Fantastic B-plots. Excruciatingly idiotic A-plot. More details after the jump.
I’ve been holding back on saying this, waiting for the show to pull an ace out of its sleeve, but I can’t hold back any longer: Parks and Recreation fucked up, big time. The election storyline just isn’t working, and now it’s turning the once competent Leslie Knope into a shrill, annoying idiot, devoid of common sense. And the worst part is that the show wants me to cheer for Leslie nonetheless.
As cynical as my writing might make me seem, I’m really not heartless. I love a good underdog story – Dodgeball is one of my favourite movies – and I must admit that there’s something uplifting about watching a scrappy team gathering up their courage and their hearts to beat the odds and emerge victorious. But that kind of story works only if I want to root for the underdogs. I truly have to believe that they’re the people who should win.
The thing is: I don’t think Leslie deserves to win the election. Sure, the underdogs are allowed to screw up a couple of times; if they never did, then they wouldn’t be the underdogs. But they can’t screw up in every. fucking. episode. Because then, they’re not underdogs, they’re just idiots. Week after week, Leslie has demonstrated that she has no damn clue how to run an election campaign. Week after week, the campaign has brought out her worst qualities. Week after week, the campaign has minor successes that it didn’t really earn. And week after week, I lose some respect not only for Leslie Knope, but also for the writers who expect me to swallow this bullshit and to believe that a candidate’s campaign manager getting into an altercation with a voter would cause the candidate’s popularity to rise. Leslie acted rude, immature, and generally unlikable for most of “Bowling for Votes,” and then the episode essentially handed her a “get out of jail free” card in the form of Derek’s sudden “sexism.”
Here’s what should happen if your campaign manager punches someone in the face at a campaign event: you fucking fire his ass. You don’t get up in front of the press and say that it was “awesome.” You don’t use the opportunity to complain about the use of gendered insults. It doesn’t matter whether you were called a “bitch,” a “twat,” a “cunt,” or a “dick-infested man mattress.”1 In real life, if you do what Leslie did at her press conference, your campaign is over. Heck, your entire political career might be over. You can’t transform a campaign gaffe into a “rah rah feminism” triumph. The real world doesn’t work that way.
At the risk of getting controversial, I mentioned feminism because the way in which a feminist issue was weaved into this episode was clumsy and did a disservice to the serious examination of that issue. Gendered insults are a sensitive topic for many people, and though it would be hypocritical of me (and my potty mouth) to condemn their use, I think that more TV shows could stand to take a good look at how people employ language. But it’s an issue that has to to be given proper weight. It can’t just be tacked on to the plot in order to make a character look like a total jerk.2 The brief moments where Leslie wondered if people weren’t supporting her candidacy because she’s a woman confused me because no character had hitherto expressed any sexist sentiments about Leslie’s campaign. It turned out that those moments had been inelegantly tossed into the episode in order to set up the ridiculous press conference scene where Leslie got to condemn the use of the word “bitch.”
Here’s the problem: until the press conference scene, it seemed as if Parks and Recreation was telling a much better, albeit badly executed, story. It would have been a valuable lesson for Leslie to learn that not everyone will like her, and she shouldn’t waste her time trying to make every individual think positively of her. But as the episode played out, it felt as if the show was trying to say, “Anybody who doesn’t support Leslie’s campaign must be a sexist jackass.” Derek couldn’t just be an irritable guy with a personality that didn’t mesh with Leslie’s; he had to be a dillweed who overused gendered insults. Moreover, this supposed sexism was thrown in at the last second – for most of the episode, Derek just seemed like a regular, if slightly ill-tempered, guy – and I can’t see why this was done other than to give an excuse for Leslie to spout a positive feminist message at the press conference.
In case you didn’t notice, this fucking pisses me off. And before you jump down my throat, read these words carefully: I AM NOT A RAGING SEXIST. I’m pissed off because “Bowling for Votes” didn’t earn the right to speak that message. It didn’t lay the groundwork to do so. It didn’t provide a fair or nuanced look at gendered insults. It didn’t provide anything but the most cursory look at the issue. It just said, “Derek’s a horrible human being, because Derek called Leslie a ‘bitch,’ and calling someone a bitch is WRONG.” I’m not disputing that calling someone a bitch, in most contexts, is wrong. But you know what else is wrong? Punching someone in the face. You know what’s even more wrong? Saying that the punch was awesome and using feminism as an excuse for it. I’m sorry, but that’s not feminism. That’s just pure asshattery. Leslie and Ben could have taken the moral high ground and said, “Look, your use of the word ‘bitch’ offends me, and I’d like you to refrain from using it.” There. Done. Simple.
But instead, “Bowling for Votes” wanted me to cheer for that asshattery. Here’s the problem, though: one can’t hide one’s bad actions (including punching other people) behind a veil of supposed feminism. That’s as dumb as saying that any mistakes that Barack Obama has made as President of the United States don’t matter because he’s black and his actions represent a victory for black people. In this episode, feminism was reduced to a mere tool, a way of deflecting from the issue of whether or not Leslie could appeal to all voters, completely ignoring the fact that Leslie had been rude to Derek and that her immaturity and her inability to see the forest for the trees would likely make her a terrible politician undeserving of a seat on city council. And that, I’m sad to say, was an affront to both feminism and intelligent thought. It was a cheap, underhanded, manipulative way of invoking the audience’s instinctual reaction to gender issues (“A sexist? BURN HIM.”) I thought that Parks and Recreation’s writers were above pulling something like this. I guess I was wrong.
Okay. Rant over. On to other aspects of this episode.
Before the episode’s startlingly awful conclusion, “Bowling for Votes” was, on average, a pleasant episode of Parks and Recreation. In case it wasn’t clear from the rest of this review, the A-plot involving Leslie and Ben was a disaster, although I did enjoy the running gag of Derek thinking that Ben worked at the bowling alley.
On the other hand, the B-plots were stellar. One was wacky, but still a lot of fun, and the other hit that perfect mixture of sweetness and silliness that the show achieves when it’s at its best. The wacky plot involved Tom beating Ron at bowling by using granny shots, and it was fun to see Ron’s horror at getting his ass kicked by a two-handed bowler. The end tag, with Ron bowling in secret using Tom’s technique, was pure perfection. Unfortunately, Aziz Ansari’s performance when Tom stubbed his fingers veered way too far into hammy territory, and it didn’t fit with the show’s vibe. But that’s a minor complaint compared to how much joy this plot line brought me.
The sweet B-plot revolved around Millicent dumping Chris, and not only did it give us a lot of laughs, but it also provided a nice moment of character growth for April. As sullen as she can be, she’s still a good person at heart, and it makes sense that she’d feel bad about wishing unhappiness upon Chris. Aubrey Plaza was fantastic in the scene where April comforted Chris after the break-up, showing genuine concern, but never letting her character lose her “April-ness,” for lack of a better word. And before I forget, I should mention that this plot contained a brief appearance by Champion. Yay for 3-legged dogs!
I guess it’s comforting that even though the election storyline has largely been a failure, the rest of the show is working more or less as it should. But I can’t help but feel as if Parks and Recreation would be better off in every respect if it just backed off the from the election. Heck, at this stage, I’d be happy if Leslie simply pulled out of the election without explanation. Then, the show could go back to doing what it does best: concentrating on Pawnee and the parks department, not a political campaign with which it is ill-equipped to deal. The show wants me to support Leslie, even as she becomes less and less like someone I’d want to support. I don’t want to want to root for the Leslie Knope who can’t run a campaign, who immaturely expects everyone to like her, who disrespectfully and glibly uses feminist issues to defend her boyfriend’s inexcusable actions. I want to root for the Leslie Knope who got Freddy Spaghetti to perform at a town concert, who organized the wildly successful Harvest Festival, who gave Lil’ Sebastian the memorial he deserved. That’s the Leslie Knope I’d vote for. This current version of Leslie? Sorry, but I’m with Derek on this. I don’t like her.