If you’ve been following this blog, then you know that I’ve adopted somewhat of an unpopular stance on this season of Parks and Recreation. Simply put, Season 4 just hasn’t really clicked for me so far. I’ve outlined the reasons for my ambivalence in my episode reviews, but I’ll attempt to give a brief summary after the jump.

Parks and Recreation didn’t hook me from the start, but since the last couple of episodes of season 1, I found myself falling in love with the show’s positivity, its quirky characters, and its high-stakes storylines – or at least as high-stakes as municipal politics can get. This season, however, the things that made me fall in love with the show have started to grate on me, and it all comes down to a simple cliché: “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”

I used to admire Parks and Recreation for its warmth and optimism. So many comedies – especially those on cable – get their yuks from a deep-seated cynicism. Watching them can be depressing as hell. Comparatively, Parks and Recreation is a glass full of sunshine. But the show’s optimism used to feel more real, more relatable. Now, it feels as if the show has heart because, well, it has to have heart. I don’t mean to imply that its heartfelt moments are unearned. But they’ve begun to feel a bit by-the-numbers. Take the resolution of “The Treaty,” for example. After ruining Model UN for a group of teenagers, Leslie and Ben were able to make it all better by inviting them into the town council chambers and offering to organize another summit later. It just seemed too neat and tidy, too predictable. The ending of “The Trial of Leslie Knope” is another example, veering about five inches too far into cutesy territory.

The problem with neat and tidy resolutions is that they rob the show of stakes. Sure, it’s heartwarming to have a nice ending at the end of every episode, but it also means that the audience always knows that things will turn out fine in the end. Now, to be fair, the show has demonstrated its willingness to shake things up on a long-term basis, with Tom’s Entertainment 720 venture failing and Ben “resigning in disgrace” from his job. However, these occurrences only really affect Tom and Ben; they don’t truly matter to most of the characters.

That brings me to the season’s overarching storyline: the election. Up until the very last minutes of “Citizen Knope,” when it was revealed that Leslie’s colleagues would take the reins of her campaign, the only person who would have been affected by the results of the election was Leslie. Sure, if Leslie won, the rest of the parks department would miss her greatly, but Leslie – and to a certain extent, Ben – were the only people who had an emotional investment in the election. Moreover, Leslie was the only main character who was consistently involved in her campaign. So, most of the election-related plots tended to involve Leslie and some other character, not the whole cast. As a result, most of the episodes got split up into non-intersecting subplots, which often felt disjointed.

My other main problem with this season is with how some of the characters have been portrayed. The writing for Chris has been all over the place, and his personality changes from week to week depending on what the writers want him to do. Andy and Ron are also verging on caricature now. Andy has been written a few shades too dim, and the show has focused too much on Ron’s character quirks. Even the moments when Ron gives advice to Leslie are starting to feel artificial and by-the-numbers. Ron and Andy need to be more unpredictable if they’re going to start feeling like real characters again.

The foregoing criticism probably makes this season sound as if it has been just short of a disaster. It hasn’t been. On an episodic basis, in terms of entertaining me and making me laugh, Parks and Recreation has worked as well as one could expect any average sitcom to work. In particular, “Born & Raised” and “Pawnee Rangers” were standouts, blending both heart and hilarity as the best episodes of Parks and Recreation do. This season has been a disappointment not because it has been bad – it hasn’t – but because I’ve seen what this show is capable of when it’s at the top of its game, and most of Season 4 hasn’t been anywhere close. That’s not a condemnation; consider it a ringing endorsement for the kind of stellar comedy we’ll get if the show regains its mojo.

Grade relative to past performance: D+

Grade relative to other TV shows: B+

Relative ranking of episodes:
As always, this list just reflects my current preferences and is subject to change.

10. Smallest Park (S4E08)
9. End of the World (S4E06)
8. I’m Leslie Knope (S4E01)
7. The Treaty (S4E07)
6. Meet ‘n Greet (S4E05)
5. The Trial of Leslie Knope (S4E09)
4. Citizen Knope (S4E10)
3. Ron & Tammys (S4E02)
2. Pawnee Rangers (S4E04)
1. Born & Raised (S4E03)

Altogether, not a stellar season of Parks and Recreation, but still a very solid show on the whole.