Let’s not tread lightly here. As of two weeks ago, Parks and Recreation was in a slump, and not one that it was likely to re-emerge from any time soon. At the risk of oversimplifying, the causes of that slump were twofold: 1) the show had chosen to put all of its storytelling chips behind the story of Leslie’s campaign and her relationship with Ben, a story which didn’t necessarily involve the other characters; 2) Most of the episodes this season tried to juggle too many unrelated subplots at once, and as a result, none of the subplots worked as well as they should have.
“The Trial of Leslie Knope” finally dispensed with that problematic episode structure, resulting in a far more focused outing, possibly the closest thing to a “bottle episode” that Parks and Recreation has ever done. Almost the entire installment took place in the town council chambers. The jokes were also sharper than they had been in a few weeks, and there were quite a few genuine chuckles to be had. I especially loved the revelation that Jerry’s name was actually Garry (finally confirming that the brief shot we got of his ID a few weeks ago wasn’t a gaffe), as well as Tom’s explanation for why he’d never date Leslie (something about looking like his “older sister’s aunt,” if I recall correctly). So why am I having trouble fully embracing this episode as a return to form?
I could point to a few nitpicks: Ron and Andy’s character quirks again veered into shticky territory; there was an overabundance of cutesiness and treacly dialogue; and Chris was a few shades too cartoonish (as he almost always is, so that’s not exactly a legitimate complaint). But that doesn’t really get to the heart of why this episode was problematic. One could also suggest that the reason for my ambivalence was that the show still chose to focus on Leslie and Ben’s relationship to the detriment of everything else. However, the singular focus on one story thread in this installment, namely the episode’s titular trial, was a much-appreciated change of pace.
No, my problem with this episode runs much deeper than that, and unfortunately, it’s the fundamental problem that I’ve been having with this season: I just don’t care. It’s not that I think that Leslie and Ben make a terrible, please-break-them-up-now kind of couple. I just don’t care about their relationship. I don’t care about Leslie’s campaign. I don’t care about whether or not she violated any ethical codes. At the end of the day, these things only affect Leslie and Ben, while the pit, the budgetary crisis, and the Harvest Festival were things that affected the entire parks department, if not entire communities in Pawnee.
I really don’t want to feel this way about Parks and Recreation. It’s a long, long, long, long, long way away from being even a remotely bad show. But when I saw that Ben had resigned to save Leslie’s career, I couldn’t help but think, ‘That’s how much I used to care about this show. What the hell happened?’ The direction that the show has chosen doesn’t really interest me, and I often wish that the show would turn its focus back toward parks department projects. I understand that shows have to grow and evolve, lest they become boring. A lot of people would probably have tuned out if the show were still focusing on the pit. But while I embrace the concept of evolution, I don’t feel the need to embrace each specific evolution. This evolution hasn’t worked for me. I suspect it has worked for a lot of people. I wish I could be one of them, but I’m not.
However, that’s not a dealbreaker. Parks and Recreation has a great cast, impeccable directing, and generally sharp writing. If nothing else, “The Trial of Leslie Knope” was proof that the show can still put out a solid, relatively funny episode. It’s a shame that I’m not invested in this season’s storylines, but if Parks and Recreation can work this well on a week-by-week basis, then I’m going to enjoy it nonetheless.