I recently rewatched Parks and Recreation’s pilot episode, and it’s interesting to see how far the series has progressed since then. Of course, at lot has happened in 2+ seasons, including the filling-in of the pit and last week’s Harvest Festival, but there are also differences in the show’s overall vibe. For one thing, Leslie has gone from bumbling screw-up to uber-competent, well-respected bureaucrat. Secondly, the show’s early days featured a more cynical tone, but as the show progressed, it became more hopeful, positive, and idealistic. There was even a Vulture article posted yesterday entitled Parks and Recreation and the Comedy of Super Niceness.

It seemed weird, then, that Parks and Recreation put out what seemed to be its most cynical episode this season that same day. It felt almost like a season 1 episode, even featuring a less-competent-than-usual Leslie. For most of “Camping,” those thoughts gnawed at me, and I didn’t feel like I could fully enjoy it. But in the end, everything fell into place. Perhaps this wasn’t one of the show’s strongest outings, but last week’s excellent episode was a tough act to follow, and I’m beginning to wonder if my expectations for this show are too high.

Leslie faced a similar question this week. She is now a rising star in Pawnee, a local hero whose tireless efforts were recognized as being instrumental in bringing the Harvest Festival to fruition. It’s fitting then that she would face a sort of existential crisis. Where does she go from here? Expectations for her were so high, and she didn’t know if she could deliver. The current storyline is a reflection of the show’s production schedule. The first six episodes of this season were filmed long before the next batch in order to accommodate Amy Poehler’s pregnancy, and because of that, the writers chose to divide this season up into a couple of short story arcs. After the first arc, viewers were eager to jump right into the second and had very high expectations, and the writers were under pressure to deliver. “Camping” served not only as a reminder to Leslie telling her to relax every once in a while, but also as a reminder to fans that they too need to take a breather and be patient; good things are just around the corner. And that’s perhaps where a third of my discomfort with this episode comes from. I don’t like seeing the gears turning inside the writers’ heads. When a show gets too meta, my suspension of disbelief is hampered. Call me an insane fan, but I don’t want to be reminded that I’m watching a TV show. I want to root for the characters on my screen, and if their struggles reflect those of the writing staff, then the illusion is ruined.

But mercifully, the possibly unintentional meta component of Leslie’s story wasn’t the focus. Parks and Recreation is never clever for clever’s sake. Leslie’s inability to come up with an idea for the parks department’s next project played out without a wink or a nod. Parks and Recreation loves telling stories about its characters, not the trials and travails of its writing staff. But in telling stories about its characters, the show also must make sure that the characters and their relationships stay consistent. It’s therefore understandable that Leslie’s inability to follow up on the Harvest Festival, coupled with her stubborn insistence on brainstorming, raised a few alarm bells. No one wants to see season 1 Leslie return, the version of her that’s often derided as a Michael Scott clone. That’s where another third of my discomfort with this episode comes from. It’s all too easy for one’s brain to jump to the consideration of worst-case scenarios, namely that the show itself has run out of ideas and is therefore trying to create drama by regressing Leslie’s character.

Moreover, this week, the show seemed considerably less sunny than usual, and not just because of Leslie’s inability to come up with an idea. Ann was back to dealing with Chris; April spent most of the episode missing her boyfriend and complaining about being on the trip; Tom was being selfish and immature; and everyone was being mean to everyone else. It was all too reminiscent of the show’s earlier, less hopeful vibe and was the third source of my discomfort.

But the end of the episode took all those sources of discomfort away. Leslie was back to being competent, Andy found April, and Ann and Chris seem to have hit a new, funny speed bump. Because I felt good about the ending, all thoughts of the show’s production concerns left my mind, and I was able to truly appreciate “Camping” for what it was: an honest examination of our fears of inadequacy and our tendency to work ourselves too hard. It’s a very relatable story to anyone who sees a bit of Leslie Knope in him- or herself.

Unfortunately, the show can’t go back in time and erase the discomfort I felt while I was watching “Camping.” The impression of the episode that sticks with me is positive, but it’s tempered by the fact that this episode hinted at some sort of Bizarro Parks and Recreation, filled with meta gags, incompetent fools, and people who dislike each other. It’s a strange alternate reality that I’d rather not consider for many reasons, the least of which is that it sounds like an unholy marriage between Community and The Office.

For what it’s worth, though, the discomfort never blossomed into full-on dislike. I never got the sense that Leslie was acting irredeemably stupid or that anyone in the parks department was acting irredeemably mean. Perhaps Poehler should have used a bit more restraint in showing Leslie’s unravelling, and perhaps it was unnecessary for everyone to feel so negatively about the camping trip. But overall, “Camping” was a good episode of Parks and Recreation, albeit one that got by more on good jokes than on a compelling story.

Ironically, the one source of discomfort with which this episode left me was a product of the ending. In this episode, Tom hinted that the reason none of the parks department employees were contributing ideas was because they all felt inadequate in the shadow of Leslie, who they believed could do a much better job than them. That thread never resolved itself. Writing mistake or potential plot later in the season? Time will tell.

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