It almost goes without saying that the main situation in “Doppelgängers” is high concept, and I mean that in the best possible way. Someone in the writers’ room wondered what would happen if our cast was faced with opposite versions of themselves from Eagleton, and if anything the season was built around this. The thing is, it really is a fun idea that pays off wonderfully, and oddly it was the other parts of the episode that didn’t entirely work. The doppelgängers themselves, though, were so entertaining that it almost didn’t matter. Even if each of them was largely one-joke, the joke was consistently well-executed.
One of the great things about these dopplegängers was that, with the exception of Ron’s, the form of each was unpredictable. A lot of time was spent on Tynnifer, who April is happy to tell us is the worst person she has ever met (and a fun person to travel the world with, to boot). This is pretty easy to understand—though it’s perhaps worth noting that Tynnifer’s not all that different from Jean Ralphio and his sister—but it’s not a first guess for April’s opposite. Similarly, Tom’s doppelgänger is a computer program that’s efficient, useful and doesn’t need to talk back or whine in order to do its job. Billy Eichner played Craig, Donna’s Eagleton counterpart, and what I appreciated was that he was just as competent as Donna, only with a completely different attitude about his work. However, just as Donna respects competency and understands that Craig is excellent at his job, Craig respects Donna as well. And then the pair bond over Scandal.
The most predictable double was Ron’s, and the great Sam Elliott played his hardcore liberal counterpart. His portrayal was both glorious and frustrating. Few human beings could give Nick Offerman’s masculinity a run for its money, but Sam Elliott does so with aplomb, and the two appreciate each other’s lack of bullshit. What’s frustrating, though, is that Parks immediately plays up the irritating parts of his beliefs, and it isn’t long before he’s espousing Meat Is Murder and being frustrated no one knows who Moz is. Yes, Ron does this sort of thing too on occasion, but I would’ve appreciated it if Elliott’s Ron were allowed to have the same level of respect as his counterpart. Like a lot of Parks’ satire of the left, it felt chintzy and hollow, with a series of easy jokes to get the character out of the way by the end of the episode.
It would be wonderful to see any one of these doppelgängers return (even Ann’s), especially because the story surrounding them was mostly off. Early on, Ann tells Leslie that she and Chris are talking about leaving Pawnee for a city less, well, awful. This throws Leslie into hysterics, and she spends the rest of the episode trying to determine who else might abandon her and attempting to get her friends to sign loyalty oaths. By the end of the episode, she’s undergone a change of heart, one that feels perhaps too easy, but in the meantime it’s another episode where Leslie is screwing things up unnecessarily.
In a way, this storyline felt like it would’ve fit well in Parks’ largely dismal first season. That isn’t to say that the show should let Leslie’s negative eccentricities, of which there are many, off the hook, but her overreaction here wasn’t terribly interesting or complex; it was just her flying off the handle and irritating everyone (the audience included). Ron was there to call her on her bullshit by the end of the episode, as usual, and nothing about the story felt inspired.
This was the only part of the episode that didn’t really work, but it was a large part of it. Chris and Ben’s work on the Pawnee budget post-merger was excellent, and it was also nice to really see how the two of them work together. Their friendship has always been oddly moving to me, and while they’re both extreme characters like everyone else on Parks, there’s real pathos in their relationship. It hit all the right notes, while also highlighting how frustrating the Leslie-hysterical-woman-storyline was.
“Doppelgängers” was a hilarious episode because of how fascinating its central premise was, but the laughs came despite the constant stumbling-block of Leslie getting in everyone’s way. It feels like this season of Parks just hasn’t hit its stride yet, and while the characters are as strong as ever, it’s still having trouble figuring out what stories are worth telling. The show definitely needed to show how Leslie dealt with her best friend leaving the show, but highlighting Leslie’s immaturity isn’t always comedy gold. Sometimes it’s just grating.