'Parks and Recreation': The Curse of the Celebrity Guest Star

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Parker Posey plays Amy Poehler's foil in this week's episode—but her performance is more distracting than it is funny

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With only two weeks left in its third season, Parks and Recreation is taking a break from its ongoing Leslie-Ben romance to shed a little light on Pawnee's storied rivalry with nearby town Eagleton. Parks and Recreation has gotten better and better at building a consistent world, and the Eagleton feud seemed ripe for comedic potential. Unfortunately, "Eagleton" is a strangely uneven episode of Parks and Recreation; though still entertaining, the cartoonish A-plot is this season's worst—but the surprising, affecting B-plot is one of the season's best.

Eagleton's elitist qualities are personified in its own parks director, Lindsay Carlisle-Shea (guest star Parker Posey). When Leslie learns that Eagleton has erected a fence to keep Pawnee children out of a park, she confronts Lindsay (who happens to be a former Pawnee parks employee—and Leslie's ex-best friend). When Lindsay refuses to take down the fence, Leslie resolves to open the park to Pawnee's children again by any means necessary.

Eagleton is a kind of bizarro-Pawnee, where the air smells like vanilla and the prison guards offer complimentary scone platters to inmates. And the vain, selfish Lindsay Carlisle-Shea—who literally treats the waffles from Leslie's beloved diner like dog food—fills the role of a bizarro-Leslie. As it turns out, Leslie refused the parks director job in Eagleton before it was offered to Lindsay, resulting in an inferiority complex that apparently motivated Lindsay to build the fence (after five years without any contact with Leslie, and seemingly apropos of nothing. It's pretty flimsy).

Guest stars are a tricky proposition for any TV comedy; they tend provoke increases in ratings, but their generally conspicuous presence can throw off a show's natural rhythm. This affects some shows more than others; 30 Rock, which is set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-type variety show, can plausibly drop in Jerry Seinfeld or Tom Hanks without anyone batting an eye.

But the faux-documentary format of Parks and Recreation looks and feels more real than either the anything-goes playfulness of single-camera comedies like 30 Rock or the tightly-structured, three-camera joke machines of old-school sitcoms like Two and a Half Men. Parks and Recreation generally plays pretty fast and loose with its documentary-style direction, but there's a realness that makes the appearance of someone as recognizable as Parker Posey inherently distracting, no matter how funny she is as an actress. (To see this problem taken to its absolute extreme, check out Will Ferrell's guests spots on The Office over the past few weeks).

In theory, the stakes in "Eagleton" should feel high; after all, Lindsay used to be Leslie's best friend. But it's hard to feel invested in the bad blood between Leslie and Lindsay, since Lindsay has literally never been referenced until "Eagleton," and since Eagleton itself is less a coherent place than an excuse for poking fun at upper-middle class suburbia.

For whatever reason, Parks and Recreation also tends to get broader and wackier when it features guest stars (think Fred Armisen's turn as a conniving Venezuelan politician in season 2's "Sister City," or Andy Samberg's perpetually-yelling park ranger in "Park Safety"). "Eagleton" follows that trend when a waffle-inspired brawl between Leslie and Lindsay results in both women being held in custody overnight. In the end, Ann's offhand reference to beating Lindsay with a baseball bat inspires Leslie to turn the fence into the Pawnee equivalent of the Green Monster—making the Pawnee half of the park into an all-access baseball diamond.

Fortunately, the B-plot in "Eagleton" is far more compelling. After some impressive Sherlock Holmes-esque digging, Leslie discovers that Ron's birthday on the horizon. Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn't believe in birthdays ("invented by Hallmark to sell cards"), and his ever-increasing paranoia about the massive surprise party he assumes Leslie is planning leads to most of the episode's funniest moments (I particularly liked April's faked phone call seeking inflatable saxophones—a subtle reference to Ron's alter ego, Duke Silver).

Like Ron, I couldn't begin to imagine what Leslie had in store for him. Someone once told me that a truly great joke is like a great mystery: you could never predict its ending, but once you know it, you realize that it could never have ended any other way. The great mystery/joke of Ron Swanson's birthday finds its perfect solution in the "party" Leslie arranges for Ron: a quiet room, a rare steak, a quality scotch, and a DVD copy of The Dirty Dozen. When Ron tells Leslie that he was expecting a crowded birthday bash, she replies, "Why would I throw an Ann Perkins party for Ron Swanson?"

It's in moments like that that Parks and Recreation is at its strongest—moments that affirm just how much these characters know and care for one another. That's what makes Pawnee a place worth spending a half-hour in each week, and that's what makes Parks and Recreation worth watching.

Pawnee History:
Chief Trumple, Leslie's no-nonsense friend in the police department, reappears for the first time since his awkward conversation with "calzone boy" Ben in "Ron and Tammy II."

Wise Words from Andy Dwyer:
On role models: "I love you like a father. That's not that much older than me. Like a young uncle. Or like, you're my camp counselor. But we're adults, so we hang out. And it's not weird."

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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