Community & Downton Abbey – New Year Premieres

This past week ushered in the new year, and with it, new seasons of Community and Downton Abbey. Both shows entered their new seasons with the task of rebuilding their worlds after massive shake-ups: Community returned with creator Dan Harmon once again at the helm, putting back the pieces of last year’s David Guarascio and Moses Port’s admirably-led, yet empty, season, while the inhabitants of Downton Abbey began life anew after the unexpected death of Matthew Crawley and departure of actor Dan Stevens.

Both shows turned the pages onto new chapters, but after watching the first two episodes of each, only Community glimmered with exuberant hope, while Downton Abbey dulled with lackluster.

— — —

I bailed on Community after four episodes last season. Without Dan Harmon on-board, I felt as though I was watching a show that was an empty shell of its former self. Port and Guarascio tried too hard to imitate the past season’s idiosyncrasies and it showed. The Harmon-free Community wasn’t the darkest timeline, but it sure rang hollow. The lighting was brighter. Pop culture references fell flat. Character motivations rang false. The heart simply wasn’t there. And worst of all, the show simply wasn’t funny.

With “Repilot” and “Introduction to Teaching,” the first two episodes of this season, it was like welcoming back old, familiar friends, albeit ones that were sadder, and perhaps even a bit wiser (nah). These were the characters we once knew. Community has always worked best when it dove into the weird recesses of its characters’ flaws, exposing a dark self-loathing hidden beneath the surface (see “Mixology Certification” and “Cooperative Calligraphy”). The show doesn’t need high-concepts all the time to be successful, but these skewed perspectives can bring out what rings true in these characters’ emotional lives.

Simply put, the Greendale gang felt like people again, people prone to Nicholas Cage-fueled breakdowns and messy owl analogies, but people nonetheless. Jeff Winger makes a quintessential observation on this necessary retooling of the group: “Don’t blame it all on a gas leak year. This is a four-year process. We went in one end as real people and out the other end as mixed-up cartoons.”

Community_Nic_Cage

Jeff’s pointed statement wasn’t just a knock on last season, but a commentary on how the characters have evolved since the pilot, for better or for worse. In these new re-calibrated episodes, the characters were given more grounded motivations that stayed true to their essence. Annie Edison was the most smartly-written she had been in years, free of her Jeff-impaired schoolgirl crush. Britta, Shirley, and Troy hitting rock-bottom rightly fueled them to shed the loser mentality that they feared most. And Abed was Abed. These characters need each other in order to succeed and that need for connection was palpable.

Even Ben Chang, my least favorite character, came across as tolerable and palatable. Over the seasons, Chang has gone from teacher, to student, to megalomaniacal despot, to Changnesiac (thank goodness I skipped over that), but now it appears that he’ll be used in the capacity that suits him most: an obnoxious “teacher” that pops into frame in measured doses.

The addition of Jonathan Banks as Professor Buzz Hickey fills the hole that Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne left. Hickey is the suave, world-weary mentor figure that Hawthorne could only dream of being. Hickey will be around for most of the season, and it will be interesting to see how the little-explored Greendale student-teacher relationships will pan out, especially now that Winger himself is a teacher. The addition of the faculty lounge also opens up a brand new world to examine.

While Community is more than a well-oiled strings of zingers and meta-humor, it was a relief to simply laugh again. Insightful references to Scrub’s ninth season, Donald Glover’s impending departure, and Nicholas Cage’s particular brand of crazy examining the randomness of human nature hit the mark. And I can’t not mention my absolute favorite exchange that occurred between Jeff and Troy:

Jeff: “Your entire identity has been consumed by your relationship with another man.”

Troy: “You found my Clive Owen Tumblr?!”

— — —

Like Community, Downton Abbey entered its new season with rebuilding on the agenda, but unlike the Greendale gang, it failed to breathe much of a new life into the show. The unbearable soapyness of Matthew Crawley’s shocking death almost made my Naughty List this past year, along with the unbearable tedium of the Batezzz in Jail storyline.

Starting six months after Matthew’s death, creator Julian Fellowes gave a great opportunity to shake up the estate. Unfortunately, Fellowes is prone to falling into the same repetitive narrative traps and circling around the same tired conservative themes. Downton Abbey’s poor pacing and whiplash character motivations breed a familiarity and a repetitiveness that to some viewers may feel absolutely comforting (Oh that Dowager Countess and her witty bon mots!), but to others comes across as a dreary slog. I can appreciate the soapyness of it all (heck, I sat through all eight seasons of Desperate Housewives), but the show has failed to rise to its dizzying first season heights time and time again.

So with the cyclical narrative nature of the everyday life at Downton Abbey (Really? Edna Braithwaite again? What a blatant attempt to fill the Mrs. O’Brien void.), we must cling to the familiar character beats to find viewing satisfaction (Oh that Dowager Countess and her witty bon mots!). It is this character predictability, portrayed by talented actors and actresses that can elevate middling material, that makes Downton Abbey such a huge hit, with a record-breaking 10.2 million viewers tuning into the premiere.

Millions tuned in to see how Lady Mary would mourn her late husband, and the show did not disappoint in that regard. Michelle Dockery played every note of grief and stoicism with great and cold aplomb. Her icy delivery of “Oh, it’s Valentine’s Day” killed me. And her emotional and vulnerable breakdown with her father-figure Carson was a highlight of the two hours.

I have always been on #TeamEdith and I’m looking forward to watching her bloom into her own this season. The confidence with which she carries herself is ever-so satisfying. “I don’t care. Kiss me. Now.” she tells her boyfriend at dinner. In public. Get it, Edith! And it wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without the frustratingly insufferable Lord Grantham. Can we also move past the Ivy/Daisy/Alfred/Hot Jimmy love quadrangle? That was so last season. Thanks. Thankfully, the effervescence that Lady Rose has brought to the proceedings bodes well for the future of the series. More spunk and less Batezzz please!

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What I’m Watching/Ditching in the Fall 2012 TV Season

With the 2012 Emmy Awards behind us, the 2012/2013 television season officially begins this week. Here’s a look at what I’ll be tuning into this fall and what I have already deleted off of my DVR. (Last season, I said goodbye to The Office and The Amazing Race.)

What I’m Watching:

Survivor: Philippines – Returned 9/19
Survivor is unabashedly one of my favorite television series of all time. I love the intense competition, the high drama, and the sheer chaos of it all. After the premiere episode of its 25th(!) season, this fall proves to be no exception. Survivor: Philippines features a solid cast of big personalities (including The Facts of Life‘s Lisa “Blair” Whelchel and baseball MVP Jeff Kent) and an interesting twist. The contestants are split into three tribes and each tribe features a returning player who were medically evacuated in their previous seasons. It’s fascinating to see how well or how poorly these men have integrated into the tribes. I’m keeping my eye out for Mike Skupin, who famously fell into a fire in Survivor: The Australian Outback. I’m also a fan of Denise, the sex therapist, who brings a leveled-head to the game and formed an unlikely alliance with Malcolm, the hunky bartender.

Parks and Recreation – Returned 9/20
All hail network television’s best comedy! And while we’re at it, all hail Amy Poehler, who has been robbed the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress two years running! There simply is no show on television with a greater love for its characters and the world they inhabit, and in today’s television landscape, this love is a breath of fresh air. This season promises great opportunities for transformative moments true to these characters (Ben in Washington D.C.! April as his intern! Andy as a policeman?!) and I look forward to taking the journey with all of them.

The Mindy Project – Debuted 9/25
Mindy Kaling stars as Mindy Lahiri, a thirtysomething OB/GYN, a woman obsessed with romantic comedies, wrapped up in a romantic comedy of her own. “I’m basically Sandra Bullock!” Mindy proclaims in the absurdly charming pilot. This FOX comedy has great potential with its zippy writing and refreshing characters, especially in the winningly abrasive Chris Messina as her foil and fellow doctor (Will they? Won’t they? Cliché?) And seriously, who doesn’t love Mindy Kaling?! Hers is a distinct voice sorely needed in today’s television environment.

30 Rock – Returning 10/4
30 Rock’s sixth season was one of its strongest to date, fully redeeming itself from the staleness that had pervaded the show in the couple of seasons prior. As Liz Lemon grows older, she even begins to grow wiser. The show’s narrative focus became sharper last season (even giving Kenneth a worthy storyline), as did the levels of absurdity. And now we’re now primed to enter the final season with grand sendoff. Plus, JONATHAN’S BACK!

Nashville – Debuting 10/10
I’m really looking forward to this country music drama. Connie Britton as a struggling country legend versus Hayden Panettiere as a feisty up-and-comer? I am so there for this battle of the divas.

The Walking Dead – Returning 10/14
The Walking Dead made my naughty list at the end of last year thanks to its spinning narrative wheels and lifeless, bloated dialogue. But as with 30 Rock, the last couple episodes of the season showed some promises of a return to form, raising the stakes immensely and excising dead character weight. Now with the upcoming introductions of the characters of The Governor and Michonne, I’m back on the zombiewagon.

American Horror Story: Asylum – Debuting 10/17
I can’t handle scary stuff for the life of me, but I’m inexplicably excited for the second iteration of FX’s scarefest. Nazis, and nuns, and aliens. Oh, my! As with any Ryan Murphy creation, there is bound to be a whole universe of crazy to explore, especially one that deals with Murphy’s favorite thematic touchstone of religion. American Horror Story: Asylum also heralds the acting debut of Adam Levine, which alone could be worth the price of a season pass.

Community – Returning 10/19
This summer saw Community undergo a fundamental and life-altering change: the firing of its creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon. Whether or not Community will survive the shakeup with its comedic integrity intact in this truncated (and possibly final) season remains to be seen, but there is no doubt I’ll be tuning in to support the Greendale students, and of course, Dean Pelton.

Top Chef: Seattle – Returning 11/7
Top Chef: Texas was the reality show’s weakest season, so I’m a bit hesitant to put it on my to-watch list. The most recent season featured too many formulaic episodes with challenges emphasizing unnecessary twists that got in the way of actual cooking. Top Chef: Seattle promises to reverse this trend and go “back to the basics.” I sure hope so, or I might have to tell the series to pack its knives and go.

What I’m Ditching:

Glee
At the end of last season, my co-workers and I made a pact to never return to the world of Glee. Thankfully, we are all still honoring this pact. There is no more need to complain about the extremely whiplashed nature of its storylines the next morning. No more need to eyeroll at characters whose wildly inconsistent behavior serve only plot function, not character development. No more need to suffer through moments of alternating overbearing meanness and saccharine sermons. No more.

Modern Family
Yes, Modern Family walked away from the Emmys with its third straight award for Outstanding Comedy Series, but I have simply had enough of this show. The first season was uniformly excellent: the acting was sharp, and the writing even sharper. But now after its uneven third season, it’s the writing that I have the most problems with. I simply don’t feel like I’m watching characters anymore, but rather mouthpieces for the Modern Family writers, who constantly shout for attention, “Look at how clever we are!” The wittiness of the show is now tiresome and has become too on-the-nose by half. In addition, the writers have seemingly written the same character beats over and over again. I feel like I know the extent of what the characters can say or do. It’s been a hilarious time well spent, but it’s time spent enough with the Pritchett-Dunphy clan.

The Naughty and Nice of 2011 TV

‘Tis the season for year-end “best of” lists. In honor of Santa Claus coming to town tonight, I’ve put myself in his boots and compiled a list of television shows I’ve found to be “Naughty” and “Nice” this year.

— — —

5 TV Shows on my Naughty List:

The Walking Dead

The first season of AMC’s zombie-fest was a fascinating, if not flawed, six-episode affair. The series was a ratings boon and enjoyed its fair share of critical and media attention. Unfortunately, all the good will and momentum The Walking Dead had accumulated was squandered in a sluggish return this fall. Simply put, there just wasn’t seven hours worth of material to stretch over the first part of the second season. What should have only taken at most two or three episodes, the search for Sophia became tiresome and repetitive. And as riveting as the final act in the barn standoff was, it felt wholly unearned.

The budget-saving decision of the series to stay in one location should have given plenty of opportunities for nuanced character development and growth, deepening our understanding of the characters we were already familiar with and introducing us to compelling new ones. Instead, we were treated with archetypes spouting off repetitive dialogue alternating between dour shouting matches and heavy-handed sanctimonious discussions. The more time spent with Rick and the survivors, the more I wanted a zombie to gobble them up, and there weren’t even that many zombies this season to begin with.

The cast of "The Walking Dead"

The Amazing Race

I have been a steadfast fan of The Amazing Race since its first season in 2001, but its most recent 19th season is my final outing for this globetrotting reality series. Shoot, I didn’t even complete watching the entire race. I gave up after a couple episodes after Survivor‘s Ethan and Jenna were eliminated for not reading one sentence on a display that wasn’t even clearly marked in typical The Amazing Race fashion. This type of blatant “twist” is pure manipulation, grasping at straws to create drama, and has become more and more prevalent in the game. The challenges themselves have become simpler and more straight-forward (read: waaaaaaay lamer). Fill and deliver bags of grass? Make cocktails? Really?! On top of these simplifications, the over-reliance of non-elimination legs and equalizers suck the tension and suspense dry from every episode. The diminishing returns of The Amazing Race have disappointed me one too many times and I let this show go from my weekly viewing roster.

Weeds

Despite all of the flack Weeds had received in the seasons following the Botwin’s flight from Agrestic/Majestic, last summer’s season six was a refreshing return to form. With Nancy’s family (plus Doug) on the run and especially with Nancy’s Michigan homecoming, the series’ focus tightened on the familial relationships, gaining in the process a strong sense of pathos never before seen on the show. Nancy Botwin was finally forced to accept that her actions held consequences and the season six finale left the possibilities for the next season wide open.

However, this year’s seventh season become yet another sadly squandered opportunity. Instead of a revitalization, it was almost as if the reset button had been pushed on the Botwins. The season’s storylines were too broad and never added up to anything significant or even that dramatic. What depth did Heylia’s return really add? Or the polyamorous relationship Andy became involved in? While Shane’s police internship became a showcase of poor acting choices, the one saving grace of the season was Hunter Parrish’s Silas. His competition against his mother showcased a solid performance, but even so, his character was effectively neutered in the final episode.

Silas Botwin (Hunter Parrish)

Entourage

While Jeremy Piven’s gave his strongest and most compelling portrayal of Ari Gold in Entourage‘s final season, as a broken man trying to save his marriage, it wasn’t enough to make up for the blah storylines ranging from E’s snoozy relationship drama to Turtle’s baffling ascendance into millionairedom. And each and every member of the Entourage gang gets a happy ending? I guess that’s to be expected in this Hollywood fairytale. Yawn.

The Killing

WHO KILLED ROSIE LARSON? After spending the entirety of a soggy season in Seattle, we still have no idea. The Killing was an exercise in mismanaged expectations. We expected a game-changing police procedural, but instead were given a slow burn of red herrings, maudlin scene after maudlin scene, and barely-there character development. Sure, The Killing provided a couple of arresting cliffhanger endings to its episodes, but storytelling patterns soon arose and the “shocking” developments would be wiped clean at the top of the next episode. If any good came from the series, it was that American audiences were introduced to the riveting Joel Kinnaman (the Swedish-American actor who plays Stephen Holder), whose all-too-brief cameo in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gave me more joy than the entire first season of The Killing.

Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos)

Dishonorable Mention: Glee

A hot mess of a show, Glee is a flurry of convoluted, nonsensical storylines and inconsistent characterizations. And just when it offers a glimmer of entertaining logic and coherence, it pulls the rug from under you and leaves you banging your head against a wall. What a tease. So why do I keep watching a show that provides more frustration than joy? I’m holding out for the extremely rare radiance that only a show like Glee can muster. There’s a good show buried somewhere deep inside.

Unfortunately, way more often than not, Glee churns out absurd obnoxious “Extraordinary Merry Christmas” lumps of coal than it does brilliant showcases for its strongest performers, Naya Rivera and Heather Morris. My wish this Christmas? Less Sue Sylvester and Mr. Schue. Notice that Glee’s strongest efforts of “Duets,” “Silly Little Love Songs,” and even “Asian F” have been when the glee kids are the sole focus. None of this messy adult drama or cartoonish villainy. Glee triumphs when the teenagers are left to their own devices and are simply being teenagers, dealing with their own crazy hormones. The teen cast, as large enough as it is, should be enough to carry the show.  And for the love of God, NO MORE WILL RAPPING.

— — —

5 TV Shows on my Nice List:

Breaking Bad

A weekly master class on superb acting, nuanced character study, artful cinematography, tightly-plotted storytelling, and plain ‘ol bad-assery. This season elevated the brilliant seasons that had preceded it with striking moments seared into our collective memory. Jesse Pinkman’s decent into numbness via Roomba-cam. Walter White’s bone-chilling cackling in “Crawl Space.” “Face-Off.” Breaking Bad is simply the best show of the year and is a series worthy of every damn accolade bestowed upon it.

[Click here for more of my thoughts on Breaking Bad’s fourth season premiere, “Box Cutter.”]

Parks and Recreation

The award for Most Endearingest and Heartwarmingly Hilarious Series goes to Parks and Recreation.

Treat. Yo. Self.

And while you’re at it, pass me some tissues, I think there’s something in my eye…

Parks and Recreation just gets better and better with every season. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope is a comic tour de force and the ensemble backing her up is bar none, from Adam Scott’s nerd du jour Ben Wyatt to Nick Offerman’s RON EFFING SWANSON. The world of Pawnee is so richly developed, spending time with any of the supporting players is time well spent.

The cast of "Parks and Recreation"

Community

While not every episode of Community this season has been a home run, this third season has been a deft blend of the first season’s small-scale focus with last season’s high-concept absurdist outings. Witness “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism’s” blend of poignant character study with an amazing foosball tourney done all in ANIME. Community is a rarity of a series, one that juggles a pop culture-soaked bite and wit with a beating, emotional heart.

On top of that, Community had one of my favorite lines of television this year:

“You’re the AT&T of people!!!” – Troy the Obtuse, to Britta the Needlessly Defiant

[For a more in-depth look at two Parks and Recreation and Community episodes from this fall, click here.]

The Sing-Off

Hands-down, The Sing-Off is the best showcase of vocal talent on television. Welcome to a modest little reality competition where the judges (Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, and Shawn Stockman) are charming and knowledgeable, the host (Nick Lachey) is delightfully cheesy, and the talent (Pentatonix, Delilah, Afro Blue, Vocal Point, et al) is palpable and off-the-charts. To be fair, I was a collegiate a cappella performer myself, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that The Sing-Off was sheer entertainment no matter the level of familiarity.

Pentatonix, the winners of this third season of The Sing-Off are all at once gifted vocal powerhouses and masterfully inventive musical arrangers. Just watch their breathtaking performance of Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over.” Pentatonix for the freakin’ win.

On a side note, I cannot stress enough how thankful I am that Nicole Scherzinger was removed from The Sing-Off judging panel and almost single-handedly destroyed The X-Factor and hopefully her own career.

Louie

You never know what you’ll get with a given episode of FX’s Louie. A raunchy musing on masturbation perhaps. Or a startling trip to a racist relative’s house. Or maybe a sincere dedication to our troops overseas. Whatever it is, one thing is for certain: Louis C.K. will not only get you laughing, but thinking as well. What is so brilliant about Louie is that as the writer, director, and lead performer of the series, Louis C.K. does whatever the f*ck he wants to and he does so with an openness unlike anything else on television. We are privileged to be let into his genius.

Honorable Mention: Ty Burrell at the Emmys

Ty Burrell raised the bar for acceptance speeches with his Emmy win for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family. Funny. Heartfelt. Classy. I was moved to tears.

— — —

Naughty and Nice (with a dash of spice):

The Top Chef Franchise

Top Chef: All-Stars was a pure delight to watch. The challenges were memorable: Sesame Street judges! Jimmy Fallon! Overnight at the American Museum of Natural History! The drama and rivalries between the cheftestants were present, but not overpowering. The returning chefs were at the top of the game and as charming as ever (I myself was rooting for my girl, Carla “Hootie Hoo” Hall. Honestly though, who wasn’t?). The entire season made me grin from ear to ear.

Unfortunately, Top Chef: Texas has messed with the winning formula so much that the series has almost become unrecognizable. While I admire the producers for attempting to shake things up, the results have been a mixed bag. Just because you’re in Texas doesn’t mean everything needs to bigger. The first two semi-final episodes were a complete waste. The judging was hurried and there was little to no point in getting invested in cheftestants we saw for five minutes. As a result, I’ve been unable to distinguish the cheftestants’s cooking talents from one another, let alone their personalities. The initial challenges were imbalanced, as there were one too many team challenges and not enough opportunities for the chefs to cook their own food. The constant changing in locales has left the show feeling untethered and vagrant. I especially miss the Judge’s Table setting, sitting around a restaurant table just doesn’t carry the same weight as an imposing judging room. As the competition narrows down the chef roster, I hope the series finds its footing.

The third season of Top Chef Masters was a wholly bland affair, severely lacking in any drama or charisma, while the second outing of Top Chef: Just Desserts proved to be a sweetly satisfying affair.

Treat Yo Self to Community & Parks and Recreation

“Treat Yo Self” doesn’t come just one day a year, as it does for Parks and Recreation’s Tom and Donna. No, for the entertainment-starved masses, quality rest and relaxation can be found on NBC, Thursdays 8/7c.

The one-two punch of Community and Parks and Recreation proves to be a potent one. These two strong ensemble-driven comedies work well in tandem, while situated on seemingly opposite sides of the comedic spectrum, from quick and clever meta pop-culture snark to sunny, heartwarming, go-getter optimism.

This week’s episodes, Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory” and Parks and Recreation’s “Pawnee Rangers,” were the series strongest outings of the season, if not among the best of their series.

The cast of "Community"

The conceit of “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the playing out of seven timelines stemming from the roll of a Yahtzee! die, may appear gimmicky on paper, but Community elevates the concept with mind-blowing creativity and unabashed love for its study group. The episode shines brightly with other Community gems as “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Mixology,” putting the characters front and center and even exposing a warmth at the center of its snarky core. The structure of this episode allows the characters to play off each other in dynamic ways, revealing insight to their relationships that would have otherwise gone unexplored.

The multiple timelines shed new light on these study group characters and the roles they play within their makeshift family. Could it be that perhaps Jeff is the “villain” of the group? After all, the joyous dance party to “Roxanne” only happened when Jeff’s cooler-than-thou attitude was removed from the atmosphere. It was telling that the two not participating in the celebration were Jeff and Pierce. But even so, one cannot deny the smile that came across Jeff’s face as he ate his pizza slice. If this season focuses on the growth and maturity of the study group, with Annie and Troy coming into their own into adulthood, Jeff is maturing into his acceptance of this ragtag team as family.

The MVP for me was Gillian Jacobs’ Britta, whose self-righteousness has become the bane of the study group’s existence. But her delightful goofiness broke through, as always, with her “Pizza! Pizza! In my tummy! Me so hungee! Me so hungee!” dance and her interruption of Abed’s finale speech. Indeed, the multiple-timeline structure of the episode allowed all the characters to play absurd, over-the-top comedic moments in fine contrast with down-to-earth realistic interactions. Witness in one timeline , the lack of the pizza chant after sharing a heart-to-heart with Troy.

What is most impressive of the episode, is how a story of this scope and magnitude (pop POP!) was able to breathe within the span of only 21 minutes. Kudos to Dan Harmon and his writing staff for crafting a script so full of Chekhovian setups and nuanced character study. The devil is certainly in the details of this episode, and for more insight into its creation, check out these two Tumblr posts (Tumblr?! So hip and with it!), straight from the creator himself.

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler)

While “Remedial Chaos Theory” explores the dynamics when one person is removed from a group, Parks and Recreation’s “Pawnee Rangers” deftly deals with one character’s struggle to stay within a community. The emotional fallout of Leslie and Ben’s breakup is explored in this week’s massively entertaining B-story. Early in the episode, Ben Wyatt asks himself what is keeping him in Pawnee, but by the time the credits roll, his roots are dug deeper, thanks to his heroic sidekicks, T-Mobile and Donatella. Parks and Recreation has found a perfect straight man in Adam Scott. When first introduced at the end of season two, Ben served as the entry point for the viewers into the crazy world of Pawnee, and we exchanged our exasperated looks with the former teen mayor. Now well into season four, Ben’s nerd quirks are lovingly and fully fleshed out (“And they would never cancel Game of Thrones. It’s a crossover hit!”). Ben’s straight man persona allows his pairings with Donna & Tom and April & Andy to be hilariously dynamic and refreshing. This “Treat Yo Self” outing has been Donna’s strongest to date (“Needles in yo face, pleasure in yo base!”) and is a perfect example of how Parks and Recreation blends its optimism with hints of raw emotion. Of course Ben’s swell of emotion is showcased in a Batman costume. Of course.

In spite of all the romantic pairings on this show (Remember when Ann and Andy were a thing? Remember Louis C.K.?), it goes without saying that the true emotional core of the show is the relationship between Ron Effing Swanson and Leslie Knope. The rivalry between the Pawnee Rangers and Pawnee Goddesses is the epitome of their disparate lifestyles. Whereas other comedy series may go to great lengths in lampooning a character’s quirks and enthusiasms, the smart writing of this series positions Ron and Leslie’s stubborn viewpoints squarely with character strengths. Their loves of wilderness survival and puppy parties are wholly embraced and celebrated. This open-armed acceptance sets Parks and Recreation head and shoulders above all other series.

Plus, how refreshing was it to see the otherwise sweet, lovely, and beautiful Ann Perkins fail to measure up to the standards of Leslie’s Pawnee Goddesses? A great showcase of Rashida Jones’ sometimes under-utilized comedic chops.

I am a Goddess. A glorious female warrior. Queen of all that I survey. Enemies of fairness and equality, hear my womanly roar: NYYYAAAAAAA!!