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