It’s not hard to grasp the off-screen reasons why “Parks and Recreation” pulls only modest ratings.
It premiered behind in the spring of 2009 as part of an NBC comedy lineup that was already a shadow of its former self in terms of ratings — only “The Office” cracked the Nielsen Top 50 in viewers in the 2008-09 season. “Parks and Rec” also didn’t make a great first impression — its six-episode first season drew only lukewarm reviews (yours truly said it “has some work to do to find its footing”) from critics, and audiences followed suit. The pattern was set then, and with NBC mired deep in fourth place for much of the show’s run, attracting lots of new viewers to subsequent seasons just wasn’t going to happen.
Since the spring of 2009, though, “Parks and Rec” has become one of the most consistently fine comedies on television. Every on-screen reason the show should be a bigger hit was on display in Season 4’s next-to-last episode, “The Debate.”
Written and directed by series star Amy Poehler, “The Debate” combined fall-off-the-couch comedy moments (topped by Andy’s (Chris Pratt) re-creation of “Road House” and “Babe” when the cable goes out at the debate-watching party), sharply observed character moments (Leslie using Sarah MacLachlan as her psych-up music, Chris (Rob Lowe) being naturally great at political spin) and a large helping of the show’s warm, romantic, optimistic heart.
The episode pings between the televised City Council debate, where a cocky Leslie thinks she’s going to destroy the hapless but extremely well-connected Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), and the party where the rest of the parks staff, along with some campaign donors, watches the broadcast — or tries to, only to be foiled by Andy not having paid the cable bill.
Leslie soon discovers she’s not going to have as easy a time of it as she thought. Bobby is in fact a pretty nice guy who plays well to the audience, frustrating Leslie as she tries to stay on message and not go negative, per Ben’s (Adam Scott) pre-debate game plan. Meanwhile, an array of fringe candidates, including gun nut Fester Trim and porn star Brandi Maxxxx, keep stealing time. The crowded stage and a montage of the candidates answering unheard but obviously ridiculous questions is a note-perfect riff on the absurdity of real-world political debates.
The party, meanwhile, is a debacle, even if Andy’s movie re-enacting is among the best extended bits “Parks and Rec” has ever done. Ron (Nick Offerman), naturally, saves the day by climbing a telephone pole and stealing the cable feed for a little while. In a perfect Swansonian touch, he also sings “Wichita Lineman” while he’s up on the pole.
The cable comes back just in time for the partygoers (and Jerry, randomly watching with a group of nuns elsewhere) to see Leslie’s stirring closing statement, which is one of the best pieces of fictional political speechifying since the heyday of “The West Wing.” Leslie convinces Ben, in a “Hoosiers”-esque moment, to go off-script for her closing, and she kills it. Even Bobby Newport is impressed, blurting out, “Holy s***, Leslie, that was awesome.”
Leslie would go on to win the election in the season finale, but the high point of the campaign story is, hands down, “The Debate.” That’s why it’s my favorite TV episode of 2012. (Others I seriously considered include the “Daddy’s “Girlfriend” two-parter from “Louie,” “New Car Smell” from “Homeland,” “Normal” and the introduction of True American from “New Girl” and “Leave Me Alone” from “Girls,” for the epic fight between Hannah and Marnie.)
Look for more posts on our favorite episodes of the year throughout the next few days.