It’s often said that there are two different kinds of Parks and Recreation episodes: those that focus outward on Pawnee and its citizens, and those that focus inward of the parks department and its employees. It’s probably more accurate to say that there’s a continuum of episode types, with each one containing different proportions of Pawnee life and city hall shenanigans. One would expect that Parks and Recreation’s fourth season would kick off with an episode that balanced the two, but the show opted for an installment that focused almost entirely on the latter.

Because they are only tertiary characters, Pawnee’s denizens are free to be portrayed as weird, cartoonish, and one-dimensional. After all, the audience isn’t expected to invest in them. But when the show turns its focus towards the core cast, its reality becomes considerably less elastic. The show wants us to feel for Leslie, Ben, Ann, and the other core characters, so their interpersonal interactions tend to feel more grounded. Perhaps realizing that last season’s premiere tried to juggle too many plot lines at once, the writers penned “I’m Leslie Knope” with a clear A-story in mind, that of Leslie’s decision to break up with Ben and run for office, leaving the episode with an emotionally grounded story at its core. Unfortunately, because of its subject matter, it was also one that didn’t generate many laughs.

That left most of the lunacy and laughter in the various subplots, from Tom’s Entertainment 720 merchandise to Ann receiving photos of penises from her male coworkers. (The latter was a total non-starter, made worth it only because of the punchline about Jerry’s considerable endowments.) Therein lies the reason why this episode generated mixed feelings for me. The A-story was so grounded (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a minute), that it felt like the episode had large chunks of dead space and seriousness. “I’m Leslie Knope” was practically begging for a little lunacy, which the subplots tried to deliver. But in some cases, they got pushed a few steps too far, and what resulted was an episode that tried to operate on two different planes of reality.

Take the subplot about the penis photos, for example. It involved Joe sending a picture of his genitals to the entire city hall staff. Why? Because he thought he had an impressive package. Here’s the problem, though. Even the most ridiculous, most cartoonish denizens of Pawnee have believable reasons for what they do. Those reasons might not be good ones, but one can see why they would seem sensible to those people. But if Joe sent the picture because he was impressed with his own endowments, why didn’t he send it, say, two years ago? I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of something as contrived and over-the-top as this. In fact, the entire penis plot felt way too broad and too silly. Why didn’t anyone just go see a doctor? I’ll accept a lot of crazy things about Pawnee’s city hall employees, but to expect me to believe that every single of them is too stupid to think to see a physician is asking me to suspend too much disbelief.

I had a similar problem with the subplot about Tammy 1. The show made a mistake in waiting until the very end of the episode to introduce her. In all probability, this was done in an attempt to build up suspense, but all it succeeded in doing was making Ron look like a crazy person. If the usually calm Ron is fleeing in terror to a cabin in the woods, I need to understand why he’s panicking. When I finally saw the reason for that panic, I was unimpressed. Maybe Patricia Clarkson has been slightly miscast (though my opinion on that is liable to change), but I just didn’t find Tammy 1 as scary as all the other characters did. That’s a problem, because I can’t buy into their over-the-top reactions to her presence if I don’t feel even a tiny bit of the fear that they do.

On the other hand, the subplot about Andy trying to follow his dreams worked quite well, even though the scene in which April alternately told him to work or not to work at Entertainment 720 was a tad too cutesy. It was funny enough that it was able to liven up the episode, but I never felt as if the show was ridiculing Andy’s hopes and dreams. It was a tough balance for the show to strike, but the show succeeded wonderfully. Andy being Leslie’s new assistant should open up a lot of opportunities for comedy (though I’ll be sad if it means seeing less of shoe-shine recipient Kyle *sniff*), and I appreciate that Andy seems to be moving forward with his life.

Leslie Knope is also moving forward with her life, after having decided to run for city council (and break it off with Ben as a result). I have mixed feelings about this story, about both its execution and its implications. For the most part, “I’m Leslie Knope” did well at treating Leslie’s decision with the requisite amount of seriousness. Her interview with Perd Hapley might have taken Hapley’s character a shade too far, and the soundbite about putting more women in charge was clumsy, but other than that, the episode didn’t treat Leslie’s decision lightly.

But then, the episode arrived at the restaurant scene, with Ben and Leslie on a date, and things took a turn for the weird. Mind you, this story hadn’t exactly been a laugh riot up until then – in fact it had been kind of a snooze – but at least it felt grounded in a way that made me empathize with Leslie’s dilemma. However, the story then leaped onto the same plane of reality on which the subplots seemed to be operating, and things fell apart. If Ben and Leslie’s relationship was supposed to be a secret, how could they be at a restaurant together on what was clearly a romantic date? And then, things got worse: Leslie just up and left in the middle of the date to join Ron at his cabin, an action that felt so far removed from everything that had happened previously in this plot that I wondered if an alien had replaced Leslie. I’ll reiterate what I said about Ron’s subplot: when characters do crazy things, I need to have a feel for why they’re doing them. Leslie has done a lot of weird things over the years, but I don’t buy that she’d just abandon Ben in the middle of a date while (unsuccessfully) lying that she was just going to the bathroom. (Sidenote: the “wizz palace” joke doesn’t get funnier the more you hear it. Sometimes callbacks to previous episodes – in this case, “Road Trip” – are amusing. Sometimes they’re not.)

I also have mixed feelings about what this subplot implies for the show going forward. I’m always appreciative of shows that like to mix things up. If Leslie did the same things, day in and day out, every season, then Parks and Recreation would become stagnant. The election storyline allows the show to keep things fresh for Leslie, and by association, keep things fresh for viewers. On the other hand, it also makes me worried that the show may lose its lovable underdog charm. Part of the appeal of Parks and Recreation is in seeing a scrappy parks department employee tackle various challenges with cheerful, infectious enthusiasm. With Leslie focused on the election, there might be little room for the adorable loopiness that abounds when Leslie is working on parks-related tasks. The election is a high-stakes plot line, which makes it inherently more serious than most of what happens at the parks department. The show needs a modicum of gravitas so that it doesn’t float off into La-La Land, but this storyline might tip the balance between seriousness and silliness too far towards the former.

The result might be more episodes like this one: episodes with more A-plots that get bogged down in seriousness, but B-plots that go deeper into cartoon territory than they should, especially when they don’t feature enough of Pawnee’s denizens to justify that cartoonishness. Most of this episode’s subplots felt as if they should have been dialled back a few notches, but doing so would have made the episode even more dull than it already was. I did laugh out loud a couple of times, but I barely cracked a smile at the rest of what was going on. “I’m Leslie Knope” felt like it was patched together with subplots that just shouldn’t have gone together, and each one was written with a tone that wasn’t totally appropriate, as if to compensate for what would have otherwise been too serious an episode.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this season ends up being more serious than the last. Now, Leslie and Ben know that they want to be together but that they can’t. That has to breed drama. If it doesn’t, I won’t be able to take Leslie and Ben’s issues seriously. But it also breeds predictability. I’ve rarely seen a show handle will-they/won’t-they drama in a fresh or exciting way, and this doesn’t seem to be an exception so far. I’m willing to bet that Leslie and Ben will end up kissing or sleeping together again before season’s end. (Come on, Parks and Recreation, prove me wrong. I double dog dare ya.) Unfortunately, predictable drama doesn’t make for compelling comedy, and with the election storyline on top of all of this, I worry that the show won’t have room for as much fun and wackiness as before. That’s fine, as long as the show can hold my interest, and keep me smiling and entertained. There are a lot of talented people behind this show, and I think that they can pull off a more serious season. However, a tonally-confused episode such as this one is not the model for them to follow.

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