We can’t help it. We are biologically programmed to fall prey to the holiday episode: The gang banding together in the final act. Someone learning the true meaning of love/family/friendship. A gingerbread house of wonder. But Thursday’s installment of Parks and Recreation, “Citizen Knope,” wasn’t just Christmas-y confection; the cockles of our hearts were genuinely warmed by an episode that demonstrated the strength of the series: It managed to pull emotional strings that aren’t supposed to stretch into the world of sitcoms. We didn’t just laugh mightily — we bought into this magically ho-hum Indiana town that is populated with Marshmallow Ron Swansons and seasoned with salgar. That’s a perfect metaphor for Parks: one part salty naughtiness, one part sugary goodness — the sweet and the sass, as we’ve talked about.
The last episode of 2011 opened with Leslie Knope kicking back on a Costa Rican beach, embracing her two-week suspens — No, it did not. Of course it did not. There was Leslie, sneaking back into her office, Sydney Bristow-ing her files onto a flash drive when Chris busted her. After a throw-me-the-idol-give-me-the-whip moment with the flash drive and a nasal spray, she double-crossed Chris and sprinted away. But offscreen, she was likely no match for the Traegerbot, who yelled after her that he was clad in BumbleFlex, a bee-based cutting-edge running apparel.
Leslie wasn’t shut down just by her Parks boss but also by campaign advisers William and Elizabeth (Jewish? No. Heterosexual? Stay tuned.) They instructed her to sit tight, take a beat, and relax while they waited for the results of a poll that would indicate how her relationship scandal had impacted voters. Leslie? Sit tight? There’s a better chance of Zorp melting our faces next fall. She quickly formed a citizen actions group — the Parks Committee of Pawnee, or PCP, because, as she noted “like the drug PCP we are so fast acting and powerful, we should be legal.” Helplessly addicted to helping people — and echoing the Friday Night Lights mantra “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” — Leslie was now on the other side of the town meeting room, the crazy woman prattling on about broken drinking fountains and such. At a forum about rec center improvements run by Jerry and Donna, Leslie started reading off an alphabetical list of demands (too many ants in the teen center!) and lost herself in her cause: “The fact that Yahtzee is not in the rec center is a tragedy on par with human trafficking. (pause) Slight exaggeration.” She also called for her minions to flood Chris with phone calls, protest along his jogging route, stake out all the area GNCs: “There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives,” she said in typical manic mode.
Next, our concerned citizen/community leader barged into Chris’ office with PCP’s demands, and he politely told her to end the madness. (When Chris is telling you the tone it down, you’ve got issues.) Leslie was on a mission here, but she was still Leslie: She warned him to prepare for battle, then gave him his Christmas gift, a nifty Bluetooth stopwatch. He joyously hugged her and thanked her, to which she cheerily said: “My pleasure!” before sneering: “See you in hell.” But a different hell awaited Leslie: William and Elizabeth informed her that her poll numbers, hovering around 26 percent pre-scandal, had plummeted to 1 percent. “You’re looking at the glass like it’s 99 percent empty,” Leslie told them. “I’m looking at it like it’s one percent full, you know, the last delicious sip of a milkshake at the bottom of the metal milkshakey thing.” But she had lost them, and not just because she accused a straight man and a gay woman of having an affair. The town was too small, the scandal damage too great. “I’m sorry, Leslie, you were a great candidate, but it’s over,” William told her, leaving her 99 percent devastated. As she’d glumly tell Ann, she could return to a great Parks gig that she loved, but her “heart was really set on this new job.”
Next: Do they call Ben the Swiss Army accountant? No, they don’t.Speaking of new jobs, Ben kinda needed one, given that he “resigned in disgrace,” a phrase he repeated one too many times. In his first interview, for a job as an in-house accountant at an accounting firm (cue a thousand snores), he was complimented on his ability to handle financial analysis, automated general ledger accounting systems, and audit management. ‘Well, they call me the Swiss army accountant,” he responded before adding: “They don’t call me that.’” A worse joke, the farewell “calculator” line, positively tickled his nerdy interviewer. “We do not get a lot of humor here,” Barney said between guffaws, “and when we do, it’s wonderful.” I’ve never felt so sad for Ben.
Over a sugar pasta dinner, Leslie could tell that Ben didn’t want this job; it paid well, but the commute and carpeting sucked. She told him to take a month to see what else was out there. Turns out, what was out there was Dennis Feinstein (The League’s Jason Mantzoukas), last season’s cologne king. His twisted showmanship – picture Jean-Ralphio’s more malevolent, less libidoed uncle — was a treat to watch: He interviewed Ben while the current CFO sat shamefully in a chair on the side of the room. “Don’t talk to Eddie,” instructed Dennis. “Treat him like you would treat a person in another country that you paid $25,000 to hunt.” (Holy crap this guy.) Ben wisely bailed. Maybe he was better off crunching numbers and staring at some crappy carpet.
But then he ran into… Jean-Ralphio, who had just gotten a Brazilian (!) from a woman named Kim (“When she rips it off, she smiles and it make you feel things”) and was brimming with advice. He didn’t think Ben should count those beans. “Let me get this straight, you would be an accountant… for accountants? So at this accounting firm, you would have the boring job?” He advised Ben to follow his passions, like “model trains or toy Gandalfs.” Referencing the wise Kim, he said: “She told me, ‘If you don’t love what you do, then why do it?’ Then she ripped the hair from my b-hole.’” A Jean-Ralphio/Ben exchange is always guaranteed funny, but JR was banging out the bon mots tonight. (And he wasn’t done. He truly moved at the speed of douche in that final scene before getting fired by Barney and showing himself the door from which he just entered.)
While Leslie was out activating her activist side, her presence at the office could still be felt. In the form of her presents, which were handed out by Ann. Everyone ready to shine for a moment? For Andy, a Mouse Rat certified gold album. (Over 100 copies sold in Pawnee!) For Donna — who looked like she was in Treat Yo Self bliss — a personalized leopard-print robe with pink feather cuffs, with “You Can Get It” printed on the back in rhinestones. For Tom, a watch and a tiny throne, with the inscription “Baller Time.” For April — and the awesomeness of this really cannot be expressed in print — a painting that depicted her triumphing violently over the Black Eyed Peas. (April: “These are the Black Eyed Peas and I finally killed them. It’s a Christmas miracle.”) For Ron, an automatic double-door closer that moved him to tears. For Jerry? Socks. (And that he was pleased with this gift made that moment all the merrier.)
Next: Leslie trades PCP for LSDRon stated the obvious: They needed to do something for Leslie to erase the “enormous emotional debt that is built up over the years of this gift-giving imbalance.” Tom provided a word cloud generated by Leslie’s emails for inspiration. Ron suggested they build a small model of the parks department, but the room preferred Ann’s suggestion of a gingerbread version of the office. (You’re both wrong! She’d want a waffle version!) Everyone pitched in, from April’s Marshmallow Ron Swanson (“His arms are crossed because he’s mad at all the other marshmallow workers for annoying him. Do you like it?”) to white-chocolate-stereotype-defying Tom and his $55-a-pound-so-don’t-eat-it fudge to Donna’s made-out-of-poisonous-silver-spray-painted-M&Ms-so don’t-eat-it desk (Andy! Go throw up!). And how great to see Ron lose his cool over a construction project: “I can handcraft 17-foot canoes out of western red cedar,” he scowled, “but I can’t glue two damn graham crackers together.” Andy, a master of eating and playing with candy, came to his rescue.
The sweet end of the story arrived after Leslie met Chris again in his office. He apologized that the ethics trial had mucked up her campaign. “I’m the one that needs to apologize,” Leslie responded, “I got you involved in PCP.” And then she gave him a hit of LSD: Leslie’s Sorry Division. As her Christmas present, Chris lifted her suspension. She could return to work! On her way out, she found Ben waiting for her; he turned down the accounting job because it didn’t feel right. No worries, he’d figure it out. She asked him to walk into the office party with her, but he kissed her and told her knowingly, “Actually, I think you should go in alone.”
In the office, Ann & Co. presented her with the gingerbread replica of the parks department. You all made this together, she asked? “Except for me,” Ron said. “Turns out I cannot make a gingerbread house, which would bother me if I were an eight-year-old girl.” He revealed his contribution: A replica of the city council chambers with her sitting in it. “That’s you next May,” he said, as a sign “LESLIE KNOPE for City Council” unfurled RIGHT IN FRONT OF JERRY. Her campaign advisers quit, and she might have been polling at last milkshake sip levels, but who cares? She had a new team, the members of which announced themselves one after the other, like a bunch of superheroes joining forces:
April Ludgate: Youth outreach and director of new media
Tom Haverford: Image consultant and swagger coach
Ann Perkins: Office manager and volunteer coordinator
Andy Dwyer: Security, sweets, body man, javelin, if need be
Donna Meagle: Transpo, a.k.a. rides in her Benz
Jerry Gergich: “You guys didn’t tell me we were doing this. I did not know that I was supposed to come up with something.”
And then came the final one to hit us in the tear ducts:
Ron Swanson: Any other damn thing you might need.
Leslie protested, insisting she couldn’t ask everyone to put their life on hold. “Find one person who you haven’t helped by putting your life on hold,” retorted Ron. She continued to object, until Ron said: “Knope. Shut your damn mouth and for once in your life, let your friends help you.” And so she did. As she explained to the camera: “Giving Christmas gifts is like a sport to me, finding or making that perfect something. It’s also like a sport to me because I always win. This year, though, my friends won. In fact, I got my ass handed to me.”
Ah, an ending teeming with the right amount of salgar. My only complaint? Where was Ben in that final moment? It felt strange not having him there with everyone else (hell, even Chris popped in to celebrate), and there was an obvious opportunity for the unemployed guy, who was looking for the right job to be passionate about, to take control of her campaign. We’ll have to wait a month to find out what the show is plotting, but in the meantime, consider our comedy stockings stuffed.
What was your take on “Citizen Knope”?