5.15- "Correspondents' Lunch"
I was born in 1990, around the time when NBC retired Cheers and The Cosby Show. I only have vague recollections of my parents watching Seinfeld during its original run, although I've seen each episode multiple times since and can repeat the dialogue of entire scenes from memory. I never really got into Friends, Frasier, or Will and Grace, and completely forgot that Just Shoot Me! even existed until I reviewed the history of NBC's Thursday lineup.
I grew up on shows like 30 Rock, The Office, and Scrubs. These shows were my gateway into comedy. They were the catalyst that made me consider what I thought was funny. They showed me the difference between high-quality programs and weaker ones.
Over the past decade, NBC's jigsaw puzzle of a fall lineup has failed to draw viewers. The network is struggling in general – after a November sweeps win (mostly due to Sunday Night Football and The Voice), the network sank in the ratings during February, finishing fifth, just behind Univision. Seriously. I am not making that up.
There are a lot of reasons why people aren't watching Community and never will, why people stopped watching The Office and won’t come back, and why 30 Rock spent seven seasons on the brink of cancellation before taking a knee. I could probably write an entire column outlining the reasons why these shows have struggled. But I cannot explain why viewers have never tuned in to Parks and Rec.
"Correspondents' Lunch" was anemic by the standards of the show's past three seasons. It had the misfortune of being paired with "Leslie and Ben," the wedding extravaganza, and while it continued two ongoing story arcs with rewardingly emotional scenes, I had some issues with the way the stories were framed. But, going back to my diatribe about NBC and the history of primetime comedy, even the weakest episodes of Parks and Rec reinforce the values of the show in general – it is inclusive, charming, and welcoming.
Parks and Rec has always been more Cheers or Friends than Community. It does not alienate viewers the way that 30 Rock and Community do. A less-than-committed, non-regular viewer can watch the show and see that Pawnee is a colorful place and that Leslie's co-workers are her family. Each episode gives its viewers warm, cuddly moments and each character provides the viewer with rewarding moments of emotional depth.
In “Correspondents' Lunch,” Leslie attends an annual event, modeled after the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where city officials and media members roast each other. Her speech is full of jokes at the expense of Pawnee's tabloid, the Pawnee Sun, which has a history of lambasting Leslie (headlines shown include "So-Duh Tax," "Knope Sucks," and "Knope Grope," all of which either refer to a past event in her legislative career or contain a photo of her eating a popsicle). But when a Pawnee Sun journalist steals and uses her material, her speech is ruined. She discovers that her e-mail has been hacked and she confronts the reporter.
I wasn’t really invested in the main storyline. I always think it's funny when we see how involved the world of Pawnee is, since it's a south central Indiana town with its own tabloid newspaper and, apparently, a widely-attended annual press banquet. But I wasn't really convinced that there was anything at stake other than Leslie getting people to laugh at her speech, because she has nothing to hide – she is overprepared and professional, so the repercussions of her e-mail getting hacked didn't seem overly threatening to me.
The B-stories were extensions of ongoing character storylines. Ben, now working as president of the Sweetums Corporation's charity division, enlists the help of April, Andy and Tom to help him choose a philanthropic initiative. But the storyline was predictable and forced – I didn't believe for a moment that Ben would allow excessive corporate waste, much less that he would encourage it. I was thrilled when Andy, still depressed after failing the personality test for entrance to the police training program, discovered a charity where at-risk youths learn music to keep them off the streets, as I am always hungry for more Andy Dwyer/Mouserat performances (as Andy says, "the streets, as you know, are dangerous, example, I fell in a sewer grate once, I was stuck there all day. In conclusion, we cannot let our children live in the sewer any long"). Yet I felt that drawing out Ben’s decision to hire Andy to work for the charity was solely a function of the story and not necessarily what the characters would actually have done.
A bright spot was the other secondary storyline: in previous episodes, Ann decided that she wants to have a baby, and after seeing Chris console Andy at Leslie's wedding, she decided that she wants to ask Chris to be the sperm donor. But she can’t get up the courage to ask him, so she asks the always-blunt, brutally honest Ron Swanson for help. I have contended for a long time that Rashida Jones is the most underutilized cast member, although I feel that I generally just overlook her because she often plays straight to Amy Poehler. Ron doesn't put up with much, and used to actively dislike Ann, but over the years he's gone from calling her the wrong name on purpose ("Born & Raised") to letting her help him fix Andy and April's sink ("Meet 'n' Greet") to enlisting her help in taking care of his girlfriend's kids ("Women in Garbage"). I love their scenes together because it is always clear that she is intimidated by him, but the reason Ron works so well as a character is because he is gruff and scar
y on the outside but also shows he genuinely cares about Leslie and her friends. He forces Ann to be direct with Chris, and he tells her that he will consider her request.
Even in spite of my issues with "Correspondents' Lunch," the show works so well that even its weaker episodes show the heart of the show and the warmth of its characters. I still worry about its future, as the shows around it are falling off, one by one, and NBC seems to want to go back to a multi-cam comedy lineup. I would imagine that the show’s days are numbered, but if this really is the last season of Parks and Rec, it has maintained a standard of high quality for five seasons.
Ben Wachtel likes baseball, the Boston Celtics, pancakes, tacos, and swam collegiately at Purdue University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benwachtel24.