'Parks and Recreation' Goes Downhill, For Now

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This week was a low point after several excellent episodes. How the show lost its way, and how it can get back on track.

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NBC


When you've reached the top, how can you go anywhere but downhill? It's a question that Leslie Knope has to confront after the runaway success of last week's Harvest Festival in tonight's episode of Parks and Recreation, "Camping." But coming after a seven-episode plot arc that represents the peak of series so far, it's also a question for Parks and Recreation itself. "Camping" is a funny, charming episode of a show that's reliably funny and charming. But it's also not Parks and Recreation at its best.

The central conflict that drives "Camping" is Leslie's struggle to come up with the parks department's next big project. She takes the entire parks department (and Ann, who clearly doesn't put in too many hours at the hospital) on an ill-fated camping trip that ends in the world's most unsettling bed & breakfast (tomato slices with leek jam, anyone?). It's a pretty transparent device to get all of the characters out of the office and into the woods together, but it suits the episode's purposes well enough.

Unfortunately, most of the episode doesn't fare as well. Parks and Recreation has such a strong cast that the show can put literally put any of its characters into a plotline together and make it funny. Recently, however, the show has recently leaned pretty hard on its ongoing romantic subplots, and this week is no exception: two of the three major stories in "Camping" center on long-running relationship arcs (April-Andy and Ann-Chris)—and both plotlines are beginning to wear out their welcomes. The April-Andy romance, which was so surprising and sweet when it began, already feels like it's on autopilot; April, in particular, seems to be stuck in a perpetually bratty loop. And while Rashida Jones plays Ann's excruciatingly awkward scenes with Chris perfectly, the two characters have also become almost exclusively anchored to each other—at the expense of other, potentially terrific storylines with Parks and Recreation's many characters.

Because the most frustrating thing about Parks and Recreation's recent focus on its romantic subplots is that the show's most compelling relationships have always been its platonic relationships. (This is a problem that Parks and Recreation shares with two of its sister shows, The Office and Community, which are both at their weakest when they get bogged down in their characters' romantic tribulations.) As "Camping" takes yet another tentative step toward the inevitable Leslie-Ben romance, it's a relief to see the end of the episode shift gears to the relationship that's truly at the heart of the show: Leslie and Ron.

There are very few loving, respectful, but completely platonic relationships between male and female leads in TV sitcoms (aside from Parks and Recreation, Liz and Jack's relationship on 30 Rock and Mary and Lou Grant's relationship on The Mary Tyler Moore Show are the only two that come to mind). It's much easier to set up romantic subplots, which thrive on the high drama and contrivances that sitcoms tend to specialize in, but the long, platonic history between Ron and Leslie has given us something subtler: a quiet, consistent window into how much, deep down, they like and respect one another.

"Camping" ends with a terrific reminder of just how well Ron knows Leslie, when he locks her in a room at the bed & breakfast and tells her to get some rest. Ron anticipates her every move (right down to knowing that she'll try to get out through the transom), and Leslie has no choice but to accept Ron's advice. And the following morning, as Ben and Chris fret over whether or not Leslie will make it to the meeting on time, Ron dismisses their concern with a curt, "She'll be here."

Ron's right, of course; Leslie is, after all, the "Energizer Bunny of city government," and she wakes up with a half-dozen ideas for the parks department's next project. As Leslie puts it, "you're only as good as the people you work with." For Ron, that means trusting Leslie to reach for the stars; for Leslie, that means trusting Ron to bring her back down to earth.

Pawnee History:
Tom's greatest invention, DJ Roomba, makes a triumphant return to Parks and Recreation after being stepped on by Jerry in the season 2 episode "Sweetums."

Wise Words from Andy Dwyer:
On poor cell phone service: "Walk around in circles like I am. It'll help triangulate the signal."

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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