“Parks and Recreation” returned from a month-long hiatus last night with an episode entitled “Live Ammo” — a term introduced by guest star Bradley Whitford as a Pawnee city councillor trying to prepare Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) for the hard compromises of elected office. His advice is blunt: “Every decision you make is going to make a lot of people very unhappy.” The casting of the former Josh Lyman — and the use of some very “West Wing”-esque walk-and-talk in his first scene — suggests that the writers are having fun with the show’s plunge into the world of civic politics. But the relatively serious tone of Whiford’s speech hinted at a slightly more serious agenda.
This is, after all, probably the only sitcom in history whose writers have gone out of their way to cite “The Wire” as a major storytelling influence. There’s more than mere artistic hubris in the reference. Dismissed by many as an “Office” clone upon its debut in 2009, “Parks and Recreation” has traded up in terms of critical comparisons. The release of the companion book “Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America” — a fictional civic history shoring up the series’ local mythology — evokes the absurdist world-building of “The Simpsons,” the last show to draw so extract so much comic inspiration from a small-town American setting. The two series share plenty of creative DNA: “Parks” co-creator Greg Daniels was a “Simpsons” staffer, and he brought in his legendary colleague Mike Scully for this season’s brilliant “The Comeback Kid,” a wild slapstick farce that turned the game, limber cast members into veritable live-action cartoons.
There may even be something to the “Wire” comparison. The shows share a fanatical commitment to local color, a willingness to slow-play narrative hands and a healthy skepticism in the gummed-up workings of government institutions. (Is it really that hard to imagine Nick Offerman’s terse, paperwork-averse supervisor Ron Swanson as a David Simon character?) And, like “The Wire,” Parks tempers its critique with stray bits of admiration for those toiling in the belly of the beast.
For the first three seasons, Leslie’s steadfast belief that the system works — or that she can make it work through sheer force of will as an administrator — made her a compelling and unusual comic creation: an upbeat, optimistic character whose devotion to her job was not merely fodder for mockery. (Contrast this with the cynical slackers of “The Office,” which has humped the work-is-hell thing for years now).
The decision to devote the entire fourth season of “Parks and Recreation” to Leslie’s city council campaign seemed like a good way to ease out of the relationship arc between Leslie and Ben (Adam Scott) while forcing the show’s political aspects into the foreground — an ambitious election-year move for what’s arguably the most confident comedy on any of the big four networks. But season four has been a mixed bag, possibly because the campaign storyline has the feeling of a no-win situation.
If Leslie wins, her post will take her away (at least on a part-time basis) from the Parks Department — and from the center of a comic ensemble whose members always work better in counterpoint to her alternately addled and ambitious activities. Chris Pratt’s oafish Andy, Aubrey Plaza’s lightly sociopathic April and Rob Lowe’s benignly irritating Chris are superbly inhabited and ultimately one-note creations.
And if Leslie loses — almost certainly via some nefarious dealings by her opponent Bobby Newport (a dopey Paul Rudd) and his D.C.-barracuda handler (Kathryn Hahn) — it’ll be hard to shake the sense that the whole thing was an extended downer. The fact that Michael Schur recently revealed that were multiple endings filmed of the season finale might be a sign of indecisiveness –an indication that he and his colleagues have written themselves into a corner without a clear exit strategy.
“Live Ammo” smartly exploited this back-against-the-wall feeling by forcing Leslie to think her way out of a “Sophie’s Choice” situation involving budget cuts and a houseful of adopted pets. It also introduced a malevolent new piece of intrigue: the possibility that Chris’ support of Leslie’s campaign could cost him a city manager job if Newport gets elected. The sense of larger strands converging was palpable, and for the first time since the early season episodes concerning the political fallout of Leslie and Ben’s office affair — which reached back, “Wire”-like, to a throwaway scene with a walk-on character in the previous season for its resolution — it feels like her candidacy has real stakes for somebody other than herself.
There was another hint of this in the last episode before the break, “Lucky,” in which Leslie was saved from the potentially disastrous public spectacle of a drunken morning-show interview by some supportive baggage handlers at the Pawnee airport. Recognizing that their friend — and best potential advocate — was in trouble, they disposed of the incriminating video tape before it could be delivered to the television studio.
It was the sort of small grace note that the show can sometimes pull of peerlessly (trumping the self-reflexive saccharinity of its network neighbour “Community”) and it emphasized the idea that it might actually matter — to Pawnee and to the show’s continued well-being — if Leslie wins this thing. Her chances for victory are likely tied to next week’s self-explanatorily titled “The Debate,” which will mark a welcome return for Rudd (and hopefully continue the trend of characters completely falling apart on live television).
The show’s prospects, meanwhile, would seem to hinge on the writers taking their own advice and committing to a decision with major consequences — and not the one, by the way, that would make a lot of people unhappy. There’s no need here for a minor-key rendition of the beat-goes-on-cynicism of “The Wire,” not only because this is a comedy but because a defeat would also, in its way, be a vote for typical sitcom thinking — the kind that simply presses the reset button after a forgetful summer vacation. A scenario where the Audacity of Knope pays off would actually bring “Parks and Recreation” closer to its stated model by keeping it playing the long game — and as long as its fifth season doesn’t involve Leslie inventing a fictional serial killer, it could even keep pace.