Parks and Recreation has had a lot of weddings throughout the years and they’ve all been pretty major events. That should come as little surprise given the show’s optimism (not a lot of divorces, it’s always happily ever after), but it’s also something the show has used as a punctuation mark to illustrate how far characters have come. While everyone on Parks is still recognizably the same character they were from their first episode (although less so Leslie, given the show’s retooling), almost the entire cast has changed over the seasons. With this in mind, it’s fitting that Donna, the character who has had the least growth on the show, is given a wedding episode that’s barely about her.
“Donna & Joe” (the episode’s title is a good reminder of Keegan-Michael Key’s character’s name—I can’t be the only one who has trouble thinking of him as anything but Keegan-Michael Key) skips us to the end of a relationship we barely knew. Not that life isn’t full of these sorts of weddings, but it still felt like Parks was unintentionally highlighting one of the show’s problem areas rather than really solving it. Donna is, at the end of the episode, still just as much of a mystery as she’s always been. While Parks has certainly tried to give her more room as the show has continued, her life has always been largely off-camera and a bit of a joke. While I love that Ginuwine showed up and gave credence to one of her stories about her family, it’s kind of sad that it was one of the few running jokes about her Parks could even drag up.
So what was the episode about, then? Well yes, there was the wedding, and April spent “Donna & Joe” keeping Donna’s relatives from getting out of control, while Craig in fact runs things. There wasn’t much to this, aside from that pretty wonderful Ginuwine gag and a rather disappointing credit sequence featuring Questlove that feels like it could’ve used a couple more rounds in the writing room. Really, though, the episode was about Ben’s decision to run for congress, which overwhelmed everything else and set the stage for what looks like Parks’ last big story arc.
As far as that story went here, while it was great seeing Ben and Leslie’s children return to the show, most of the material surrounding them was pretty stereotypical. This wasn’t cutting edge comedy, instead we had jokes about the way parents are busy and their children are destructive, which is to say, sit-com staples since time immemorial. But what I had more of a problem with was Parks’ decision to make things about Ben at the end of its run, period.
Let’s get this out of the way: I love Ben. I think he’s a great character, and Adam Scott is a brilliant comedic actor. However—and this is a pretty big however—Parks and Recreation has never been a show about how another handsome white guy succeeds in life and runs for office. As the show ends its run, the focus is taken off Leslie Knope and put onto her husband (and this is even more of a problem given that this begins by stealing the thunder of a black woman’s wedding). Ben would make a great politician, but that’s not what Parks has ever been about. If the show ends its run by focusing on him, with Leslie in just a supporting role and acting as his cheerleader as she does here, I’ll be pretty disappointed. Making Ben’s career the secondary one in their relationship has been one of the boldest things Parks ever did (it shouldn’t be, but that’s how the television landscape is), and I really hope that this final season doesn’t erase that part of their relationship.
Of course, I can’t say for sure that’s the direction the show’s headed, and my hope is that it will surprise me and bring things back to Leslie again. I doubt it, because Parks tends to telegraph its long story arcs pretty clearly, but it could happen. Taken on its own, “Donna & Joe” was a fairly average, or perhaps slightly below average, episode from Parks’ rockiest season since its first. The jokes weren’t hitting quite as accurately as they could have and the wedding ceremony, itself looked like it was pulled from a daytime soap opera. There was still some magic there, like Garry’s name finally coming full circle, but so much of what we saw could’ve been featured on any other sit-com.