Posted on Friday, October 19th, 2012 at 11:23 am
Author: s.e. smith
Parks and Recreation is back for a fifth season on NBC, and the half-hour comedy came out swinging with a snapping premiere episode featuring cameos by Barbara Boxer, John McCain, and Olympia Snowe. The show’s fans have a lot to look forward to this season beyond cameos from unlikely suspects as Leslie Knope takes on her new role as a city council member and tries to balance a long-distance relationship with Ben.
All three episodes thus far this season have spoken to larger social and personal anxieties, especially about women in politics. First we saw Leslie going to Washington and discovering that being a small fish in a large pond can be a very disorienting experience; enthralled with the magic of the capital, she also saw its darker side and discovered that being a city council member from a small town doesn’t open many doors for you.
At a party, she struggles with a parade of ‘tall women’ whom she finds intimidating for their glossy sleekness, convincing herself that Ben can’t possibly want to continue dating her when he has so many beautiful, and powerful, women to choose from instead. Even an introduction to Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe can’t cheer her up as she starts to sink deep into a power-induced depression which is only cemented when she can’t get a meeting with someone from the Department of the Interior.
And how about those women Senators? Boxer has a bit of a history of appearing as herself on various television shows, which shows that Babs has a sense of humour when it comes to media. It helps when it’s not an election year for you, so appearing in a half-hour comedy isn’t likely to jeopardise your campaign. Boxer and Snowe were only on screen for a minute, but the real talent was John McCain bumbling in the coat room; the man has a rare comedic flair that’s actually pretty entertaining and he might want to consider an alternate career when he’s done with the Senate.
In ‘Soda Tax,’ Leslie takes on something that’s been occupying the media this year: regressive taxes on sodas, allegedly designed to curb the ‘obesity epidemic.’ The episode ends up being a partial sendup of ‘obesity epidemic’ reporting, complete with dramatic shots of headless fatties, but it ended up falling slightly flat if it was meant to be a parody; it was a bit hard to tell what the writers were trying to make fun of, at times.
Were they mocking large drinks? Fat people? Ridiculous taxes targeting specific foods as sinful while ignoring larger structural issues? Parks and Recreation sometimes misses the mark when it comes to commenting on issues like this—or perhaps I’m missing the mark as a viewer with my own reads and interpretations in mind. For a show that tends to be very popular among progressives, and one that primarily focuses on simultaneously mocking and celebrating local government, it sometimes seems unsure of itself, not fully committed to comedic statements and thus doomed to confusion.
‘How a Bill Becomes a Law’ took us to backroom dealings and manipulations as Leslie struggled to pass a seemingly simple bill, illustrating the absurdity of government even at a low level. Along the way, she encountered the obstacles common to so many female politicians; sexism oozed from the pores of all the male councilmembers she interacted with in her quest for votes as they tried to muscle her around.
Here, the writers excelled at keeping things funny, but actually embedding some hard comments between the laughs. When they’re on, they’re on, which explains why Parks and Recreation has so many loyal fans, and is particularly popular among feminists. It can crackle with the best of them when it comes to sending up social attitudes in a way that’s subtle, rather than clonking you over the head with the issues it wants to challenge, and the actors take it on with zest. Being able to make people laugh while you deconstruct their culture is not always easy.
The best part of this episode was definitely a guest appearance by Lucy Lawless as a harried single mom who just wants a pothole in front of her house fixed. Ron comes to the rescue, and gets roped into playing princess with her daughters, undermining his sense of security in his masculinity. Seeing him perched at a play table with his face covered in rouge and then watching him being asked to dinner was an interesting comment on masculinity, and if their relationship is followed up on in subsequent episodes it has the potential to be another entry in the school’s long history of strong women defying cultural norms.
If the show can hit it like it did with ‘How A Bill Becomes a Law,’ this should be a strong, funny, and entertaining season. If it continues to be uneven, though, it may have trouble holding on to viewers; the tight half hour comedy format leaves surprising room for innovation and play, but it’s also easy to turn away from if viewers find themselves getting frustrated. Can Parks and Recreation stay fresh in its fifth season, or has it said all it can say?
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