5.14- "Leslie & Ben"
The wedding episode is a staple of the modern sitcom. In a lot of ways, its very existence sums up the reason why I love comedies – while the primary appeal is humor, what has kept me coming back to Parks and Recreation every Thursday for the past five years is the way that the characters have become a part of my life. A good sitcom encourages you to invest part of yourself in the characters and see them like real people. You care about their ambitions, their problems, and the relationships the characters have with one another make them seem real. Some people would argue that getting choked up because of something that happens between two fictional characters is irrational, but good comedy creates such profound experiences.
However, the very nature of a wedding causes it to deviate from the conventions of a typical episode. To satisfy the expectations of its viewers, it must be memorable, emotional, and must validate the time that they have invested in the program. But as soon as the “very special episode” promos start to punctuate a network’s commercial breaks during the week preceding the episode, the eye-rolling commences. They must also avoid an over-reliance on tropes common to other television and film weddings. It needs to be original and fresh, memorable, and deserving of acclaim as a classic episode.
“Leslie and Ben” begins exactly where last week’s episode left off. Leslie and Ben decide they can wait no longer to get married, so they enlist the help of their close friends to help them plan their entire wedding in one night. Chris and Ben set off together to find wedding rings. April and Andy go to city hall to obtain a marriage license (and then to wake up elderly city clerk Ethel for the necessary signature). Tom takes an hour-long online course to become an ordained minister to serve as officiant. Leslie asks Ron to walk her down the aisle during the ceremony. Donna and Jerry stay behind to ensure that the gala runs smoothly.
The greatest strength of Parks and Recreation is its outstanding cast. By dividing them into several different groups, the writers are able to showcase the way that different characters relate to one another. This also alleviates some of the storyline’s reliance on overused wedding story plot points – is anyone surprised that the gang has issues getting everything together in just one night? Is it a surprise that the wedding ceremony itself is disrupted and that Ben and Leslie ultimately get married in a more intimate setting, surrounded only by their closest friends?
The issue with a wedding episode is that overused conventions are overused for a reason – they work. With no conflict or suspense, the plot seems flat and uninspired, so misfortune even strikes the always-overprepared Leslie Knope as a function of the plot. Every episode needs conflict, even if many of the issues in this episode are relatively minor (Tom stressing over whether he should officiate the wedding in the style of Steve Harvey or Ryan Seacrest; Jerry accidentally peeing his pants when he finds out a Lil' Sebastian impersonator will be present).
Ultimately, each problem is solved in a way that seems fitting either for Leslie and Ben or for the person that solved the problem. Leslie’s unfinished dress is not completed by squirrels and birds, as Leslie wishes aloud, but by Ann sewing press clippings of initiatives that Leslie has led over the years directly into the dress. Ron tears a lighting fixture off the wall, melts down the metal and forges wedding rings.
In certain episodes, the show’s great cast can serve as a double-edged sword, as the writers must devise ways to balance screen time between Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Rob Lowe, and Adam Scott each week. While on a weekly basis each cast member is, frankly, nothing short of spectacular, this season’s weaker episodes have been deficient because the storyline failed to balance the talented cast and failed to lead them to interact in new ways.
“Leslie and Ben,” however, expertly strikes a balance between the comedic and intimate aspects of each character. Chris shares a moment with Ben as he presents him with a wedding gift: the letter from the Indiana Statehouse assigning them to Pawnee. “We were supposed to be here eight weeks,” Chris says. “I am so glad those eight weeks turned into three years, and that you met Leslie, and that we both found home.” Later, he consoles Andy, who feels dejected after learning his dream of becoming a police officer will not come to fruition, as he did not pass the police personality assessment.
After a busy night, the group reunites at the gala, where many of the townspeople have remained to witness the wedding ceremony. But a heavily inebriated Councilman Jamm, still upset that Lot 48 will be turned into a park instead of a Paunch Burger, disrupts the ceremony by heckling Leslie, revealing that he would have received a cut of the fast-food restaurant’s profits, then breaks a pair of stink bombs, flooding the area with an overpowering odor. Ron punches him in the face, and the third act begins with Ron and Jamm each in jail.
Ron apologizes to Leslie in another emotional exchange; he tells her to return and get married without him there. She refuses, saying that she can’t do it without him: “I lost my father when I was ten, I don’t have any brothers, and Ken Burns never wrote me back. So I am not getting married without you to walk me down the aisle.”
There were a lot of things that worked very well in this episode, and it’s no coincidence that its strengths aligned with what I love about the series in general – a well-written, funny comedy program that indulges itself and gives viewers real, often understated but heartfelt moments (even one punctuated with a joke about Leslie asking documentarian Ken Burns to be her father). Those moments made “Ben and Leslie” a unique sitcom wedding episode even in spite of somewhat predictable story elements.
Leslie sums it all up after her friends surprise her with a s
mall wedding ceremony in the Parks office: “I love my husband. I love my job. And I love my friends.”
Ben Wachtel likes baseball, the Boston Celtics, pancakes, tacos, and swam collegiately at Purdue University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benwachtel24.