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Parks and Recreation Review: "Are You Better Off?" (Episode 5.22)

TV Reviews Parks and Recreation
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<em>Parks and Recreation</em> Review: "Are You Better Off?" (Episode 5.22)

It’s been an excellent season of Parks and Recreation, more varied than any that came before it, and despite a mounting episode count Parks doesn’t even seem close to running out of steam. One of its most impressive features has actually been the way Parks seems to identify areas of itself that are becoming problems—characters becoming too broad, plot repetition—and excise them before it makes the show any less enjoyable. The novelty of having such a wacky cast of characters has long subsided, but in every case the show’s writers and actors have done their best to give them depth. It may no longer be surprising to hear Ron go off on a subject, but right now it’s no less satisfying.

The season has had a particularly strange structure, in that what would be the peak for almost any show, a wedding between two of its main characters, came midway through the season. Some people have said that Parks has seemed somewhat directionless since then, but I would argue that this has in no way affected the quality of its episodes. Actually, I would have been somewhat annoyed if the moment Leslie and Ben were married, the show began a new dramatic storyline, because it would have seemed so fake. Instead, the show has returned for its last run of episodes to the low-key, low-stakes world that it began with. Not many of these episodes have had the blockbuster set pieces that Parks occasionally features, but they’ve been witty and strong and completely enjoyable.

That being said, the season finale “Are You Better Off?” ties together all of these otherwise loosely connected episodes and shows that they were serving a larger purpose. Most of the time, Pawnee’s chorus of morons is annoying but largely benign, ready to voice their inane opinions and then let the city’s government go about its work. However, after a year in city council, Leslie wants to gloat a bit about her accomplishments and opens up a forum for listening to what Pawneeans thought of the last year. Of course, when it comes to open forums, those who don’t care don’t show up, and it’s the few bearing grudges who make the loudest noises. Every person who ended up affected “negatively” by Leslie in the last year arrives, and it isn’t long before they begin a campaign to recall Leslie.

This storyline is slightly contrived, but nonetheless exciting and a new place for Parks to travel. One of its themes has been the way, so long as a person like Leslie is working behind the scenes, progress does get made. The show’s government actively helps people… but even so, it can’t help everyone. People with terrible, sometimes bigoted ideas get disenfranchised too, and even though it’s for the betterment of society, that doesn’t mean they’re not people too. For a season finale it’s perfect, reflecting on what’s come before and telling us what the show’s next season will be about.

The rest of the episode is also unsurprisingly focused on setting up next season. Everyone’s favorite FBI agent, Bert Macklin, returns when there’s a case too good for him to pass up. A discarded positive pregnancy test was found, and there’s only a few possible suspects. It’s a great storyline, not just because Macklin is always amazing but also because it’s genuinely suspenseful. With the exception of Retta, it seems possible at this point that any of the other women on the show could be pregnant, and Parks does its best to hint that this will be Jean Ralphio’s sister Mona Lisa up until the surprise reveal.

Meanwhile, Tom is contacted by a lawyer about selling the rights to his surprisingly successful clothing rental store, and he takes this up with his investors. While small, the interesting part of how this story is that it brings some realism back into Tom’s world. Prior to his current store, every scheme he tried (particularly those involving Jean Ralphio) had no chance at succeeding. This time, he succeeded too easily, and in the next season it looks like he’ll actually have to fight for the store.

There’s even one more big reveal, which is that April will be headed off to veterinary school, which doesn’t come as a surprise character-wise, but is an interesting choice nonetheless because of how crazily diffused the show’s cast is becoming. More of Parks’ main characters are outside the Parks Department than in it, and while this seems natural considering what’s been on the air, I’ll be interested to see how well the show will pull this juggling act.

It was a very strong end of the season, and one that truly whets our appetites for more episodes. Unfortunately Parks is yet to be renewed, but Michael Schur has said that he’s confident that it will be picked up, and this is readily apparent. After Parks got into its groove in season two, the show hasn’t stayed still, and its characters have grown further away from its original status quo. One of the joys of the show has been watching the situations and characters change, and the way this has imbued them with such an inner life—almost no other show would allow its characters to make the choices we’ve seen on Parks because it’s so far away from any comfort zone, requiring its writers to remake its “normal” again and again. All of this has been what’s made Parks so great, and with season five ending on such a high note, I’m already anxious to see where the show takes its characters next fall.

Stray observations:
•”City Hall is run by the walrus mafia.” – If only.
•”Together, we lost a weight equivalent to 100 pregnant manatees.”
•”This feels strangely personal. Maybe because they’re all standing up saying how much they hate me. As a person.”
•”This case just remained interesting.” – If Parks ever has a spin-off, I hope it will be an extremely low-budget Bert Macklin show.