Well, that was a relief.

For most of this season, I’ve been, to put it charitably, less than impressed with the election storyline, but I was clinging to the belief that Parks and Recreation still had strong fundamentals. “Operation Ann” confirmed that my faith wasn’t baseless by putting the election storyline on the backburner, resulting in an outing that was sweet, funny, and a little romantic.

As this season of Parks has concentrated more and more on the election storyline, it has moved farther and farther away from the seamless ensemble format that was once its bread and butter. What once seemed like a set of stories about a large group of coworkers essentially became The Leslie Knope Show. As fantastically talented as Amy Poehler is, the show’s singular focus on her character required that Leslie’s level of competence be dropped in order to generate conflict or challenge, which just ended up making Leslie seem annoying.

In “Operation Ann,” Parks went back to basics, choosing to spread its focus out over the entire ensemble and letting Leslie be the anchor of (relative) sanity at the centre of it all. Leslie is somewhat of a wacky character, to be sure, but the show works best when her wackiness manifests itself in adorably harmless or even helpful ways, like the scavenger hunt she set up for Ben or her attempts to get Ann a date. This is the Leslie Knope I know and love, and this is the Leslie Knope I hope to see for the remainder of the season.

There’s something to be said for simplicity in comedy. While Parks and Recreation’s ambition has led to some wonderful episodes, such as “Harvest Festival” and “Christmas Scandal,” sometimes the show has done well by scaling back to a more personal level and letting a bunch of sweet, funny people be sweet and funny. “Operation Ann” did just that. It played loose with its plot threads, never really settling down to focus on any one of them, flowing seamlessly from one part to the next. There was nothing jarring about jumping from Ron’s glee at the scavenger hunt to Chris’s morose DJing, to Ann’s secret date with Tom. There were no grand statements about love or friendship, just a bunch of well-written overlapping storylines about Valentine’s Day. (Every Love Actually rip-off ever, please take note!)

The funny thing is, by the end of the episode, we hadn’t really gotten anywhere in terms of advancing continuing plot lines. Tom and Ann may or may not start something – I’m leaning towards ‘not’ – and Chris is still cut up over being dumped by Millicent. But I felt as if I’d gotten to know our characters better: Ron likes riddles; Tom and April are sweeter than they let on; Chris doesn’t deal with sadness very well. Just letting our favourite characters bounce off each other is one of the best ways to discover more about them. They don’t need to be worrying about breaking dating rules or vying for a seat on city council. Sometimes, low stakes and simplicity are just fine. In fact, they can be more than fine. Sometimes, they’re just perfect.

All in all, “Operation Ann” was a gem of an episode for Parks and Recreation and, hopefully, a return to form. Going back to basics may be the key to putting this season back on track, and if that means just letting our characters be sweet and funny, then so be it.

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