to pull off the festival, but to solve their problems, stay sane and even fall in love.

That was crystallized in the Ferris wheel scene, in which Ron succinctly and crankily settled Tom and Jerry’s conflict over L’il Sebastian and cured Andy and April’s love/awesomesauce quarrel. The characters on this show, generally, are not crushed by awful outside circumstances or afflictions—their curses, like the Wamapoke one, are in their minds. Instead, the characters on Parks and Rec generally get in their own way, usually with the best, or good enough, intentions. Sometimes, they just need someone else—Ron on the wheel, or Donna in the medical tent—to show them the answer that’s right in front of them.

Meanwhile, the episode did a great job bringing the unique world of Pawnee under one tent, or at least on one playground: the self-serious local reporters, Sweetums, the brutal history of the Pawnee settlers and the Wamapoke. (The festival was placed on the site of “an epic seven-day battle that the Wamapoke lost. Due to the fact that they didn’t have any weapons.”)

All that, and it gave some effective closure to the story of Ben, finally, putting his Ice Town failure behind him. The Harvest Festival, as it played out, was as much his story as Leslie’s, and Adam Scott did fine work showing how it weighed on him despite his outward mildness. He too has been laboring under a “curse” as oppressive and fictitious as the ones Pawnee believes in, and by throwing it off, he becomes a full-fledged part of the team.

This episode was the first one made after the first six were put in the can and the show was placed on hiatus by NBC for midseason. It had a strong sense of continuity regardless, but it also seemed to be designed to accommodate new viewers: we got mini reminders, for instance, of the stakes involved in the Harvest Festival and Ben’s history with Ice Town (via the interview with Joan Callamezzo). NBC renewed the show for another season yesterday–along with The Office, Community and, earlier, 30 Rock–but new viewers wouldn’t hurt.

This would have been a great time for them to come aboard–a sweet, very funny episode that hit on all the connections that make you want to spend time with these people and their small-scale challenges. And by the time it finished, the closing aerial shot to Tom Petty’s “American Girl”—a rarity on a show that uses only contextual music—was thrilling and felt fully earned, as the camera pulled away to show the panorama of a small-town carnival that felt very, very big.

Most of life, after all, is mundane; what makes it seems special is your relationships with other people, your shared memories and your history. That’s what makes a community; that’s what makes a festival; that’s what makes a town of people see an amazing tiny horse, where anyone else would simply see a pony.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* I didn’t make the connection when I first watched this screener, but Mrs. Tuned In pointed out that this makes Amy Poehler the second member of her family this season—the first her husband Will Arnett in Running Wilde—to work with a tiny horse.

* “There are two things I know about white people. They love Matchbox 20, and they are terrified of curses.”

* “Two days ago I was sobbing at a pizza buffet, they asked me to leave. … I bought $700 worth of candles from Anthropologie.” Loved Ann’s litany of bottoming-out examples, and Donna’s mortified reaction at the overshare.

* We got several additions this week to Pawnee’s sordid colonial history: “The atrocities are in blue.” And speaking of that subplot, I believe this episode takes the title from The Good Wife for best use of a fictional Taiwanese animated video in a primetime series. That really needs to be an Emmy category.

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