One of the joys of Parks and Recreation has been watching the show grow its universe. It’s come in the form of the Pawnee townsfolk’s recurring characters like Perd and Joan, but also from the way its main charcters’ backstories have appeared so organically out of their personalities. When a Tammy arrives, you know pretty much what to expect because it’s really the only thing that makes sense for Ron; likewise of course Leslie has a very strong mother who she sometimes clashes with because Leslie herself is so strong. “Ben’s Parents” is all about backstory, and it adds on to what we know about Ben so perfectly that it almost felt like a documentary rather than a tightly written sitcom.
We’ve known the broad outline of Ben’s life almost since he showed up, but how he ended up the mayor of ice town is something the show hadn’t really explored. His childhood seems to have been miserable, and as a result he became the incredibly overachieving adult we all know and love. But bringing together his parents is a perfect storm, and all of them (including Ulani) are completely horrible to each other, and far more concerned with this than they are about Ben. Leslie tries to patch things up, literally, with a unity quilt, which doesn’t go over well because she didn’t put the now-pregnant Ulani on it, though it would’ve gone no better had she done so. This little bind is the perfect metaphor for Ben’s childhood, and it’s impossible not to feel for him throughout the entire episode. But Ben’s now a grown-up, and with Leslie’s support he’s able to finally stand up to his parents and convince them to behave civilly.
Ben was of course added to Parks and Recreation at the same time as Chris, whose backstory is a bit clouded but we now understand meant repressing everything into a big happy smile and then working harder to overcome it. Chris and Ben’s friendship has always made sense because they’re both hard workers who need to neurotically do well at their jobs. We don’t know if Chris’s issues stem from his childhood, too, but we know that therapy has been hard on him, and it takes Andy and April’s support to get him out of his present funk. What I liked so much about Chris this episode was that the therapy that he began earlier this season wasn’t a silver bullet that immediately got him past his problems. That’s the sitcom way out of a problem, and while I understand there’s some irritation with the way this story for him has been dragging on, it’s also because it’s not something with an easy solution. Plus, more of Champion; who doesn’t love Champion?
And then we have Tom’s plot, in which he needs to get an investment from Ron in order to start Rent-a-Swag. The only problem is, as always he’s partnered with Jean-Ralphio, whose flamboyant slackery is exactly the type of thing Ron hates. But this story isn’t really about Rent-a-Swag, it’s about Tom asking himself whether he wants to be another Jean-Ralphio his entire life, or if he wants to move forward and perhaps succeed at something other than getting thrown out of a club. He makes the smart but difficult choice, but it also makes us ask where Tom would be now if he’d never met Jean-Ralphio in the first place. He’s smart and ambitious enough that it seems like he could’ve been a real business success by now if he wasn’t being dragged down by Jean-Ralphio’s dead weight for so many years. Unlike Entertainment 720, Rent-a-Swag seems like it stands a chance, even if Pawnee is an unlikely city for something like that to take off from.
After last week’s spectacular episode, “Ben’s Parents” might feel like a bit of a letdown—it’s hard to compete with a finale like that. But all three stories here were excellent, balancing humor with pathos in a way that’s become Parks and Recreation’s best trait. It was an episode that made all of these difficult situations into light entertainment without glossing over what made them all so difficult, and that’s something few other shows have ever pulled off so well.
•”We are a Red Vines family.” – As soon as I heard this line, I thought, “uh oh, storm’s a-brewin.”
•”Of all my metaphorical art projects, this is by far the coziest.”
•”You’re all my friends, too.” – “Nah.”
•”Well they’re white people from Minnesota” – Ben’s family lives and dies by their stereotypes.
•I appreciate that this episode highlighted April’s still-present hatred of Ann. Good to know that’s still there.
•”I guess he might become insane as he ages… I should keep an eye out for that.”
•I really couldn’t remember whether we already knew Ron hoarded gold, or if I’ve just been assuming that for years based upon everything else about him.