Amy Poehler shows off her character's impressive growth in last night's stand-out episode
For better or for worse, sitcoms tend not to have much forward momentum. This is partially for practical reasons; successful sitcoms make boatloads of cash each time they air in syndication, so it's ideal for any viewer to be able to jump in at any point. (If you'd like to see syndication in action, feel free to turn your television to one of the six channels that's inevitably rerunning Seinfeld right now.) But it's also because, for most viewers, TV sitcoms are the equivalent of comfort food: safe, predictable, undemanding, and satisfying. Parks and Recreation may feature more of a serialized narrative than something like Two and a Half Men, but even seemingly major plot progression (like April and Andy's wedding two weeks ago) leaves the core qualities of its characters essentially unchanged.
Over the course of the series, however, there's an ongoing narrative that's been so gradual and organic it's been easy to miss: the maturation of Leslie Knope. When the series began, Leslie was a daffy, wide-eyed dreamer —ridiculed by her underlings, controlled by her domineering mother, and pathetically infatuated with coworker Mark Brendanawicz. The second season offered a Leslie that became, practically episode by episode, more competent and respected at her job, and more selective in her love life. And this season's Leslie—particularly now that she's been buoyed by the massive success of her brainchild, the Harvest Festival —is confident, assertive, and unwilling to compromise.
Tonight's episode, "Jerry's Painting," finds Leslie growing increasingly frustrated with Chris' "no interdepartmental dating" rule, which prevents her going on a first date (presumably over JJ's waffles) with Ben. It's even more salt in the wound when Chris goads Ben into a blind date with a non-parks employee. Leslie's feeling sapped, frustrated, and defeated when she sees Jerry's latest painting: a confident, topless female centaur goddess that unintentionally but uncannily resembles her.
The painting motivates Leslie to attempt her own superhuman feats, which include getting a light bulb changed and having a printer fixed. Unfortunately, the painting also draws the ire of professional complainer Marcia Langman, who derides the painting as "government-funded animal porn." When a government panel elects to have the painting destroyed, Leslie enlists Jerry in a switcheroo that allows her to keep the painting in the privacy of her own home.
The action surrounding Jerry's painting showcased a number of characters in top form (particularly Ron, who delivered the world's greatest "I don't care about speeches" speech, and Tom, whose dismay at appearing in the painting as a fat baby never got old). But the most fun part of the episode was seeing how active and decisive Leslie was at every turn. From her passionate (though admittedly self-serving) defense of free speech in art to her escape with the painting, it's clear that Leslie's come a long way from the hyper-obedient government cog she used to be. It's also nice to see that her personal confidence has improved with her professional growth; I particularly liked her efforts to guarantee that Ben saw the painting, and her winking comment that Ben deserves "a real goddess" at the episode's end.
"Jerry's Painting" was more than a showcase for Leslie, of course—it was also the debut Parks and Recreation's new funniest pairing: Ben, and newlyweds April and Andy. Now that Ben has decided to stay in Pawnee, he's ready to move out of his awful-sounding motel ("Four stars, says nobody") to somewhere nicer. Unfortunately for him, his quest leads to April and Andy's house, where longtime roommate Burly has just moved out. As April deadpans her way through a series of increasingly insane house rules ("If you ever watch a sad movie, you have to wear mascara so we can see if you've been crying") and Andy demonstrates no knowledge whatsoever of how little things like bills work, it's clear that Ben is in way over his head.
Now that Burly is gone, April and Andy's house has descended into chaos, with Frisbees full of turkey chili for breakfast and a single communal fork with which to eat it. After recovering from the horror, Ben gives Andy and April an advance on the next month's rent and specific instructions on what to buy: plates, towels, and other boring-but-essential house supplies (though Andy, being Andy, can't resist adding a marshmallow shooter to the list).
There are only five episodes left in Parks and Recreation's third season, but "Jerry's Painting" is a fantastic example of how, even this late in the season, the show can still feel surprising and fresh.
Tonight's 'Leslie the Centaur' painting is only the latest in a long string of Jerry's art, from a nature watercolor (which was thrown into a lake by Leslie) to a painstakingly assembled mural for a contest (which was ridiculed out of contention after Jerry accidentally called it a "murinal").
Wise Words from Andy Dwyer:
On renting: "The biggest challenge to picking the perfect roommate is finding someone who's willing to pay more than their share of rent without knowing it."