Here’s the situation: you’re a sitcom that’s been running for a few years. This season, you’ve experienced a significant dip in quality, throwing most of your weight behind a storyline that hasn’t worked and has often made your central character seem like a hapless idiot. Meanwhile, your other characters are starting to seem caricatured, and you’ve run out of interesting story ideas for them. What do you do to set things right? As the title of this episode suggests, you shake things up.

Earlier in the season, when Bobby Newport was introduced to the show, I feared that the biggest challenge Leslie would face in her campaign would be to convince the town to take off its Sweetums-coloured glasses and see Bobby for what he really is – a whiny, entitled man-boy. The potential problem was that his immaturity was so blatant that anyone with at least six brain cells would be able to recognize it; if Pawneeans couldn’t, that would be speaking very negatively of their intelligence. Parks and Recreation has had to tread a very fine line in making its denizens prone to irrationality, but also making them somewhat likable and human. The show wants us to root for Pawnee, and it would be difficult to root for a town full of people too stupid to see that Bobby had no substance beneath his charming façade.

So, Parks and Recreation wisely brought in Jennifer Barkley (played by the fantastic Kathryn Hahn), a political whiz from Washington, to act as Bobby Newport’s campaign manager, and boy did that shake things up. For the first time this season, the show legitimately dipped its toes into the toxic wading pool of politics, and for the first time this season, the campaign got interesting. Now, Leslie is facing an actual political challenge from someone who has spent years strategizing and pulling strings behind the scenes.

The conceit of this episode was simple: Leslie wanted to earn the endorsement of the head of the Pawnee Seniors Union, so she proposed a campaign to introduce ramps to public buildings. Barkley, in turn, offered the seniors something better: electric wheelchair lifts, earning Bobby Newport the endorsement. The political satire here felt true to life in a way that the rest of the election campaign thus far hasn’t. Senior citizens make up a disproportionately large segment of the electorate, and as such, they hold significant political sway – more so than, say, the massive Somali voting bloc of The Killing‘s version of Seattle. More importantly, “Campaign Shake-Up” illuminated voters’ tendency to value the apparent benefits of a project without considering its cost-effectiveness; Leslie’s ramp plan was clearly superior in its practicality, but Barkley won the voters over with the razzle-dazzle of electric lifts. None of this is earth-shattering or unique satirical material, but it was presented in a rather organic fashion, as a natural extension of the ongoing political campaign saga, quite unlike the “Hey, look! We’re doing a satire!” approach of 30 Rock or latter-day Simpsons.

Barkley’s presence also affected Leslie and Ben on a personal level. Ben has proven himself to be a competent political strategist, but he’s no match for a seasoned veteran like Barkley, and it was interesting to see how powerless he felt in her presence. Leslie also proved to be incapable of outsmarting Barkley’s quick thinking, losing a debate to her on Perd Hapley’s show. My use of the world “outsmarting” is intentional; both Leslie and Barkley were acting smart. Leslie’s ramp plan was smart; Barkley’s lift plan was smarter. When it looked as if Leslie had a political slam dunk when she criticized Bobby Newport for vacationing in Spain during the campaign, Barkley was able to explain it away as a business meeting to bring a factory to Pawnee. For a change, Leslie’s campaign wasn’t facing a roadblock of its own design. Barkley presented a legitimate political and intellectual challenge for Leslie, and I imagine that she’ll continue to do so.

While Barkley is certainly an antagonist, she doesn’t feel like someone that I’d actively want to root against. In fact – and this is largely due to Hahn’s fantastic portrayal – she came across as someone who was just having fun. (Seriously, it can’t be said enough. Kathryn Hahn was great in this role. I’d say she deserves a guest actress Emmy nomination based on this episode alone.) Hahn played Barkley completely straight – no sneering, no condescension, no obvious manipulation – which made Leslie and Ben’s helpless confusion at her supposed trickery all the more delicious. Barkley was playing mind games by being completely sincere. Hilarious stuff.

The B-plot of this episode was slight, but still very well done. The sight gag of people sucking entire drinking fountain spouts into their mouths like giant plastic nipples will always be funny, but this story was also good for both Ann’s and April’s development. Ann got a chance to show to everyone that she could indeed be a leader, while April was able to demonstrate that she can come up with great (if totally obvious) ideas when she applies herself. (Seriously, removing the spout seems like the first thing you’d do in a situation like this.) April taking over more of Leslie’s duties should be a fruitful source of comedy, and this shake-up – see what I did there? – should provide her with more to do than standing around and looking sullen while being stealthily sweet.

Other random thoughts:

  • One of the Pawneeans who put the drinking fountain spout in his mouth was the erstwhile Fernando, an employee of Chuck’s Buy More. I’ve seen the same extra on How I Met Your Mother and a couple of other shows. Boy, he sure gets around in Hollywood.
  • Barkley likes to play chess against herself. Yikes!
  • Apparently, Leslie is pro-landmine. Can I get an ironic “pro-landmine” t-shirt that’s offensive out of context, à la “dickwolves?”
  • Ron got Ann’s entire name right, but then ruined it by later referring to her as “the nurse.”
  • Leslie is weirdly obsessed with Ben’s body. I really don’t want to spend any time inside her brain.
  • Perd Hapley’s full first name is “Perderick.” Tee hee.

Overall, this was a terrific installment of Parks and Recreation that promises to push this season onto a more interesting track. Sometimes, introducing a new character is indeed the best way to shake things up.

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