Parks and Recreation: “Born and Raised”

Satire—real satire, the kind that uses humor to discredit a political or cultural notion—is challenging for many reasons. One reason that doesn’t get discussed too often is how difficult it can be to satirize something without eventually getting subsumed by cynicism. The more time you spend pushing back against the beliefs that you see as destructive of people or society, the more you can’t help but wonder why people or society are worth sticking up for in the first place.

Parks and Recreation isn’t a satire the way something like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report is, of course, but being set in the world of government it can’t help but take aim at real-world politics now and then. Yet its undercurrent of optimism is unflappable as that of its heroine. An episode like “Born and Raised” shows beautifully how to wield satire lightly but pointedly, and still retain the heart to want to make the world better even for the “goofballs” who live in it.

Naturally, the controversy over Leslie’s true place of birth leads to the expected beats about long-form birth certificates and keyed-up rubes spouting “go back where you came from!” (To which Leslie replies, “I am back where I came from!”) But the episode doesn’t spend much time with the Pawnee version of the birther movement. It would be very easy to serve up an Orly Taitz analog for skewering, but that wouldn’t fit the ethos of Parks and Rec. Whereas a show like South Park is devoted to cutting its ideological opponents (or caricatures of them, anyway) to ribbons, Parks and Rec trusts that the silliness of birtherism is self-evident, and prefers to focus on the better angels of the body politic instead.

Is that sort of optimism cock-eyed and misguided? Maybe. But it’s also a refreshing and necessary perspective if you’re going to keep fighting the good fight.

Parks and Recreation: "Born and Raised" - Mo Collins, Amy Poehler

That doesn’t mean there’s no villain to be mocked, though. As usual it’s Joan Callamezzo, taking the concept of “gotcha!” journalism to name-branded, jauntily-choreographed extremes. She once again tries to humiliate and destroy Leslie in an elaborate spectacle, Leslie once again sticks with her trademark earnestness and faith in people’s goodness, and Leslie once again triumphs quietly. The thing is, although Joan is a clown and a grade-A tool (which Mo Collins plays to the hilt wonderfully), she’s never the subject of direct retribution. Whatever comeuppance she receives is entirely of her own creation—in this case, drinking herself into the very sort of public humiliation she makes a career of doling out.

Even then, she doesn’t completely self-destruct thanks to the efforts of Tom and Ben, equal parts chivalrous and freaked the hell out as they schlep the drunken waste of Joan back to the hilariously tacky shrine of narcissism that is her home. Though very different, the comic energies of both Aziz Ansari and Adam Scott are particularly terrific in a situation where they’re in over their heads, with Tom’s manic twitchiness and Ben’s aghast incredulity mingling so well.

Speaking of perfectly matched partners, Ron and April’s heartwarmingly misanthropic bond is always a treat, and the perfect foil for Ann’s over-eager attempts to coax anything resembling a friendly interaction out of either of them. Rather than try to elide Ann’s rather uneasy fit with the rest of the non-Leslie gang, the show smartly owns it and plays it up. Ann Perkins* is basically the polar opposite of The Office’s Karen Filippelli, and it’s entirely to Rashida Jones’s credit that she’s can play both characters so confidently.

*Ann Perkins!

Other notes: 

  • Did you know that you, too, can own the Joan Callamezzo-approved Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America? Well, now you do. And knowing is half the battle.
  • Pawnee’s already rich media universe gets the next natural expansion: A public radio station, hosted (well, fill-in hosted) by Dan Castellaneta.
  • “A nonprofit group that’s puts umbrellas on homeless people when it rains.”
  • “One could say that. But should one.”
  • “The lesbian Afro-Norwegian funk duo Nefertiti’s Fjord.”
  • “Oh yes, they’re quite awful. But they are lesbians, so…”
  • “I started thinking about you as a woman, and as a person, and I got carried away.”
  • “Mine just says ‘Get well soon.’”
  • “One time I read all of Siddhartha at a traffic stop.”
  • The Time Traveler’s Optometrist: A heartwarming story about a caveman eye doctor who travels to present-day Cincinnati and can see everything but love. Unreadable.”
  • “Well she’s not gonna getch me.”
  • “Behind every successful man is me, smiling and taking partial credit.”
  • Burt Macklin FBI!! “You thought I was dead? So did the president’s enemies.”
  • “I will get my one minute of small talk, dammit! And it will be casual and it will be amicable!”
  • “I was the first one to tell you that?”
  • “That sentence was confusing!”
  • “Is she going to powder her vagina?”
  • “ALF.”
  • “I also got this dude’s briefcase that was just laying there. Kind of a panic move.”
  • “When people get too chummy with me, I like to call them by the wrong name to remind them that I don’t really care about them.”
  • “Thank you for sharing, Jan.”
  • “You’re welcome. Lester.”
  • “You know, Nipple Hill. It gets very slippery there, especially when it’s wet.”
  • “And yes, every diner claims their waffles are the best waffles in the world. But somewhere, in some town, there really are the best waffles – so rich, and so golden-brown, and so delicious, that anyone who tasted them would decide never to leave that town. Somewhere, those waffles exist. Why can’t it be here?”

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Oct. 8, 2011.

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