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Parks and Recreation Review: "The Bubble/Li'l Sebastian" (Episode 3.15)

May 20, 2011  |  3:43pm
<em>Parks and Recreation</em> Review: "The Bubble/Li'l Sebastian" (Episode 3.15)

After a short and shaky first season, Parks and Recreation has established itself as an all-time classic sitcom over the last two years, and for one simple reason: character. Its ensemble of excellently realized characters is as deep as Newsradio’s and Arrested Development’s, with crucial contributions from every regular and too many minor recurring characters to list here. This cast is about as close to perfect as you’ll find on TV, and hopefully they’ll be working together for years to come.

The foundation remains Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. Between the first and second seasons Leslie went from a distaff Michael Scott to a hyper-competent professional whose cheery confidence wanes when it comes to her private life. A cartoon in those early episodes, Leslie has become one of the most relatable and admirable women on television. Her can-do optimism at the heart of the show keeps tired cynicism at bay, even as Parks and Rec regularly mocks the regular joe citizens of Pawnee. Ron Effing Swanson might be the beloved breakout character, the Fonzie of the Parks department, but this is clearly Leslie’s show.

Last night’s hour-long season finale saw Parks and Rec at its best, focusing on character-based comedy while tying together various stories that have run throughout the season. It was a fitting conclusion to a fantastic season, and it found time for almost every major character to have a nice little showcase scene.

The main recurring thread between both of last night’s episodes was the relationship between Leslie and Ben Wyatt, which, after last week, is officially on. Leslie and Ben trying to hide it from their coworkers felt a little too much like tired old sitcom schtick, but they’re such a charming and well-matched pair that it didn’t bother me too much. It also paid off with a few good jokes and directly set up the dramatic peak of the hour, when Ron Swanson’s magnificent mustache was scorched off by the lighter fluid-fueled lighting of Li’l Sebastian’s memorial flame. That’s right, this week Pawnee lost both Li’l Sebastian and the town’s greatest whiskers.

The first episode also provided a deeper look at City Hall’s frightening fourth floor, as city manager Chris Traeger assigned Tom Haverford to a special project in the City Hall archives. Tom hoped to charm the old women that worked up there into doing his job for him, only to become even more frustrated when they saw through his unctuousness. Of course they loved Andy, though.

Pamela Reed doesn’t show up often as Leslie’s frightening mom, but she absolutely kills it every time she does, including in last night’s first episode. From running roughshod over a rattled Ben at the beginning, to aggressively flirting with him during Ben’s extremely brusque follow-up, Reed found that spot where confidence can turn into arrogance and bullying. Leslie’s combo of competence and insecurity makes perfect sense with this woman as her mother. Anybody who remembers the old sitcom Grand knows Reed can be hilarious, and I’m glad she’s found an occasional home on such a well-written show.

The second episode, “Li’l Sebastian,” was a tour de force that expertly wrapped up an excellent season. Parks and Rec is so good at creating vivid and instantly memorable characters that the death of Li’l Sebastian feels like a major event, even though he’s a horse that only ever appeared in one episode earlier this season. The afterparty for Li’l Sebastian’s memorial service ended in a series of moments that set up next season, with Tom leaving the Parks department to join Jean-Ralphio’s destined-to-fail entertainment startup Entertainment720, Chris taking a new interest in Ann after realizing his own mortality, and Ron and his evil ex-wife Tammy #2 both shying away in terror from his unseen (and apparently even more evil) ex-wife Tammy #1.

Also at the end a search committee for potential candidates approached Leslie about maybe running for office in Pawnee. This is what Leslie has obviously aspired to since the very beginning of the show, so it was a surprise that she lied and told them she has nothing to hide about her personal life, knowing full well that she’s breaking Pawnee’s rules by dating a fellow civil employee. We know friends and people are very important to Leslie, but we didn’t know she’d risk her dream to preserve romance.

As Parks and Recreation’s third season winds down, it finds itself in basically the same position as last year. It’s a critically beloved and creatively rich show that very few people watch by network TV standards. Of course overall network viewership decreases every year, and the days of 40 million people tuning in every week to the same TV show are long gone. But fewer people catch Parks and Rec on NBC each week than tune into the USA Network for Monday Night Raw. That’s more depressing than when Vince McMahon bought WCW. Thankfully, NBC will keep renewing the show as long as it stays great.

Stray observations:
- “No, I hate the fourth floor. Last time I was up there I saw someone buy crystal meth out of a vending machine. It’s a bad place!”
- Ron constantly turning away from people who approach him at the new circular desk Chris forced upon him.
- “There’s a whole room in the fourth floor where they store the knives they’ve confiscated from people who went to the fourth floor to stab someone.”
- Leslie’s first mix CD for Ben had five straight Sarah McLachlan songs on it.
- Donna’s frustration with her “spaceship keyboard”
- Leslie unwittingly setting her mom up with Ben
- “The only thing my mom loves more than music boxes is McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy.”
- Leslie’s obsession with avoiding confrontation through overseas travel
- “Do you want to get run over? Because I know a guy.”
- “When I walked in this morning and saw the flag was at half-mast I thought ‘alright, another bureaucrat ate it’. But then I found out it was Li’l Sebastian. Half-mast is too high. Show some damn respect.”
- “Why didn’t you just photoshop that out?”
- Leslie showing Ben how various important women throughout history made out
- “You’re the champion of death.”
- “Hope you brought a change of clothes, because your eyes are about to piss tears”

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