With almost the sole exception of Silicon Valley, television shows pretty much never do a good job when it comes to technology. It’s not just that television writers always seem perennially behind the times (well they do, but that’s besides the point), it’s that they tend to write about big issues in the field as if they’re something that can be easily solved by, for instance, a group of passionate friends. That isn’t to say that Parks and Recreation’s entire Gryzzl storyline, both in the current season and the end of the last, was terrible, but it does feel hokey. It feels like your dad’s version of what internet companies are like, both in their aims and in their methods, and so the humor surrounding this company, despite a superb performance by Jorma Taccone as Gryzzl’s VP of Cool New Shiz, is never particularly sharp.
This is a much bigger problem for the first of last night’s episodes, “Gryzzlbox,” which is largely about Pawnee’s reaction to data mining and Amazon.com-style drones. Now, both of these are concerns today, so it’s not completely unreasonable for the show to bring these up. The show wants to talk about internet companies and that’s fine. But the characters aren’t the only one who come off a bit like rubes here (really, Ben doesn’t know the word for a drone?)—it’s also the writers behind the show. There’s a sort of Ron Swanson-esque paranoia about data mining that feels cartoonish and only half-considered, and while a few of the episode’s jokes about this were good (I particularly enjoyed the seating arrangement for the U2/Beyoncé show), overall it felt like a big stretch. Parks’ representation of Gryzzl is less about tech companies and more about the existing portrayal in the media, particularly television, of what tech companies are.
The rest of the episode was split into two stories, both of which were more successful. In one, Craig asks April to speak with his new interns, which she resents because of her somewhat annoying hatred of her job (it’s far and away the most forced storyline of the season). Still, Craig and April have an amazing rapport, so it’s just fun to watch them interact. The best part of the episode, though, was Tom’s decision to take on work as Andy’s agent so as to protect the rights of Johnny Karate. Again, it’s great to see these character bounce off each other, but it was also a great showcase for seeing more of what Andy’s television show is really like. Pretty much everything that Johnny Karate touches is gold, and I hope we get a lot more of this in the rest of the season.
While Gryzzl has been an ongoing problem for this season, a real strength has been the way this short length has really leant itself to great serialization. Every episode has led into the next perfectly, and watching them back to back has made this particularly clear. Tom’s relationship with Lucy, for instance, hasn’t received a ton of screentime in any particular episode until “Save JJ’s,” but giving it a few minutes in the previous episode made it feel so much more important here. In a bit of frankly wonderful fanservice, Tom surprises Donna with a “Treat Yo Self” day in Beverly Hills, but really he’s pining for Lucy back home, and hoping she’ll go with him as a date to Donna’s upcoming wedding. Parks has built this story perfectly, and while Lucy’s return to the show has always been a weird, nutty coincidence that feels wildly unrealistic, that doesn’t detract from how well the rest of this story has played out.
The rest of the episode has the cast coming together to save JJ’s, the beloved diner where Leslie eats her gigantic piles of waffles. Most of this plot is just classic, goofy Parks fun as the gang stages a protest, while Andy infiltrates the building with a group of his child ninjas. None of this works out, though, and in fact the landlord refusing to renew JJ’s lease turns out to be the supervillainish Dennis Feinstein, the local fragrance mogul. The moment when Feinstein sprays everyone down with a repulsive wet dog smell perfume was pretty great, but ultimately this entire story is undercut by what comes at the end of the episode.
Now, I have nothing against Parks wanting to move past the whole Gryzzl-buys-all-of-Pawnee’s-land storyline. It never quite gelled with the show, and made this season a bit more convoluted than it needed to be. That said, the solution that Leslie and Ron come up with is a quick, instant fix for all of their problems. and as such feels both unrealistic and disappointing. This is a problem that we’ve been told is big, practically unsolvable, yet this pair does away with it in a matter of minutes. Remove this part from the episode and you have an excellent half hour of comedy, but instead we end with a shrug that dismisses so much of what’s come before. Parks usually comes through when it comes to serializing its big stories, and many of the show’s most exciting, or at least purely joyful, moments have come when it concludes long plot arcs. Instead, though, we have something rushed, and that very much goes against Parks’ process-oriented identity. Here we skip the process and jump to the end, which just isn’t fulfilling. Contrast this instant fix with the slow build of Tom’s relationship, and it’s easy to see why one part of the show is working while the other’s execution was terrible.
None of which is to say that either episode of Parks this week is bad. The show, however, has an incredibly high standard (just re-watch the second season and you’ll see what I mean), and as usual for this season, what’s put on air just feels sloppy. There are great moments, some fantastic running gags (Leslie and Ron’s high five/handshakes/pattings were phenomenal), and wonderful character work. The overall storyline, however, just wasn’t working, and that was a bit of a letdown. Then again, now that Gryzzl’s problem is mostly excised from the show, what we’ll be left with for the rest of the season is very much up in the air. Maybe the final half-season for Parks will feel more like the show of old—anything’s possible, and maybe we’ll even see some of the character’s children!
Nah, probably not that.