I’ll come right out and say it: season four of Parks and Rec is my favorite season. Mostly, this is from being a political-campaign-lover, and Leslie Knope’s city council campaign is the organizing principle for the season. It should not go without mentioning, however, that the addition of Kathryn Hahn as Jen Barkley and Paul Rudd as Bobby Newport catapult what was already strong writing, casting, comedy and narrative into wild, wild success.
The campaign-light episodes are plenty of fun, to be sure. Jerry’s surprise birthday party (sweet sixteen style) is one of the high points in the season, forcing Leslie to take more time for her campaign and revealing the Donna-Ginuwine connection. The ‘Tammy One’ episodes, which start the season off, are incredible, as we bear witness to the only thing scary enough to send ‘Tammy Two’ running. Ben’s exploration of the private sector leads him to the boring accounting firm, setting the bedrock for future laughs and madness with number jokes.
All of these do more than share the stage in season four with Leslie’s campaign – they add color to it, they create complexities on top of an already complex council seat race. Ben and Leslie’s relationship drama ends with a slap on the wrist and funnels into him becoming her campaign manager. In ‘Live Ammo,’ as Leslie and Ben try to fight the city budget adjustments, April learns she has a real passion for pet projects. The bizarre Tom-Ann-Chris love triangle fully develops over the course of the season, and becomes an integral part of the narrative. All of this and more, in twenty-two episodes, each only twenty-one minutes long. Remarkable.
The big highlights for me with season four of Parks and Rec are the debates Leslie and Ben get into. Going positive or negative, using attack ads, taking Jen Barkley’s advice or turning apologies into PR events – these issues form the crux of the moral each episode tries to teach, but moreover, they are the basic facts of campaigning. Stump speeches are repetitive, boring for campaign staff, and have to be peppered with free t-shirts to be even remotely interesting. Phone banks to raise campaign funds are hardly the most exciting things in the political process, but somehow the show uses them to create a wacky competition between April and Chris that ends up with Jerry’s daughter dumping Chris, which in turn teaches April a level of sympathy.
All of the lessons the show learned in the previous seasons, like how to intertwine narratives, how to build complex comedy, how to establish and develop characters – it pays off big time in season four. And it’s right to. Running for city council is Leslie’s dream, it’s a massive goal for her to make it through the race, to the dramatic recount and to earn the victory by 21 votes. It feels huge because it is huge – we can skip a bit of the laugh track for a second for everyone to just be happy, to feel this immense positivity for a few minutes as her team celebrates. Of course, when the funny comes back, it comes back hard, as Tom and Ann drunkenly agree to not just get back together, but also to move in together. It keeps the top spinning, the show moving, the drama building. Just when everything seems just so, it gets a bit tilted, and that’s what makes season four so great. Everything is constantly being tilted, right when it seems perfect. When Leslie announces her bid for city council, things go fine until her and Ben are exposed. When Leslie’s campaign managers ditch her, and her life becomes a perfect mess, the parks department becomes her campaign team. When the debate happens, and Leslie finally gets a chance to put the screws to Bobby Newport, the whole thing backfires until the very, very last word gets in.
You might ask, but what does any of that matter? I’ll tell you: it makes it feel more real. Ask any campaign manager, project manager, theatre director or producer, and they’ll tell you that at the first sign of everything appearing to be going right, some new disaster is only a hair’s breadth away. It’s always unexpected, occasionally hilarious, and it has the potential to define the rest of the project. And that, that feeling of feeling real, that feeling of success and disaster being far too close to each other, that’s how you make good television.