We talk a lot here about how good Parks and Recreation is. In fact, we’ve been calling it network TV’s best comedy for years. To go a little farther, I’d compare seasons two and up to seasons four through eight of The Simpsons in terms of the best runs ever. And with Parks and Rec, you can pick out the exact episode where it happened – September 24, 2009. Season Two, Episode Two, “The Stakeout”.
It isn’t the best episode of the season. I mean, come on. “94 Meetings” exists. “Woman of the Year” happened. But it’s the episode where Parks went from being a funny show with an excellent cast to being The Best. This isn’t hindsight, either – you could feel it when the episode aired. I checked my emails from that week and found conversations with several different people about how great that episode was. (Yeah, I email multiple people every week about the things I liked on TV.) Even at the time, it felt like the people behind Parks made a conscious choice to be the best right then and there.
The first season of Parks was fine. It was a funny, Office-Lite comedy. It was full of people we wanted to see on a show (Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones) and a couple of breakout performances from people who weren’t familiar yet (Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt). It was a good show, not a capital-G Great show. The creators have discussed in the past how they realized, after Season One, that they had to tweak the way people reacted to Leslie Knope. By making it clear that her co-workers cared about her and were impressed by her, that relentless optimism went from crazy to inspirational, and that’s where the show found its voice. The second season premiere, about a gay penguin wedding, established the new tone and represented a significant improvement. That set the stage for “The Stakeout”.
The main plot had Leslie and Tom discovering marijuana in the community garden they’d set up in the pit. (Remember when the pit was the driving force behind almost every episode?) And since the pit is right next to Ann’s house, Leslie sees her new best friend leave on a date with her crush, Mark. (He used to be in the opening credits and everything!) Leslie realizes that Andy is living in the pit and takes him to get some food. Tom locks himself out of the van, Ann and Mark call the cops when they see a guy trying to break into a van. Officer Dave (Louis C.K.!) arrests Tom and Leslie has to bail him out and raise a fuss along the way.
Meanwhile, Ron Swanson has a hernia that prevents him from moving his head or torso. This is amazing.
I watched it again just now and it’s a really funny episode. Easily the best thing they’d done up to that point. But aside from that, you can see the beginnings of the show that Parks became. For example, you have the fact that Ann and Mark went on a date and Leslie dealt with it. Sitcom logic would say that those two could never go out because that would hurt Leslie so they’d have unresolved sexual tension until sweeps. Parks and Rec let the characters be adults and work things out. We saw it time and time again – Leslie and Ben couldn’t date because of the local government’s fraternization policies, so instead of letting it simmer or sneaking around, they figured out a way to resolve it. It made them feel more real than the traditional sitcom characters trapped in an eternal status quo.
We also got to see Leslie win. Season One Leslie was almost a female Michael Scott, but when she went to the police station to get Tom, she made it an issue. She fought, and it was effective. It was the tiniest victory, since Tom hadn’t done anything wrong and would have been released soon anyway, but it was still a victory. Leslie didn’t get to win in Season One. This episode redefined her – she wasn’t hapless or overmatched. She’s good at what she does. She’s a powerful personality, and she can make things happen.
Thus, Parks and Rec didn’t turn out to be a show about people trapped in low-level government jobs. It was a show about people who made things better. It’s a show about optimism and enthusiasm, and why those things are admirable. Here, in the final season, just about all of the characters have made things in their world better just by working hard and caring. But you can lose sight of that just because it’s so funny. It’s not a show that beats messages into your head, it’s a show full of great characters and perfect jokes that just happens to take pleasure in optimism.
Of course, there was no way to know at the time that this would be Parks and Rec‘s mission statement. At the time, it was just incredibly funny. Andy scheduling a rock fight with a homeless guy, Leslie’s stakeout mix tape, a hilarious appearance from Louis C.K. just before Louie changed everything for him. And then there’s Ron’s plot. It’s this amazing and weird little story where he can’t move but won’t tell anybody. The way Nick Offerman just doesn’t move during his talking head segments is so funny. Every line he delivers is a deadpan masterpiece. His interactions with April are sweet in the least sweet way possible, too. Their relationship was born in this episode.
And I’ll be honest with you – that one moment where Ron tries to flip a hamburger at his face and catch it in his mouth is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. That scene should replace Lucy stomping grapes whenever they show one of those montages of TV’s funniest moments.
If you haven’t seen it lately, check out “The Stakeout” again. Five and a half years later, it still feels very current. Other than a few missing characters and some evolved relationships, it could have aired last season. That’s how thoroughly it establishes Parks‘ voice.