In my reviews, I talk a lot about the notion of “setup,” which is admittedly somewhat of a vague, nebulous concept. However, it’s also a crucial one, so it’s important that we at least have an idea of what we’re talking about. In general terms, “setup” refers to creating a logical progression of story from one episode to another. That’s not to say that stories in serialized TV shows can’t arise from outside the main narrative; in fact, series that attempt to generate all plots endogenously can exhibit a weird kind of insularity, creating an artificial environment in which nothing seems to exist beyond the show’s narrow borders. (More on that later.) Rather, “setup” implies that whatever happens on the show should make sense given the context, i.e. the sum total of everything that happened previously.
If this all seems like a bunch of pretentious, semi-academic rambling, that’s because it is. It’s an attempt to rationalize my complex feelings about “The Debate,” an episode of Parks and Recreation that should have been a triumph. A season ago, I would have been slobbering all over an episode like this one. I mean, given that it was written and directed by series star Amy Poehler, giving it anything less than the highest praise almost feels, for lack of a better word, wrong. I wanted to love “The Debate,” but instead of unabashed adoration, I came away feeling tepid enjoyment. How come? After a bit of reflection, I think it has something to do with that all-important concept of “setup.”
“The Debate” is about our characters engaging in confrontations that have long been brewing. Leslie (and Ben) finally confront Bobby (and Barkley) in a public debate. Chris finally confronts his feelings for Ann. Tom finally confronts his own immaturity regarding his relationship with Ann. (And Ron finally confronts a telephone pole, I guess…) Because of this, it relies to a large extent on what happened previously on the show.
As I’ve been saying for a while, Parks and Recreation has done some fantastic character work with Chris this season, putting him in a depressive state and forcing him to take a careful look at the roots of his positivity. We’ve seen everything that led to his decision to try to resume his relationship with Ann, so when he finally asked her, it made sense. On the other hand, Parks and Recreation hasn’t done fantastic work with the Tom/Ann relationship or with Leslie’s campaign. Tom and Ann’s relationship has been presented as a joke, or even worse, an unimaginative thing for these two characters to do because the writers can’t think of any other use for them. So when Tom began treating his former relationship with Ann as something meaningful that he truly cared about, I had trouble buying in to the concept. It didn’t make sense given the context of everything we’ve seen of Tom and Ann together.
Similarly, Leslie’s campaign has been a string of gaffes, faux pas, contretemps, and mainly unearned successes. She’s simply not a good politician. (And as she demonstrated last week, she apparently doesn’t understand how budgets work either.) That Leslie is now at “30% support” rang false with me. We haven’t seen her slowly converting people to her side. We’ve mainly seen her campaign failures. And this isn’t just a silly nitpick; it’s the context for the episode: Leslie is statistically behind Newport, but the debate could tip the scales in her favour. It’s different from Leslie being in a distant second or being neck-and-neck with Newport; it gives the episode a very specific kind of tension – not “Can Leslie beat the odds?” or “Can Leslie pull ahead?”, but “Can Leslie pull it off?”
And just as you’d expect, Leslie does pull it off, but this time, without a last-minute ass-pull. She makes an impassioned, honest speech about why the Newports’ threat to move Sweetums to Mexico in case Bobby loses the election angers her, and it sways the crowd to her side. It really is a great speech, impeccably performed by Amy Poehler, and it feels genuinely earned given Leslie’s long history with Pawnee. At the same time, though, it’s odd that the big moment in this debate comes not from a candidate’s feelings on a particular political issue, but from a candidate’s feelings on another candidate. It speaks to the notion that Parks and Recreation is a “character-based” sitcom (whatever that’s supposed to mean), but it also speaks to how empty and shallow the election storyline has been. It still feels weird to me how staunchly apolitical the show has remained throughout a storyline about an election campaign. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and it can even be a good thing, insofar as it doesn’t run the risk of angering any portion of the viewership with political controversy. However, it has necessitated that the show avoid confronting any real political issues. Thus, the big issue of the debate comes from inside the narrative: Barkley cooks up a plan to turn the tide in favour of Bobby, and it backfires. For the viewer, the end result is the weird kind of insularity that I mentioned earlier. The election seems to be about Leslie and Bobby more than it is about Pawnee itself, which makes the whole exercise feel shallow. I should want Leslie to win the election for the sake of Pawnee, not for her own sake.
Still, even if the episode felt shallow and too reliant on unearned moments, I can’t deny that it was entertaining. Lots of humour came from the debate itself, with Leslie facing off in the debate not only against Bobby Newport, but also a gun nut, an animal lover, and everyone’s favourite porn star, Brandi Maxxxx, all of them fielding questions from the always-funny Joan Callamezzo and Perd Hapley at his Hapley-est. The C-plot about the donors’ party at Andy and April’s house was slight but amusing, and it featured plenty of great moments. Andy acting out scenes from famous movies was a surprisingly good running gag, and for some odd reason, I really got a kick out of April pretending to be a high society wife.
But in the end, “The Debate” was merely a good installment of Parks and Recreation, not a great one. It had all the elements of a fantastic episode – a bunch of laughs, a rousing speech, characters confronting their emotions – but too much of it was reliant on a setup that never quite happened. “The Debate” very nearly soars…until you remember that the previous dozen episodes never got off the ground in the first place.