In this feature, Lenny will be writing about episodes of TV from a variety of shows with two things in common: one, they’re all female positive in some way; and two, they’re all damn good episodes of television.
Since I’m writing a feature on female-positive television, it seems almost obligatory that I write about Parks and Recreation; the difficult part is choosing which episode to start with. I’m not going to suggest that “The Debate” is the best or the most female positive of all Parks and Recreation episodes — there’s just too much competition for a clear frontrunner — but it has enough standout moments for me to feel good about picking it first.
PARKS AND RECREATION
Episode 4.20: “The Debate”
Written by: Amy Poehler
Directed by: Amy Poehler
“The Debate” opens with Leslie Knope, protagonist and city council candidate, and Ben Wyatt, her boyfriend and campaign manager, giving their friends assignments for the night of an upcoming debate. Things are down to the wire in the last two weeks before the election.
After the opening credits, we get a scene of Leslie and Ben being the best couple on television as they prep for the debate. Need proof that they’re the best? The conversation ends on this exchange:
Ben: You’re going to destroy him.
Leslie: I’m going to wipe the floor with his face.
Ben: You’re going to rip out his spine with your teeth and then chew it up and gargle with it.
Leslie: I love when you’re needlessly disgusting.
In the next scene, Undomestic Goddess April Ludgate is trying to clean up for the debate viewing party she’ll be hosting (“But I swear my arms don’t move that way”). Tom is moping and she asks what’s wrong; he explains that his girlfriend Ann broke up with him and, even though the audience knows it’s for very valid reasons, he pines: “I guess she’s just afraid of how powerful her feelings are.” Fortunately, April is there to tell him that’s not why she broke up with him, and that the only thing he can do is tell Ann how he feels and see what she says.
Speaking of Ann, we then see her in a scene with another ex-boyfriend, Chris. He and Ann are doing spin for the debate and working very well together, inspiring Chris to ask her to get back together. She calmly tells him, “I honestly think you’ve built this into something that it wasn’t.” Still, she’s uncertain, and he says she should just think about it while they focus on their jobs for the debate. However, Tom sees them walking together and assumes they’ve gotten back together.
In the next scene of Leslie and Ben being a perfect couple, Leslie is pumping herself up by listening to Sarah McLachlan when Ben admits that he’s worried he can’t compete against Jennifer Barkley, the campaign manager for Leslie’s main competition, Bobby Newport. She’s a big deal from Washington D.C. doing a job that is way beneath her. Jennifer Barkley demonstrates what this show excels at: not only having strong female characters, but showing that there are many types of strong female characters. Her apathy towards the fate of this small town makes her a perfect foil for the passionate Leslie Knope, but she’s also Leslie’s equal when it comes to intelligence and proficiency.
In Jennifer’s first scene of the episode, Ben attempts to make her nervous before the debate begins and she confidently, coldly replies, “He’ll do fine. Expectations are crazy low. If he puts two sentences together without crying, the press is going to say he did surprisingly well. And if he falls to pieces, he’s gonna look sympathetic. It’s a win-win. So, do you have any idea how long this is going to take?”
The real political commentary begins when the candidates make their opening statements. Leslie nails it, saying, “I love this town and I’ve worked my whole life to make it great. I believe I’ve earned your vote. Bobby Newport believes he can buy it. And maybe that’s because he’s never earned anything his entire life.”
When Bobby Newport responds with, “That hurt my feelings,” everyone quickly turns on her; the host of the debate says, “Just a reminder to our candidates to keep it civil.”
Later Leslie starts to come back on a question that exemplifies who both her and Bobby are as people. When asked about a park that needs renovation, Bobby says, “I had this cleaning lady named Yolanda… One day she said, ‘Little Bobby, I’m not gonna clean your room no mas.’ And from that day on, my room was gross. It really bummed me out. I think we can make our parks look like my room after Yolanda finally, you know, gave in and cleaned it up for me.”
Leslie responds with, “Not all of us have Yolandas who can clean our rooms for us. Some of us believe that you need to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work yourself.”
Back in the B plot, Tom is not being subtle with his bitterness over thinking Ann has gotten back together with Chris. She asks what’s going on with him and he asks, “What about us?” She reminds him that she broke up with him because he kept acting like an ass.
During a break in the debate, Ben advises Leslie not to attack Bobby because it makes her look like a bully and makes him look sympathetic. Then we get a montage of people answering debate questions that includes possibly the biggest laugh of the episode when Bobby says, “I guess my thoughts on abortion are… Let’s all have a good time.”
Ben asks Jennifer why she’s not more nervous about winning the debate. Jennifer explains that they’re definitely going to win because she’s got an ace in the hole. Then, since she’s the people’s champion, she adds, “Quick question: does that guy Chris Traeger have a girlfriend, and is his penis normal?”
In a scene that gets me every time, we see what she meant when she said they’ve got an ace in the hole: Bobby informs the crowd that Leslie has an anti-business agenda, and his father, CEO of the Sweetums candy company that makes up most of the town’s economy, has told him that if Leslie Knope wins the election, he’ll probably have to move the company to Mexico. It’s a great moment of dramatic tension for the characters, capped off when one of the hosts of the debate says, “We’ll be back for closing statements after a word from our sponsor: Sweetums, Pawnee’s biggest supplier of candy and jobs.”
Leslie and Ben have a panic session. Leslie thinks they need to attack Bobby, but Ben thinks it’s too risky. She assures him she can crush him, and after a moment of thought, Ben agrees, “Kick his ass.” Please note: These two are the best.
Leslie nails her closing statement with a speech that I’m tempted to type up in full, but I’ll limit it to her closer:
If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home, you are my family, and I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.
The show gives a moment for that to sink in before Bobby provides a perfect bit of comedy by looking over and saying, “Holy shit, Leslie, that was awesome.”
Ann tells Chris she doesn’t think being with him is a good idea. Tom sees this and asks if it means they’re getting back together. Ann says, “There’s a chance I’m never going to date anyone ever again.” In the best non-Leslie moment of the episode, Tom says, “I’m coming for you, girl. Just like you want.” Each word he says is punctuated by Ann shaking her head at him hard. Yup, take note, other TV episodes: that is not a romantic thing to say.
Best friends Leslie and Ann spend most of the episode in separate rooms, but they reunite in the debate hall. Ben steps aside so Ann can hug Leslie, because Ben never has a chance at getting in on a Leslie and Ann hug. He understands that. Although the election is still up in the air and the threat from the Newports hangs over them, they enjoy their small victory of knowing Leslie nailed the debate.
(Since she doesn’t come up in this recap earlier, I would just like to add that Donna Meagle gets one of the funniest moments of the episode, but it doesn’t translate well to recap form. Just watch this episode. It’s as amazing as Leslie Knope.)
Lenny watches an amount of TV that has been described as “impressive” and “a problem.” If you have suggestions for future columns in this series, whether they’re specific episodes you recommend or a broader request, please tweet them @lennyburnham.