Having transformed from a bumbling naif to a fervent idealist over the course of several seasons thus far, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is no stranger to reinvention, and with her new role as City Councilwoman, she may have even rendered the show’s title obsolete. And yet, with the exception of campaign manager Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and his newly hired assistant, April (Aubrey Plaza), the rest of the cast is still malingering at the show’s eponymous government department, which both prevents the series from jumping the shark and gives it a slightly disconnected quality. The series has improved over the past four years by reshuffling the cast and settling into a more comfortable rhythm, but season five’s new dynamics might require some getting used to. As always, though, it eventually finds its way, rewarding our patience in spades.
Comedy is timing and Parks and Recreation proves that not all good comedy is whip-fast and frenetically paced. The series doesn’t deal so much in jokes as it does in memorable slogans that perfectly encapsulate character, and even fans who are behind on the new season can probably guess which character muttered the line, “Government is inefficient and should be dissolved. Please hold while I transfer you.” (That’s obviously devout libertarian and incomparable cynic Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman). Aside from last season’s tensely satirical campaign run, the series has always been extremely low on stakes—even for a comedy. The writers aren’t aiming to beat 30 Rock for most one-liners per page either. And so, in spite of its willingness to embrace change, Parks and Recreation remains deeply aware that repetition is largely what drives viewers to keep tuning in. As soon as Leslie remarks that “everything’s different,” Jerry (Jim O’Heir) walks by with his hands superglued together, prompting Anne (Rashida Jones) to assure her, “Not everything is different, right?”
And yet, the series still has room to grow. The writers were smart to push the improbable sexual tension between Anne and Tom (Aziz Ansari) to its logical limit before laying it to rest, but they’ve since left Anne with nothing to do but date off-camera boyfriends. Anne is the show’s lone straight-woman, a role that’s generally given much more prominence in an off-the-wall comedy like this. And while it’s impossible not to love the competent and principled new Leslie, the character is at her funniest when she breaks from the show’s easygoing pace and frenetically attempts to discharge her own anxieties by talking at the camera and protesting too much that her idealism is intact. It seems fairly safe to declare that no actor can deliver an endless run-on with as much pathos as Poehler. To pull it off, however, she needs Jones’s bemused pout to reign it all in.
A quarter of the way through the season, Parks and Recreation throws yet another curveball, a surprise proposal from Ben that leaves Leslie pausing for almost a minute in order to commit the moment to memory. Knowing Councilwoman Knope’s devotion to public service and her own independence, I don’t expect to see her get too domestic too soon. But the scene was pivotal in a way that went beyond narrative, demonstrating that the series can be unexpectedly moving without veering into dramedy. This time, as she struggles to take it all in and become Wyatt’s wife, Leslie will have to adapt to Parks and Recreation’s new cadences along with the rest of us.