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'Parks and Recreation' review: Why 'Harvest Festival' got to the heart of this show

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If one episode can sum up why a series is first-rate, Thursday night’s “Harvest Festival” was the one for Parks and Recreation. Which is odd, in a way, because it was an atypical half-hour, taking place primarily outside of the Parks and Rec office where much of the show’s comedic drama usually occurs.

The season had been building to this episode, of course. The Harvest Festival as a fund-raiser to help solve some of Pawnee’s fiscal problems has been Leslie Knope’s challenge and crusade. For the purposes of the show, it’s enabled us to see new sides of Adam Scott’s Ben — his inability to shill for the festival was a terrific notion, turning on the fine comic premise of revealing a handsome, “normal” guy to be an insecure neurotic who’s never gotten over an old trauma (that “teen mayor” thing is going to haunt him until he dies, isn’t it?).

But quite aside from all that “Harvest Festival” accomplished in terms of character and story, there was… Li’l Sebastian!

You cannot underestimate the role that Li’l Sebastian played in making this an episode that deepened our understanding of the characters, the town of Pawnee, and the underlying philosophy of Parks and Recreation. The “mini-horse” Sebastian, age 25, afflicted by cataracts and arthritis, sparked elation among everyone who works with Leslie, even poker-faced April, too-cool Tom, and dour-expression Ron. Everyone’s face lit up (in a different manner, a testament to the great riot of acting styles harnessed on this show) at the sight of the animal. Why?

Ben was our surrogate in this, as he and we initially wondered, what was the big deal about a pony? (It’s not a pony! he kept being told: It’s a mini-horse!) It was because, without condescending to their creations for a second, the Parks and Rec writers let us know that, in some parts of this great land, there are people who aren’t jaded, who are open to wonderment, who find vessels in which to pour their joy. This is what Li’l Sebastian represented to everyone on the show — except Ben, who didn’t get it until he got it; which is to say, until he dropped his defenses and got into the spirit of the Harvest Festival.

“Harvest Festival” placed Parks and Recreation — just renewed for a new season today — squarely in the tradition of great gentle-hearted sitcoms — I’m thinking in particular of The Andy Griffith Show. Like that classic, P&R treats its characters, the dim ones and the wise ones alike, with equal affection, and has relatively little patience for irony and cool detachment. Amy Poehler has transfused her most winning quality (one that she also let blossom on Saturday Night Live) — smiling gusto; cock-eyed optimism — into the life-blood of Parks and Recreation.

The result is one of the most vibrantly alive shows on television.

Twitter: @kentucker

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