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'Parks' is all fun and recreation in fourth season

NBC

By Sam Cenzang, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 4, 2011

Coming off one of the best season-and-a-half stretches in the history of television comedy, “Parks and Recreation” makes its bid for all-time classic status with season four. By the fourth season, most comedies know what they’re good at and what their audiences want to see. Some shows, like “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Office,” are content to languish in stasis, as their stories get stale and their jokes become broader and broader. Showrunners Greg Daniels and Michael Schur seem to have learned from their mistakes on “The Office.” The fourth season of “Parks” stays true to the tone and spirit of the show. With fresh plots and development of beloved characters, “Parks” proves it still has plenty to say.

“Parks” has always stood out among sitcoms for being unabashedly nice. None of the wall-to-wall laughs come at anyone’s expense (except Jerry, but who cares about him?). Schur talks often about the influence of “Cheers” on his work: Like “Cheers,” “Parks” is about people who, even though they have to work together, still want to spend time together. The show’s feel-good endings are earned, because they're constantly showing us how much these characters care about each other, even when jokes are flying.

“Parks” continues to give viewers the specificity of its jokes and the world-building they’ve become accustomed to, and there are no descents into comic broadness in the fourth season. Instead, “Parks” offers us gems like another installment of Perd Hapley (Jay Jackson, Mr. “I don’t understand what you just said, but it had the cadence of a joke”), Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) taking a women’s studies class and Ben (Adam Scott) rolling up his sleeves and making geopolitical problem solving his bitch.

Season four has been a masterclass in character work. Ron Swanson is always teetering on the edge of caricature, but the writers have not made a single misstep as they toe the line. The stone-cold classic episode “Ron and Tammys” is probably the funniest thing to air on television this year. It also shows us Ron not just as a meat-eating, government-hating cartoon, but also as someone who genuinely cares about his friends. It’s just that one to three friends are sufficient. Also, Nick Offerman shaves his beard. Who knew something that bone-chillingly unsettling could be so hilarious?

The pitch-perfect Leslie and Ben storyline demonstrates that “Parks” could do heartwarming romantic comedy just as well as it did anything else. We’ve seen “Parks” tackle relationship storylines before, but Andy and April (Aubrey Plaza) got married almost immediately and eat out of Frisbees. At first glance, Leslie’s dilemma with Ben seems to be another rehashing of the tired old, “Can a woman have it all?” sitcom plot.

But this is where the show’s specificity saves it. It’s not that Leslie can’t juggle work and love. It’s that she’s running for office and in love with someone who works with her, her boss Chris (Rob Lowe) banned intra-office relationships and she bribed someone to hide their relationship in season three. The show sticks the landing with the help of its actors: Ben and Chris’s interplay in “The Trial of Leslie Knope” was touching and hilariously over-the-top at the same time, and Leslie’s reaction shots when she’s told why she got to keep her job are among the best work Amy Poehler has done on the show.

If “Parks and Recreation” has failed at anything this season, it’s simply that it's not as transcendentally great as its last season. Season three was defined by Leslie and Ben’s refreshingly unconvoluted will-they-won’t-they-yes-they-will. Whatever the show does with them now that they’re together, expect it to be funny, charming and compelling. With this excellent first half of a season, “Parks” continues to be the best comedy — and quite possibly the best show — on television.


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